Most bike maps are too complicated.
This is not because I am a simpleton, I like to think. It’s because all those curves and corners and superfluous details just get in the way of the goal, which is figuring out where to ride, how to ride there, and how hard it will be.
There is a solution. A new bike map, the one you see above, is not too complicated.
Graphic designer Zach Lee’s aptly named Boulder Bike Map borrows from subway schematics and ski resort maps to present Boulder, Colorado’s, extensive road (and groad) rides in a manner that is simultaneously detailed and wonderfully simple.
Lee pared down the mass of information found on traditional road or trail maps using the well-established design language of Harry Beck’s original London Tube map. He then added cycling-specific difficulty ratings for each road using the color-coding of ski resort maps. Green is easy, blue is moderate, black is nasty. Extremely nasty climbs (the double black ski equivalent) are red because, as Nigel Tufnel taught us, a black line can be none more black than it already is.
The result is a map that provides the essentials — where does the road go? What does it connect to? How hard is it to ride? Is there a coffee shop at the end? — without crushing riders beneath a mountain of unnecessary information, like the frequency and radius of each corner between here and Timbuktu.
It’s what all bike maps should look like. It’s oriented using the predominant landmarks of a given locale — in Boulder’s case, the easily spotted Rocky Mountains — and is scaled roughly to the time it’s going to take a rider to get somewhere. That means that a big climb gets a longer line and more space than a flat road of the same distance.
“Since I was a young graphic designer, I was always inspired by transport maps, I loved them,” Lee said. “Beck’s maps, Massimo Vignelli’s of the New York subway; this whole project started when I realized that we can find a way to share local route knowledge in way that’s very simple and digestible.”
Route democratization, the collection and sharing of local knowledge, is a big part of Lee’s mission. Cyclists have a tendency to get stuck in patterns, riding the same routes over and over again, often because they’re unaware of the options. As Lee passed around early versions of his map, he was astounded by cyclists’ desire to share their knowledge, pointing out small connectors and little-known roads that he might have missed, that they wanted other riders to try, as well as helping to develop the scale and rating systems.
Despite its apparent simplicity, the map includes all rideable routes in the Boulder area and even a few connectors that are unknown to many locals. Solid lines are paved roads, dots and dashes indicate maintained dirt roads, and small dots indicate a need for a cyclocross bike (or mad skills).
The only routes left off are those that pass through private property or are otherwise illegal.
A physical map in the digital age? Yes. “They’re like a paper Garmin that never runs out of battery,” Lee said. Except, for certain applications, Lee’s map is even better than a fancy GPS. Making routes using traditional maps — on Strava or RideWithGPS or whatever your preferred method — doesn’t solve the problem of route information overload.
Lee’s map solves route-finding problems a Garmin cannot, the same problems tackled by Beck’s original Tube map. It removes impractical scaling systems and useless, often-overwhelming detail in favor of a clear interpretation of intended movement.
The Boulder map is a proof of concept, and Lee plans to expand it to other popular cycling locations. He’s currently selling foldable pocket-sized versions and full-sized posters in Boulder bike shops and online. One shop even put a large version under glass and is using dry-erase markers to draw out good rides for its customers.
The next step is to pair the map with a European-style bike signage system so that riders can easily identify their position on the map and use pre-set routes to get around. Such systems are in place in Belgium and the Netherlands and are fantastic for visiting riders.
“This was mostly a self-funded project,” Lee said. One of his professional clients, Clement Tires, chipped in to help pay for the first print run, but didn’t pay for his two years of tinkering. “It was important for me to not be directed by a client, or directed by a government agency. The design could just as easily used for hiking maps or other activities so long as the information is tailored. For this map, I wanted to create something that was exactly as cyclists wanted it to be.”
Full disclosure: Lee is my neighbor. But that’s not really a conflict, is it? When I saw his map I felt I needed to tell you about it.