While we’re waiting for the summer heat to pass so we can get back to the prerunning, I thought I’d explain the process I use to create the routes and roadbooks. When I first started doing roadbooks it was pretty basic, with a simple Excel spreadsheet and Google Earth (GE), but it has evolved into a much more elaborate process, that works pretty well for me.
I don’t have much time available to go out riding and exploring, and the desert areas where we do this are 5 to 8 hours drive from my home, so I do most of the work at home on the computer.
It starts with an idea of where I want the route to be. In the past we’ve centered most of the routes in the region around Death Valley. I now have nearly 20 unique roadbook routes, mostly in that area. I love finding new places and new roads where I’ve never ridden. But we’ve used so much of the region around Death Valley, and the BLM is closing more of that area all the time, so I’ve been making routes further and further East from there.
When I started searching east of Las Vegas, the terrain was looking better and better. In my college days I used to take a long street bike ride around the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell areas every year. This was before dual sort became popular, but I took my street bike on a lot of dirt roads in that region. When I started exploring it again a year ago using GE, I realized all that cool stuff I saw in my college days was perfect desert rally territory. I started looking into how I could make a series of rally routes around Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon. And so the concept of The Grand Rally was born!
Once I have a general idea where I want the routes to go, the next step is to find some potential bivouac locations. These need to be in campground type locations, or in a town with motels, roughly 100 highway miles apart. This allows for a twisty rally route of 180 to 320 miles between them. Then I find all the gas stations in the region, especially those in somewhat remote spots. This is key, because I can’t make a 200 or 300 mile stage without a gas stop somewhere in the middle, and often at the start and finish too. The exploration is done primarily on GE, with some internet searches to research key spots. I mark the gas stations, hotels, and potential camp spots with placemarks in GE.
Gas stations and possible bivouac spots:
Now it’s time to start figuring out the actual route. In the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell area big mountain ranges, rivers/lakes, and canyons dictate where the route might go, or more so where it can’t go. Obviously there’s no way for a dirtbike to cross the main part of the Grand Canyon, or cross a mountain range that has no road or trail over it. But even when a road can be found, it doesn’t mean we can go that way. Locked gates, private property, and BLM wilderness zones can get in the way. I have a tool in GE that shows me all the BLM designated wilderness zones, so I look to see if there are any in the area I want to make a route. It turns out there are a fair number of wilderness areas all over the Western US. Even when there is a perfectly good road inside a wilderness, no motor vehicles are allowed on it.
Once I have an idea where I can’t make the route go, I start zooming in with GE, looking for cool terrain, and roads or trails where the route CAN go. The more varied the terrain, the more I like it. GE is great for this, in that the colors and 3D terrain view make it pretty easy to see where the cool stuff is. The one negative for GE is it’s not so good for planning routes through forested areas because you can’t see the roads through the trees. But this is primarily a desert rally, so that’s not a big deal. I almost never use any types of maps, as they don’t tell you what the terrain is really like. The other negative for maps is they don’t show a lot of roads and trails that end up being the best stuff. Maps usually show you the easy ways through. GE allows you to find the hard ways through.
While laying out a stage, I spend a LOT of time on GE flying around looking for the cool stuff and marking roads and trails I’d like to ride. I put GE placemarks (waypoints) at road intersections and special points where the road or trail looks fun or challenging. For a single stage, I might put a hundred or more placemarks down all over the region where the route needs to go.
Red placemarks where cool stuff is:
Once I have pretty well explored and marked a region between two bivouacs, I zoom out and see how it looks. The placemarks are generally on way more roads and trails than could possibly be included in a single stage. So, I look for ways to string together a series of placemarks so I end up including as much of the cool stuff as possible, while keeping the mileage in the 180 to 320 mile range. I use the GE ruler tool to mark a very rough path the way I might want to go. This gives me an idea of the mileage for that path.
When I’ve got a series of placemarks picked out roughly marking the route, I start drawing GE “paths” (tracks) on the roads and trails I’d like to use. Each path might be 5 miles to 50 miles long. I often draw multiple ways through an area, so I can later move the preferred route to another path based on the overall mileage and details I might not find out about until later (such as locked gates, or other problems). Then I organize the paths in the GE “Places” pane in the order they will be ridden. I make the preferred path green, and alternate paths red.
Tracks showing prefered path (green) and alternate paths (red):
The alternate paths are critical when prerunning because those are the ways we get around things like locked gates. If I didn’t have those planned ahead of time, the prerunning would take a LOT longer. While I’m drawing the paths in GE, I can usually see fences, and places where there MIGHT be a gate. When I see that, I always hope there is no closed gate, or that it won’t be locked or private property, but we rarely can know that until we arrive there in the prerun. So, when I see those spots in GE, I assume it might be a locked gate, and try to find and draw a path around it. The same goes for tough terrain that might not be passable. We’ve run into a number of ancient roads up steep mountains that are too far eroded or covered with boulders to be passable. If it looks like it might be tough in GE, I always plan one or more alternate routes around it.
All the paths marking the primary route and the alternate routes get converted into GPS tracks and are loaded into my GPS before a prerun. If this were a GPS guided dual sport ride, I’d almost be done. But the work has only just begun, because the roadbooks still need to be created. While prerunning we follow the roadbook. The GPS tracks are only a backup to help get around unexpected problems, and are not available to those who ride the routes once the roadbooks are completed.
My completed roadbooks are very sophisticated Excel spreadsheets containing all the mileages, sequential numbers, text comments, compass headings, and tulip drawings for each navigation point. To get all that information into the spreadsheet is a lengthy process.
Short section of a typical roadbook created in Excel:
It starts back in GE. Once I have mapped out a stage (generally one day of riding), in GE I zoom into the start of the stage, and put a placemark exactly at that starting point. This might be at a campground, motel, gas station, or other point I’ve designated as the start of the stage. I name the placemark with a sequential number (i.e. “A100”), and in the placemark comment area I write a text comment for what to do at that point (i.e. “Exit motel RIGHT on Riverside Rd”). Then I pan along the route until I come to an intersection or other spot where a navigation point is needed in the roadbook. I put another placemark there, and again give it a sequential name (A110) and add a text comment (i.e. “LEFT on dirt road”). I leave numeric gaps in the sequence numbering so I can add additional waypoints later if needed without changing the numbers for existing points. I continue in this way, putting down placemarks at all the navigation points along the full length of the stage. A typical 300 mile stage might have 450 navigation points.
Navigation points (placemarks) in Google Earth:
Once the navigation points are all in place, I go back to the beginning and enter the mileage and heading for each point. To get the mileage, I use the GE ruler tool, clicking along every twist and turn in the road between one point and the next. When I get to the next point, the ruler tool indicates the length of the path I just laid down. I enter that mileage in the comment area for that placemark, just below the text comment. Another mode of the ruler tool can provide the compass heading of a single straight line. So, in ruler mode, I draw a short two point line on the path leaving the navigation point, so the line points in the direction I want to represent the compass heading leaving that point. I enter that indicated compass heading number in the comment field of the placemark, just below the mileage number. Normally headings are only provided in a rally roadbook at certain key navigation points. For training purposes I provide them at EVERY navigation point. I repeat that process for mileage and heading along the whole stage.
Now I’ve got the primary data I need, but it’s all in GE and I need to move it over to the roadbook in Excel. Through a series of secret manual and automated steps
, I get all the data imported into my blank roadbook Excel spreadsheet template. A host of embedded formulas and special formatting automatically manipulate that imported data into the exact format I want in the roadbook.
But the tulip drawings are still not there. Drawing 450 custom tulip drawings takes an enormous amount of time. Actually, every step in this whole process takes an enormous amount of time, but the tulip drawings take enormously enormous time
! And experience has shown that a lot of them get thrown away after the prerunning because we end up having to change the route due to blockages like locked gates. So, I don’t draw the tulip drawings until after we have prerun a stage and proven the route is good.
The prerunning uncovers all kinds of problems besides route blockages. While prerunning, we’re checking the mileage, text comments, headings, etc. at every point. After a prerun, I have to go back to GE and change the route, points, and data as needed based on what we find during the prerun. I used to write correction notes in the roadbook while prerunning, so I would know what needs fixing. But that takes a lot of time, which really slows down the prerun. So recently I built a special rugged audio recorder so I can record voice notes instead of writing them on paper. It still takes time, but it’s a lot faster than messing around with pencil and paper out on the trail.
After I’ve made all the post-prerun changes and corrections, it’s time to draw the tulip drawings. I use GE, some custom made Excel tools, and some custom software I wrote just for this task. Again, in GE I go to the start of the stage and zoom into the first navigation point. I rotate the GE view so the path entering the navigation point is at the bottom of the screen (where the dot would be in the tulip drawing). With a single click in my custom software, a snapshot of that exact satellite view as seen in GE is transferred into my Excel tulip drawing tool. Then using modified Excel drawing tools, I hand draw the tulip drawing directly over the top of the satellite image taken from GE, so the curves in the road and angles of roads at the intersection exactly match the way they are in the satellite image. I have a set of prepared graphics for things like powerlines, bushes, and all the French acronyms as used in Dakar roadbooks. I copy and paste those into the tulip drawing as needed. Then with a few clicks, that one tulip drawing is captured and saved in the roadbook Excel file. I repeat that for each navigation point. On average, with all the steps and things that go wrong while doing this, it probably takes about 2 minutes per tulip drawing (15 hours for a long roadbook stage).
Zoomed into navigation point, entering from bottom in a sand wash, then taking road to the left:
My tulip drawing tool, with that GE image overlaid in the drawing area:
Completed tulip drawing, with GE image removed:
Completed roadbook in Excel showing that navigation point at mile 15.82:
One major headache is making changes to an existing roadbook. Adding additional points for things like hazards force a repeat of a lot of steps. Although my custom software and other tricks make things a bit easier, it’s still a really difficult and time consuming task.
Once I have a fully completed roadbook file, there’s still more work. They have to be printed and turned into a long 6 inch wide roll of paper. I have two approaches for this, depending on how much time I have available to do it.
The first approach is to print them on regular 8-1/2 x 11 sheets, cut them on a paper cutter to 6 inches wide, then tape or glue them together end-to-end. I did this for a group of about 10 people the first time, and decided it sucked! The taping or gluing takes way too much time, especially if you’re doing a whole batch of roadbooks. So, when I’m in a hurry, I print them and cut them to size, but you guys get to tape them together yourselves out at the bivouac.
The second approach is to print each roadbook on one continuous long sheet of 6 inch wide paper. This avoids the whole taping process. But it requires some special paper and custom printing equipment. I found some great paper, and built a machine that helps with this. But it’s quirky, and sometimes unravels a full 1000 foot roll of paper out on the floor if I’m not watching it. So I have to be beside it while printing all the time. And this printer takes about 45 minutes
to print just one 300 mile roadbook (60ft long roll, 18m), so it’s pretty slow. But the resulting roadbook is excellent, and you guys don’t have to spend all that time in the evening sticking the sheets together.
That’s my brief overview of what it takes to come up with the route and make a roadbook for one stage. I skipped a lot of little steps and details so this explanation wouldn't turn into a novel. At the moment The Grand Rally is about 18 stages. When we’re done, it will probably be around 20 stages. A full set of roadbooks for one person riding 20 stages would be around 850 pages, or a roll almost 800 feet (220m) long.