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September 7, 2013


Good bicycle route marking

I put this on the DAM J.A.M. website about 2001. It’s still solid advice.

There’s really no excuse for poorly marked routes on bicycle events. All you really have to do is imagine what people are experiencing as they approach decision points on a bike ride and then do what it takes to remove the uncertainty. We don’t do it perfectly but we think it’s important and we work hard at it.

This may seem simple enough but it’s an important detail that very often gets neglected. I go on about this subject for a while here. If you don’t read it all, at least remember these things next time you mark a route:

  1. In three seconds, a bicycle traveling 15 miles per hour will go 66 feet; at 25 mph – 110 feet. It takes a few seconds for a rider to see, process, and react to your directional arrows.
  2. Consider how fast your guests will be riding. Put yourself in the event. Assume they have no idea where you want them to go.
  3. Put your LAST warning mark at least 50-60 feet (20-25 long paces) before any feature that requires riders to make a decision (intersections, mainly).
  4. Give riders at least two warnings before an intersection, three or more if there’s something unusual about it like highways, turns at the bottom of hills, blind corners, etc. Give them one mark on the other side so they know they’re on the right path.
  5. Make your marks at least 150 feet apart (50 long paces).
  6. Use the same color, style, and size for every single mark you put on the road.
  7. If you must hide them discretely on the edge of the pavement, put ALL of them there so your riders get used to looking in the same place.
  8. Be consistent. Think like a rider at speed. Think about what it feels like to be there. Be considerate and thoughtful.

If you come to our party, we want you to enjoy yourself. Proper route markings are pretty basic.

When you’re riding your bike at 16-20 mph with friends on a cool fall day and you see an intersection ahead, you should be confident that you’ll be advised what to do and have plenty of time to do it, that you’ll be warned about potential hazards, and that when you pass the intersection you know you’re still going the right way.

But we’re not your Mama.

You have to use common sense and obey traffic laws and watch out for your own safety. After all, we’re talking about sharing open public roads with bigger, faster, heavier vehicles. No amount of excellent route marking can save you from yourself.

All I’m saying is that if I design a route and organize a bike ride and you agree to come ride it, I at least owe you directions that will help and not hinder.

Road Painter, painting.In all riding situations, it literally takes several seconds to see a mark, recognize it, process what it’s telling you, prepare and take action. In those few seconds of brain work, you can travel quite a distance at normal bicycle speeds. If you’re looking around, talking to friends, or day dreaming while you’re riding, you might miss the directions.

There should be at least two or three marks, placed well apart and well before any place there’s an unknown hazard ahead or anywhere you have to do something different than just cruising along.

I rode a century in 1999 that ended in near disaster. There was a 90 degree left at the bottom of a long fast downhill. There wasn’t much roll-out room before the turn and there was only one warning a couple hundred feet before it. As we started down the hill, we left the cover of forest and came into the open.

There was a nice two-lane road straight out in front of us with no apparent obstacles and plenty of room to coast. We were in the middle of nowhere, no signs, just open pasture and endless barbed wire, so we relaxed and picked up speed as we pedaled down the hill.

Just before the crash, we saw a single turn mark flash by. We were still trying to process the instructions as the intersection popped out from behind the weeds. I was lucky enough to be a bit ahead of my two riding companions so I saw the mark before they did. I barely got through the turn unscathed. But right behind me my friends collided with each other in the confusion and went down hard. They added a significant epidermis to the tarmac and Bruce’s century came to a screaming halt. He sat out the next 10 weeks while his shoulder grew back together.


In this fast downhill situation, you have to remember that most people are paying close attention to the road in front of them watching for holes, bumps or debris. They’re a little more tense than when cruising on flat ground and their view is closer in than when they’re relaxed. They need multiple warnings beginning way up the hill so they know to be looking for the turn. If there’s a turn coming, and they know it, they’ll approach the downhill differently than if they think they can just let ‘er rip.

DAM J.A.M. has a lot of hills. In several cases, they’re long and winding and you have to change directions or slow down at the bottom. We always try to start warning you way farther in advance than most people might think is necessary. From our own experiences touring, racing and planning, we like to think we’ve developed a knack for where and how many marks the average rider will need to have a safe ride.

Consistency is the other most important thing.

Decide how you’re going to make your arrows and make them the same way every time. Decide what you’re going to write, if anything, and write it the same way every time. Decide where your arrows are going be in relation to what you write and put them the same place every time. Put your marks in the same basic position on the road and always put them where your riders are likely to be looking. Always use the same color of paint…every time.

After the first year we decided it would be more consistent to use a stencil and put “DAM J.A.M.” next to every arrow. We started with a piece of cardboard and cut out the letters. It worked great except we soon realized that every mark leaves a layer of paint on the stencil, as well as the road. It took about 10 marks before the letters began to fill with paint and the stencil was useless. It took a very long time to paint the roads that year.

The next year I got some sheet metal flashing at the hardware store. I made the word “DAM J.A.M.” as large as I could on the computer and printed it in landscape mode on a legal size piece of paper. Then I cut out the letters with a razor knife and traced them onto the sheet metal with a Sharpie. And finally I cut them out with a Dremel Tool. I nailed a 1×2 board to the top and bottom of the stencil and put a piece of electrical wire on each end of the bottom piece of wood for a handle. Works great and lasts about 5 years of marking.

I use a large foil roasting pan to carry the stencil, along with a spatula and a small paring knife to scrape it clean. We have to stop for a cleaning about every hour or so, and that takes a good 15 minutes each time. It’s a whole lot faster if I spray it with cooking spray after each scraping and before I paint through it again.

It takes about 28 cans of upside-down marking paint and about 30 hours over two weekends to mark all four routes. It’s well worth the trouble because our route markings have a very consistent look and are easy to spot from a distance. We get compliments.

That’s about all I can tell you about that, and way more than you wanted to know. But the beauty is in the details. Go back to the top and read the eight rules before you begin marking your next route. If you ride another tour and the marks are bad, don’t hesitate to tell the management and send them a link to this page.

Thanks for letting me rant.

8 comments to Good bicycle route marking

  • Larry Gerner

    Question — What kind / brand temporary marking paint do you use? I am concerned about using a “permanent” type paint on the roads, and would rather just use something that washes off or otherwise disappears in a few days. Is spray-chalk a good substitute for spray paint?

  • DamJamJim

    Hey Larry. I use inverted marking paint made by Rustoleum. It’s permanent but fades away in 2-3 years. I’m not aware of any temporary paint. I’ve used chalk to mark parking lots and small local areas but it comes off easily and only lasts a day or so. I have nearly 150 miles of roads and highways to mark on DAM J.A.M. and nearly 400 miles on Tulsa Tough. It’s usually a 2-3 day job and I do it a week or two before the event. I use what works well, is quick and efficient, and lasts.

  • I am totally biased, because I sell their product, but I think the marking paint from Fox Valley Systems offers performance that is equal to Rustoleum at a better price. For marking a course 1-3 weeks before and event, I agree that marking paint is the way to go. However, the Fox Valley marking chalk often lasts for weeks if: 1) it is applied to a dry surface; 2) is not rained on by a torrential downpour, and 3) is not exposed to high numbers of tires running over it. Still, it would be risky to use chalk if marking a course a week or more before the event.

  • Good page! We’re just up I-44 in Springfield. Springbike has formally adopted Route Marking Guidelines in part to be proactive to city/county government. We don’t want riders to get lost but we have to be realistic with the size our markings. Locals don’t like “their” roads painted. I agree completely that small marks will be seen if they are clean and consistent. We also mark every turn after the turn within sight just in case (it happens!) that the county decides to pave over our marks a day or two before the ride.

  • DamJamJim

    Thanks Dave. Route marking takes way more effort than people realize just because of having to be vigilant about unexpected road construction. There’s also sabotage like we had at Tulsa Tough this year. It’s a good idea to do a last minute sweep to try and fix anything that’s been messed with, but when you’re talking about 3-4 routes from 25 -100 miles, even sweeping is a big volunteer effort.

    What are your Route Marking Guidelines and what does your city county government want from you?

  • John Pardee

    Here is something I’ve started doing. Just pass every intersection sign, I place my first road mark for that intersection. Using the DOT Vertical signs allows ride to know when to look.

  • For the past couple decades I’ve been the routemiester for GOBA and I’ve also marked a LAB Rally and been the director of 20+ patch rides for the Dayton Cycling Club.

    These (LAB I think) route marking protocols have working very well in moving about 3,000 cyclists a year, an average of 350 mile for the week for the past 20 years with great success on GOBA. These protocols also keep the local city and county governments happy.

    Overzealous route marking in our region has created two areas that we now have to ride around, due to unhappy city government. They want their region painted in chalk only, with approval. Not going to happen. I tried and it rained…

    We use Fox Valley Systems “Power Paint Cartridge” and the “Spray Chalk” which fits their “Easy Marker Pistol” making the job fairly easy from the driver’s seat of most cars and vans, half the time I do not exit the vechile, just pull to the right and drop an arrow.

    I find this paint last longer per can and has a nice consistent spray pattern to work with. If you order it a month or two before the event, it will be fresh and if shaken properly will most never clog. It will store well over a year or two but must be shaken very well!

    I find the paint lasts 2 weeks – 2 years on the road, according to traffic volume. I will not paint the city streets until a day or two before the ride so the markings are bright and fresh. On rural roads I paint 2-3 weeks in advance, re-checking them the day before the event, refreshing the worn arrows where needed, just in case.

    The chalk will last through a rainstorm if put down on dry pavement and allowed to dry for a day. The chalk will last a couple/few weeks with no rain on rural roads. On city roads it will last less than a week, sometimes less than a day…

    We use the chalk for rest stops, attractions and bike trails where marking is normally not permitted and put it down the night before the event. If rain is forecast, we use signs or paint.

    We also use a variety of warning signs for drivers and riders, at hills, bad intersections, gravel (we sweep most gravel in corners), Rail Road tracks with arrows directing best path in red, dogs and attractions.

    For maps on the road, I convert the paper and electronic maps I receive into Microsoft Streets & Trips. I take my laptop, plug in a USB GPS receiver, fire up Streets & Trips, tell the program to follow my direction of travel, drive to the start of the ride and follow the route on the computer. Doing this alone cut 10 hours off of painting the GOBA route with less mistakes to fix. And will make a century route with cut-offs, a one day painting job.

    Always take a case of black paint to cover up mistakes and old route markings that may confuse your riders.

    If the intersection confuses you the painter, take extra time and on the wrong roads about 200 yards up from the intersection, in red paint, tell the riders to turn back, “NO” wrong road. This one thing will really pay off.


    Mark every road intersection.

    If no turn, mark once, before intersection (about 20 foot) no
    confirmation arrow. Yes this makes then slow a bit, which is good
    for intersections.

    If right turn mark twice before turn (pre lane) and one confirmation
    arrow after the turn.
    If left turn at least 3 arrows per lane and one confirmation arrow
    after the turn.

    Where routes diverge, clearly mark (mileage or maybe Loop “Number”)

    Use these same protocols to direct in and out of rest stops and attractions.

    If the route moves from street to trail warn the riders on the road at each turn arrow.

    Have fun! Don’t inhale the paint fumes!!

    Consistency is KING!

  • Marty

    If it’s not temporary paint or chalk then it’s graffiti. Unless of course it’s approved by whomever the route is under the jurisdiction of legally. Even if using temporary paint, you need to have permission. You can’t just go painting arrows all over the place.

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