Where are Boulder’s best rides? What’s the best way to ride there? And how steep is that climb, anyhow?

These are but a few of the questions designer Zach Lee set out to answer in a super-clean visual format that completely redefines what a cycling map can be. Informative, sure, but also artistic and inspiring.

“Any good map should be the start of an adventure,” Zach said.

Although Zach creates pieces for companies like Skratch, Rapha and Donnelly, his Boulder Cycling Map is a multi-year personal passion project.

“I have always loved maps, and especially physical maps,” Zach said. “I love the digital world. But I get really frustrated with batteries dying and signals lost. A couple of years ago I was extremely motivated to create a new map, specifically for cyclists, and have a new take on it.”

Most cycling maps take existing road maps and superimpose or highlight cycling routes on top of them. Zach threw that idea right out the window, and started from scratch.

The end result, at first glance, is a little strange. But the longer you look, the more cycling-centric detail you see. After a minute or two, you start to wish all your favorite places to ride had a map like this.

Zach Lee distilled a huge amount of information down to what is most pertinent for cyclists riding in Boulder

Inspiration: Belgium, Mallorca, London

A few years ago, Zach and I enjoyed a week of cycling in Belgium with friends and colleagues around the classics for many reasons — taking in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, riding the Flanders cyclo-sportive with 16,000 of our friends, Belgian beer, etc. — but the incredible cycling system left an impression on Zach. 

“Whether Mallorca or Belgium, I love it that they have such a well-organized cycle system, with a network of trails and paths, and each junction is numbered,” Zach said. “In Boulder we have so many amazing rides accessible right from town. And there were existing maps that showed a lot of detail, but they were kind of overwhelming.”

Instead, Zach sought to take the concept of numbered junctions and then draw it simply, like a subway map. Surface (road, gravel, trail) is indicated by line type. Difficulty, like on a skip map, is indicated by color.

Informational density is made possible with thoughtful visual codes

Notably, the orientation is west, towards the Rocky Mountains, not north, like on a standard map. “When we are trying to decide what we are going to ride, we are either going up into the mountains, or rolling the plains out east,” Zach said.

Also, most maps are drawn by political or civil boundaries, be that a county or a city. For instance, the Boulder City map shows bike lanes in the city, but not the great climbs like Flagstaff, Sunshine or Lefthand Canyon. Similarly, the Boulder County map excludes big-ride staples like Estes Park and Carter Lake.

“As riders, we don’t care about county lines; we care about where we can ride,” Zach said. “So I designed this based on what’s the farthest somebody would ride from Boulder.”

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Feedback from Olympians and other local riders

While Zach trusted his artistic skills for the map design, he sought out feedback on the details from local riders. Sometimes that meant showing it to individual riders. Sometimes that meant bringing large-scale maps with dry-erase laminates on them to parties at bike shops so riders could draw and write right on them.

“I felt it was a more interesting way to get people involved – physically engaged, physically touching it,” Zach said.

Zach took a lot of feedback from local riders, including this note from former Olympian Mara Abbott

CyclingTips editor in chief Caley Fretz was an adviser on the project from the beginning.

“I loved it right away,” Caley said. “It’s the way that the map in my head works: mountains or flats, what are the best roads to ride.”

Now a number of Boulder shops stock the map, including the Rapha Club House, where staff will often use it to give riders from out of town a quick lay of the land.

“At first if they are not from here, they are confused about the west/north thing,” said Rapha Boulder assistant manager Steve Vanica. “But as soon as we point out that the mountains are always our frame of reference to the west, it all makes sense.”

Project Next: Colorado Climbs art project

Zach has sold maps to people from all over the United States and to a few places in Europe. “I was surprised; I thought it would just be a local thing,” Zach said. “People seem to like it as a keepsake as well as a functional point of reference.”

Requests for maps in other areas have also poured in. “I’ve gotten like 15 requests to do San Francisco,” he said. “I would really love if this could evolve into a Colorado series: Golden, Grand Junction, Aspen, Colorado Springs… where else can it go? What other elements can be pulled out and celebrated?”

In the meantime, Zach has been working on an artistic rendering of a series of Boulder’s standout climbs. Think posters and T-shirts.

“Cycling is beautiful and so many elements of our sport are amazing: the places we go, the terrain we ride on,” he said. “It is all wonderful. As a designer I can showcase that.”

Check out Zach’s work at http://boulderbikemap.com/.

Ben Delaney

Ben Delaney

Roll Massif editor

Ben has been riding bikes and slinging stories since he was a paperboy. Professionally, he’s been a cycling journalist since 1999, when racing bikes and studying journalism at the University of New Mexico led to pulls at VeloNews, BikeRadar, Cyclingnews and elsewhere. After traveling the world to report on pro cycling in Europe and manufacturing in Asia, Ben is happy to be at home in Colorado, writing about the incomparable riding and the creative people who drive the cycling culture.

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