A tourist who visits a U.S. Civil War battlefield can choose from among many excellent touring books on the market. But how many books are designed for the unique needs and advantages of a bicyclist? Almost none. As of this writing, I am aware of only one guidebook — Bicycling Gettysburg National Military Park (ISBN 978-1-7326038-0-6). Since the book is published by Civil War Cycling, I will not pitch it here. Instead, let’s review the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ for using auto tour books for bicycling Civil War battlefields.
In the end, I think you will agree that for a bicycling tourist, the ideal is to have a guidebook that is designed specifically for people who can imagine cycling a battlefield park and can grasp the advantage of learning by doing. Auto tour books are both inadequate and generally unsafe for bicyclists who want to follow a tour while trusting that you won’t suddenly find yourself sharing the road with eighteen-wheel trucks.
‘Pros’ – Follow an auto tour on your bike?
Pro 1. Auto tour materials are easy to find. Battlefield visitor centers keep them in stock, because they are in high demand.
Pro 2. The National Park Service distributes free tri-fold map brochures that include markings for the official battlefield auto tour. You can pick up your copy at the visitor center and sometimes near other park buildings.
Pro 3. Most are high quality publications. This is especially true of any books that the National Park Service may showcase on a display table.
‘Cons’ – Follow an auto tour on your bike?
Con 1. Auto tours direct tourists to drive on roads that may not be safe for bicyclists. They typically do not indicate which roads are heavily trafficked, whether or not it is a major commercial artery, or whether there are wide shoulders or sidewalks.
Con 2. Many auto tours double as maps for tour busses, and so the tour will not take you on roads that are off-limits to busses. In other words, forget about your dream to ride along winding, tree-lined scenic byways, because busses can’t handle them. Of course, this constraint is unfortunate for bicyclists who prefer a more scenic and natural ride far from the hassle of bus traffic.
Con 3. In order to reduce reliance on other people to pick up a bicyclist at the end of a ride, bicyclists prefer to ride in a loop that not only avoids the need for a car but also makes every mile meaningful and enjoyable. Planning such a ride is only possible when you have a map that marks all roads, especially one-way roads; but this is not as typical as you might think. In fact, for example, Gettysburg National Military Park has a complicated network of one-way roads that make it challenging to plan circuits that avoid major roads.
Con 4. Auto tours do not typically identify hills or shade that a bicyclist needs to know in order to stay comfortable on a ride.
Con 5. Although auto tours may identify the location of restrooms, portable toilets, and picnic areas, tips on the availability of water sources are rare, and during the hot summer months a bicyclist needs to have a good plan to stay hydrated.
What’s the advantage of having a guidebook to bicycle a Civil War battlefield?
Of course, all of the above ‘cons’ flip to ‘pros,’ as follows:
The best bicycle tours…
Pro 1. Follow the safest and most enjoyable roads for bicyclists.
Pro 2. Follow the roads that are off-limits to busses.
Pro 3. Follow a circuit so that bicyclists can ride in a loop.
Pro 4. Identify mileage, hills, and shade.
Pro 5. Identify restrooms, portable toilets, picnic areas, bicycle racks, and water sources.
But there’s more!
The best bicycling guidebooks…
Pro 6. Include historical summaries that connect the battlefield landscape to historical events. On a bike, an active learner experiences the battlefield in a visceral way — every strain and glide, every drop of sweat — and this makes it incredibly natural to connect today’s experience with battlefield events so long ago.
Pro 7. Include historical maps that present themes that are easy for bicyclists to consider while riding. Non-specialists often find military maps and tactical jargon difficult to understand. A good guidebook will drive the narrative to its most simple expression without sacrificing meaning. On a bike, battlefield themes are more impactful than numbers, caliber, ranks, and precise times.
Pro 8. Include color photographs, GPS points, and maps to find significant historic sites and battlefield monuments. Map-to-monument and monument-to-map cross references are essential for the bicycling historian. They help not only with orienteering but with understanding what happened where in the historical narrative.
Pro 9. Provide tips about bicycle-friendly hotels, bicycle selection, gear, clothing, bicycle rentals, getting to the battlefield, and parking. A major hurdle for many people is the question of whether a bicycle tour is possible and if so, whether it is easy (or hard) or worth the effort (ot not). A guidebook should take the guesswork out of those questions.
Pro 10. Provide tips on contingency planning (e.g., rain), monitoring park alerts, and ideas about must-see places where bikes are not allowed (e.g., national cemeteries). If you are new to planning any kind of bicycle tip, then you might wonder what steps you need to take to make sure that your trip is enjoyable even if the unexpected happens. A good guidebook will offer suggestions for how to plan for uncomfortable weather or annual events that may attract “too many” people to a battlefield town.
Pro 11. Provide options to purchase and download digital maps that you can print (to tuck into your jersey or bicycle bag) and/or read on your PDF-enabled mobile device during a stop. Many people ask about digital maps. My opinion is that the more options that you have, the better. And yet I would not recommend relying exclusively on technology for a battlefield trip. I cover the topic here, under the heading “Digital or paper maps?”