Understanding Routesheets — a key to those weird abbreviations

Note that this is still a work-in-progress (2017-01-03).

There's no denying that routesheet-lingo is somewhat odd at first sight, with all its L @ T and SO @ X $ BARTLOW type terminology!  However, there is a positive reason for this obfuscation, namely MUCH more compact directions that are MUCH easier to fit on the routesheet and MUCH easier to read while riding your bike!  It all just takes a bit of practice to become familiar with them.

The style of any routesheet is determined by the organiser of that ride and there is no set standard for routesheet abbreviations, although most follow a common theme.  The routesheet is one of the few areas of an event that an organiser can stamp their own personality onto, and I always take a copy of the organiser's routesheet with me so I can get a sense of them when riding their event.  GPS is clinical and soulless by comparison (although I take one of those, too, but set it to not give me turn-by-turn, and I try to rely solely on the routesheet for navigation).

Routesheets are the gold standard for describing any route.  They are technology-agnostic and battery-free.  They also contain far more information than a digital GPX file, including notes of interest, alternative routes, cautions and warnings, etc.  In spite of their gold-standard status, there is no set standard for how to write one.  In truth, writing a good routesheet takes about half a day of effort at the computer, plus at least one route-check ride to check the information, so it is a serious amount of work and you should bear this in mind when discussing one with an organiser.

This note is for first-timers looking for some long-hand translations of common abbreviations used in Cambridge Audax's routesheets.  It's a bit dry — there's no denying that fact! — but persevere and it will open up a whole new world.  Although much of the terminology will be common amongst organisers, this is written for my own specific style of routesheet.

Note that every routesheet issued by Cambridge Audax has a key to the symbols somewhere in the routesheet.  It moves around to optimise and minimise the number of page-turns necessary while riding, but it is always there somewhere.

    The routesheet basics

    For most routesheets, each junction is given as a single, simple instruction.  Each instruction is given as "do this at this junction with this signpost and streetname", something like:

    L @ T $ Cambridge [High St]

    Which literally means:

    Left at T-junction, sign-posted Cambridge, on High Street.

    It should be obvious that the abbreviated form is MUCH more compact and easy to read at a glance (wtih practice!).  The reason for the redundant information is that finger-board signs are regularly knocked-down by motorised vehicles and hedge-trimming tractors, so the additional info helps riders identify the correct turn in spite of a changing landscape.

    This is the basic pattern for all instructions, although there's still quite a lot of variation — which is mostly obvious.



    There are a limited number of directions to take at junctions, and most are self-explanatory:

    • SO — Straight On; sometimes given by other organisers as SA — Straight Ahead
    • L, R — Left, Right
    • bear L, bear R — Bear Left/Right — bearing left/right means turn about 45° left/right, rather than 90° left/right, and is used at complex junctions where a simple L or R would be ambiguous.


    Place names

    When place names are given on a sign, they are either CAPITALISED or Lowercase — the distinction is important!

    • A name that is given in all-capital-letters means "go to this place" or "go through this place".
    • A name that is given in normal-case letters means "this is written on the sign, but you don't actually go there".

    For example: R @ T $ CAMBRIDGE means turn right at T-junction, sign-posted Cambridge, and you will go there.  Whereas, L @ T $ London means turn left at T-junction; the signpost says 'London', but you don't actually go there.

    This distinction is useful, because if you feel you are lost — or if you are lost — then you can use this information to get back onto the route.  So, if you are lost, you can ask a friendly passer-by for directions to Cambridge, because you know the route goes to or through Cambridge.  Then in Cambridge you can get back on the route.  However, you would not ask for directions to London, because you know the route does not go there.

    In general, if you note the place names that are in capitals then you can cross-check against road signs generally along the route to see whether you are heading towards those places, to confirm you are still, generally, on the route.


    Signs and streetnames


    You'll see lots of instructions that include signs.  The dollars symbol, $, is commonly used to mean "signed", for example:

    L @ T $ Cambridge — Left at T-junction, signed or sign-posted Cambridge.

    The $ is also used as an abbreviation for the word "sign" and vill is sometimes used for 'village':

    R after vill $ — Turn right after village sign.

    A village sign could be the village's ornamental sign in the middle of the village, or it could be the county-provided name board as you enter the village — context will tell you.

    Sometimes the sign is actually not a directional sign at all, but a sign in the road you're turning into:

    L $ 12T — Turn left into the road with a 12-tonne weight-limit sign in it.
    R $ dead-end — Turn right into the road with a dead-end sign in it.

    Sometimes you'll see imprecise references to certain signs, which are worth remembering.  There is really only one, but it's worth mentioning:

    SO @ X $ No HGVs — Head straight on at crossroads, sign-posted "Unsuitable for Heavy Goods Vehicles"

    Obviously this is just to keep the instruction as short as possible, the full-length text off the blue sign is just too long!

    And finally, there's one sign that is obvious when you know it:

    L $ NCN51 — Left sign-posted National Cycle Network route 51

    You'll be expected to keep a look out for these little, blue, adhesive signs with a white number on a red background indicating the route of a National Cycle Network route.  The number is important, especially when two or more routes cross!


    Streetnames are often included as a positive landmark to tell you you're on the correct route.  Streetnames are given in square brackets:

    2nd R no $ [Mill Ln] — Take the second right into Mill Lane, no sign-post (i.e. there is a streetname sign, but not a direction sign).

    Usually where the direction sign and the streetname concur then only one is given; in the following example, the streetname sign would NOT be included, because it's truly superfluous:

    L @ RBT $ CAMBRIDGE [Cambridge Rd]

    Streetname signs are often abbreviated because they are there to give enough reassurance that you're on the correct route without cluttering up the routesheet. Rd, St, Ln, etc., are always used.


    Junction types

    There is only a limited number of junction types described in abbreviated form.  These are:

    • T — T-junction
    • X — Crossroads  (also [x], which is distinctly different)
    • STGX — Staggered-crossroads
    • RBT — Roundabout (some organisers use O)
    • mrbt — Mini-roundabout (some organisers use mini-O)
    • TL — Traffic lights (sometimes TLS)

    Sometimes none of the above apply and a simple JCN is used to indicate "junction" — there's a T-junction in Hadleigh where two out of three roads must give way and so JCN is the most appropriate label.

    Simple junctions

    Most audax routes are designed to send you to a Give Way or Stop junction, which forces riders to look at the routesheet to check which way to go, and thereby keeping them on-route.  Riders love routes like this, because they can ride their bike to the junction — which may be 20km or more distant — without wondering whether they've missed a junction or not!

    Most junctions are T-junctions, so a typical instruction is R @ T — "right at T-junction".  There isn't much more to say — they are simple, simple instructions and you'll see a lot of them in routesheets from all organisers.


    Crossroads are funny junctions, because you can approach them either on the priority road, or on the minor road.  And the instructions are given differently:

    • On the minor road then you will arrive at the crossroads as if it were a T-junction — with a Give Way or Stop sign.  This is given as SO @ X — that capital-X means "the crossroads will force you to stop or give way".
    • On the major or priority road then you run every risk of riding straight through the crossroads without noticing that you're supposed to turn off the main road onto a side road.  These are indicated as L @ [x] with some additional signage and/or street-name information — that lower-case-[x] in brackets tells you to be aware!!

    The important point is to be aware that the instruction [x] means you must keep your eyes open for the junction!

    You may also arrive at "staggered crossroads" — crossroads where you'll have to give way to the priority road, and where the "opposite" road is offset, or staggered.  These are becoming more common in order to reduce motor-vehicle accidents when crossing busy roads.  In most instances the @ STGX instruction is enough for it to be clear and unambiguous to riders, but to assist on multi-lane junctions then the direction of the stagger may also be given:

    SO @ STGX (L + R) — Straight on at staggered crossroads (turn left then immediately turn right to cross the main road).

    If the stagger is too great to be considered a crossroads then the instruction will be given as:

    L @ T IMM R — Left at T-junction then immediately turn right.

    Complex junctions

    Some junctions can be a bit odd in the layout.  What looks like a T-junction on the map is the wrong way around, with the priority turning through 90° and therefore the T part of the junction is in-line with the main road.  You can end up with instructions like L @ T eff SO, which means "Left at T, effectively straight on" — you just keep going in a straight line, although don't forget to give way to traffic!  This is a real instruction on several of our routes:

    R @ T eff SO imm L eff SO in Brinkley $ GT BRADLEY

    And decoded, this reads:

    Right at T-junction in Brinkley — effectively straight on.  Immediately left — effectively straight on — sign-posted Great Bradley (through which you'll pass).

    And don't worry about whether the first or the second junction is sign-posted 'Great Bradley' — they're so close together that it doesn't matter, it'll be clear when you get there — and I spend a lot of time and thought checking and re-checking to disambiguate instructions such as these (and happily receive suggestions from riders who read it differently).


    Roundabouts can be the hardest to codify easily and you'll see many variations across organisers.  This is because some roundabouts are simple T-junctions or crossroads with priority-from-the-right.  But some roundabouts may have five or six exits and these may not be in a simple 90-degree cross.

    The simplest roundabout instructions are the obvious ones:

    R @ RBT
    L @ mrbt

    Almost always they will be accompanied by a street sign, or street name to help the rider positively identify the correct exit:

    R @ mrbt [High St]

    However, there are times when you need to be able to plan ahead to choose the correct lane, or when signs and other landmarks aren't present, and the routesheet will list the exit number:

    bear R @ RBT (3E) no $ — Bear right at roundabout, third exit, no signpost.

    Different organisers use different shorthand for numbering the exit, but this is how I do it — a number followed by the letter E, for exit.


    Turning off the current road

    Possibly the most important instruction to read-ahead, to understand and to follow is the one that requires you to turn off the priority road into a less-priority road at some point down the road.  These instructions require you to keep your eyes peeled for a turn off the road that is not a Give Way or Stop type junction (which would force you to consider the next instruction on the routesheet).

    A typical turn-off instruction might be:

    In 1km, L $ GT BRADLEY — In 1km turn left, sign-posted Great Bradley.

    When you read ahead and spot this instruction, you must immediately check your current distance on your odometer/GPS, or check the time (most riders take about 2.5 minutes to ride 1km), and then at the appropriate distance/time you should expect to see the side road as described.  This can be quite hard when the turn is 15km distant, although GPS devices take the fun out of it these days.

    Wherever possible I will give a distance from the previous instruction within the description so that you can plan ahead.  I will also fully describe the junction, including a clear sign-post name, plus street name, plus any other landmarks, so that you can be as certain as possible this is the correct turning.  However, some turns are simply:

    In 3.2km, 1st R no $ — In 3.2km take the first right, no sign-post.

    As you can see, sometimes you need to count the number of left or right turns to get to the correct one.

    Crossroads where you are on the priority road are also important, because they're easy to ride through:

    In 2km L @ [x] $ Hattersley — In 2km, turn left at crossroads from the main road to the minor road, signed Hattersley.


    Oft times, to reassure you that you're on the correct route on a long section of the same road, the routesheet lists a number of villages through which you'll pass:

    Thru Monewden, Hoo

    Sometimes you'll be directed onto a road and told to stay there for quite a long way before turning off.  To help you find the correct turning, you may be given a number of thru instructions, so you can count the villages off, before the turn instruction:

    Thru Barford then 3rd R on LHB and imm L @ Skipping Block Corner [Dark Ln]

    In this case you ride the 5km to Barford and through Barford and then count three rights after Barford to get the correct turn.


    Then, soon and immediately

    Sometimes it is necessary to give a series of instructions in a single go.  The purpose of this is to emphasise to the rider that it is a complex junction of some sort and they need to remember the whole sequence of turns to avoid missing something and to keep their eyes on the road through the junction.  Such instructions might be:

    In Swaffham L @ T then L @ TL to Swaffham town square
    In 3.5km, 1st R @ [x] $ Hobbles Gn. and soon 1st L no $ [Trotting Horse Ln]
    R @ T (GT) eff SO then IMM L on RHB eff SO $ ALDHAM

    • Then is used to join instructions together into a single sequence for ease-of-use, legibility, or safety. Often, use of then makes the routesheet more readable and even more interesting (in my opinion). Many organisers like to join instructions together with then.
    • Soon is used to indicate that there may be some distance between the two instructions — anything from 100m to 1km or so.  You may have enough time to read the second instruction having executed the first before passing it.
    • IMM or 'immediately' indicates that the turns are so close together that you won't get time to re-read the instruction without passing it by, so you must try to remember the full sequence.


    Other landmarks

    The other landmarks are usually given as a reference to let you know you're on the right track:

    • PH — the British favourite is the omnipresent Public House and I always try to list as many as possible, just because they are such a quintessentially British institution!  They are also easy to spot and uniquely named, and so are ideal landmarks.
    • PB — Post Box, one of those red metal boxes that appear on so many street corners and lane junctions.
    • TB — Telephone Box, an increasingly rare presence as everyone has a mobile phone these days, but by being unusual then they make great landmarks!
    • GT — Green Triangle — lanes that join onto other lanes often have a triangular patch of grass in the middle of the junction.  Some junctions have them, some don't, so they make good landmarks.
    • LC — Level Crossing, unavoidable and often risky in the wet, but a great landmark.
    • pedx — Pedestrian Crossing, self-explanatory.  Also ped for 'pedestrian'.
    • xing — Crossing — in this context it is just an abbreviation and presented alongside another word to specify it, such as bus xing for Bus Crossing, or toucan xing for toucan crossing ("two-can cross together", i.e. peds + bikes).
    • NSL — National Speed Limit sign, self-explanatory.
    • 30 or 30$ — other speed-limit signs, in this case a 30mph speed-limit sign.
    • Some landmarks are spelled out in full: church, memorial

    Often, the instruction will include a preposition in reference to the landmark, such as by, opp for 'opposite', before, after, etc.:

    R opp church [Chapel Hill]


    Cautions and warnings

    It is a requirement of Audax UK that every organiser fills out and submits a risk assessment form for each event before it is accepted and published by Audax UK.  It is a requirement for organisers to indicate hazards on the routesheet, and in the ride information sheet.  The most common way to do this is with the word CARE — personally I use !CARE!, usually with a description of the hazard:


    Other hazards may be mentioned instead as a note on the routesheet, sometimes with colour to really emphasise that we are not joking:

    !CARE PEDESTRIANS! Please take your time thru the city centre — shoppers and tourists arenotexpecting quick cyclists.!We really, really mean this!

    We've done our bit to ensure that our routes are safe enough and that we have given enough warning about the hazards that are unavoidable — the rest is up to you to acknowledge the information and ride accordingly.


    Routesheet distances

    The key given on the routesheet should indicate the distance units and what each distance means.  On my routesheets then the distances are quite specific:

    • All distances are given in kilometres, unless otherwise stated (sometimes metres are given). Audax is a Continental sport, so it seems only appropriate.
    • All distances are measured from the beginning of the current stage — this is so that you can reset your GPS or odometer at the start of each stage to remove any errors introduced on the previous stage by getting lost, for example.  On Garmin devices then hitting the Lap button and using Lap Distance as one of the fields works brilliantly.
    • The headline length of each stage given on the routesheet is the routesheet distance — if you follow the routesheet to the letter then you will ride this distance.  Some organisers give the shortest or nominal distance, but I prefer routesheet distance, so you know exactly how far you've got to pedal.

    Since all instruction-distances are measured from the beginning of the stage then the distance between two instructions is found by subtracting one from the other.  This may seem like unnecessary hard work, but going the other way would mean having to add up all of the distances from the beginning of the stage to work out how far you've ridden within the stage.  I am confident that my routesheets are written the right way on this — although to make best use of this information then you should learn how to use Laps on your GPS.

    Note that I usually provide two different versions of my routesheets — Hand-holding and Old-school:

    • The hand-holding routesheet includes distances to most of the instructions.  This makes it easier to follow, although takes away some of the navigational challenge of following the routesheet.
    • The old-school routesheet does not include any distances between instructions.  Some distances are given in the instructions themselves, such as In 1.2km, L $ Diss, and this is done only so much as to give you unambiguous instructions about where to turn.  Much more fun  :)