How to Read a Cue Sheet
"Reading a cue sheet isn't difficult; just keep an eye on the distance for each cue, and do what the cue says when you get there."
A cue sheet is essentially just a list of directions, each of which gives you two pieces of information: What to do, and when to do it. "What to do" could be a turn, it could tell you to go straight, or it could be just a landmark or something that's important to know about the road conditions. Typical examples are "Bear Left at fork onto School St"; "Caution: Stop sign at bottom of hill"; "Cross Rt. 27; becomes School St"; "Right on High St then immediate Left on School St"; "Use caution on descent", etc.
Most cue sheets use some standardized system of arrows, symbols, and abbreviations in addition to verbal directions. The RSC Cue Sheet, for example, uses arrows indicating left, slight left -or bear left, straight, slight right - bear right, and right. It helps to have a quick glance at the directions before you start just to make sure you're clear on what the abbreviations and symbols mean. Many cue sheets have a legend explaining the symbols and abbreviations, but most of the time they're pretty obvious, such as "L at T on School St.", meaning that you're going to arrive at School St. at a T intersection and turn left.
Besides what to do, you also want to know when to do it. Cue sheets usually give you both the distance since the last cue AND the total distance overall - or sometimes just the total distance for the segment of the route, if it's long and has multiple segments; occasionally you'll get all three. Different cue sheets may put the columns in a different order, but generally reading normally from left to right will give you the information in the right order. For example, a cue that reads "13.5 .8 R on School St" means that when you have gone 13.5 miles from the beginning of the ride and 0.8 miles from the last cue, you'll want to make a right turn on School Street.
Cue sheets are easiest to track when you have a cycling computer, showing your total distance, so you know when to look for the turn. But even if you're not riding with a computer, it's not hard to estimate. 10 mph = 6 minute miles; 12 mph = 5 minute miles; 15 mph = four minute miles; 20 mph = 3 minute miles; 30 mph = 2 minute miles; etc. So if you know you're going somewhere between 15 and 20 mph and you have a turn coming up in a mile and a half, you know it's going to be between 4.5 and 6 minutes until you get there and if it's been 8 minutes, you probably missed the turn. Often the cue turns are so short that even if you have only a very rough idea of your speed, you can be accurate to within a minute or two, which is easily good enough for helping you find the turn.
Even if you are using a computer though, do keep in mind that bike computers as well as car odometers are not always necessarily completely consistent with each other, so don't be shocked if the distances you see at turns are off by 10 or even 20% from what the cue sheet says. But this is why you get both the distance between cues as well as the total distance at each one, since a difference of 10% won't throw you off as much on the smaller distances between turns.
Reading a cue sheet isn't difficult; just keep an eye on the distance for each cue, and do what the cue says when you get there.
Mounting a Cue Sheet
In order to be of use, you'll want to mount your cue sheet where you can see it. Keeping it in your back pocket doesn't work well when you have a turn every half mile. There are various cue sheet mounts available, as well as handlebar bags with built-in map cases. If you don't have any of these, you can mount it to your bike cleanly and easily with binder clips and zip ties. There are two common methods of doing this:
Mounting on the stem: If your shift cables don't come out of the sides of your levers - downtube and bar end shifters, Campy, SRAM, planetary hub, singlespeed, etc - you can attach a binder clip to your stem with two zip ties. Insert the two zip ties into one "handle" of the binder clip and position it at the front end of your stem with the zip ties forming an X. Close the zip ties under the handlebar on each side so that they form a figure 8 and the binder clip stays positioned at the end of the stem.
Mounting on cable housing: If you have STI levers with the shift cables sticking out to the insides of the levers, you don't even need the zip ties; you can use one binder clip around each cable and clip the cue sheet to them. This usually puts the cue sheet in a conveniently visible spot and you only have to fold the paper over once.
If there's any possibility of rain, it's a good idea to keep the cue sheet in a ziploc bag. A quart sized bag will neatly fit a sheet of letter-sized paper folded into quarters. If you pay attention to the formatting of the cue sheet before you fold it, you should be able to quickly flip it over onto the next quarter-page and only have to stop and re-fold the paper once per page.
Thank you Emily for helping us stay on the right path!