Sunday, October 7, 2012

Underneath the Pavement

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
Though it's been a week since the Vermont Fall Classic, I still cannot post a report. My heart is too full; this is a ride that requires some emotional rest and distance before it can be put into words. But privately some of us have been discussing it, rehashing it, testing the accuracy of our own memories by comparing them against the memories of others'. And one topic that's come up is the quality of the dirt. A few of us noticed that it was differed from our local dirt, and different from the dirt we rode in previous events. At the D2R2 in Massachusetts and Southern Vermont, the unpaved roads were a dark brown earthy colour that turned muddy when wet. At the Kearsarge Classic in New Hampshire, the terrain was rocky. The dirt roads in Northern Vermont were a light grayish-tan, almost clay-like in consistency, dusty and tightly packed except for a thin top layer that was soft from the rains of previous days. When it began to rain again, this top layer turned liquid, but not muddy exactly. It was thinner than mud, less viscous. I was certain it was some type of clay. Others thought it was more sand-like. A rider who often cycles in upstate New York then described the dirt roads there, which are reddish clay and leave a pink residue over everything. Fascinated by these nuances, we admitted that we never gave them much thought until now.

All of this makes me realise just how unfamiliar so many of us are with the actual soil we live on. Paved roads have defined and homogenised our landscape for so long, that we hardly consider what lies beneath. Do most of us even know what our local streets would look like unpaved? The streets in the next town over? Can most of us determine what a particular type of soil is by looking at it or feeling it? I was in touch with these things when I lived in the countryside, had a garden, walked in the woods, but living in the city has distanced me from that awareness. Now cycling on dirt through different parts of New England has reminded me just how important it is. I'd like to learn more about our region's terrain, about what lies underneath the pavement. I don't ever want to lose that connection again.

37 comments:

  1. If you are not already familiar with the works of Michel Serres, I would like to recommend them to you. A good place to start is with "Conversations on Science, Nature, and Time", a collection of conversations between him and Bruno Latour on topics that resonate with today's post.

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  2. Good stuff and welcome to the wonderful world of gravel road riding. That, and converted rail trails, are the reason I use a Kona Jake the Snake cyclocross bike from seven years ago as my road bike and general adventure bike. There truly is something wonderful about wandering down a road less traveled, isn't there?

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  3. A connection to dirt, yeah, that's core need for all of us. If we have not walked on the dirt for awhile when we do so it's unfamiliar, even alien sometimes and even our innate sense of balance can be challenged. Who has not seen the elderly gingerly step along on flat concrete and wholly avoid bare earth because of it's "foreign" unevenness. I try to walk on dirt whenever I can as a way to recalibrate my inner balance and poise. Yeah, playing in the dirt, just like children; it's what's good for you. Jim Duncan

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  4. You don't want to lose connection with dirt?

    Don't worry. That's impossible. We all end up there anyway.

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  5. Oh gawd what a tease.

    Don't chew it up too much so that it loses all impact, please.

    "Fascinated by these nuances, we admitted that we never gave them much thought until now."

    Dirt single track through urban environments remind us if you're paying attention.

    This soil thing...wet clay soil almost killed me, hypothermic, sleeping, rain.

    I think those people who only think of the world as x's, o's, ones and zeros need to get their collective heads out of the sand (sic). Many of us dinosaurs know (knew?) these things.

    Terrain, soil comp, tire choice, conditions, how in the same corner you have different consistencies, how to read it and rail or ride the inside line pokey...then make a misjudgment and repackage.

    Same applies to the road I guess.

    On your insta-feed there's a pic of you actually riding your bike and not posing. Looks natural. Should be more of you drilling it or soft pedaling. That's what riding is, not a fashion shoot.

    Goog any sort of bike-related thing and go to images; all sorts of disembodied bikes. Blech.

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    1. Second the plea for photos of bikes in motion.

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  6. One of my first mountain bike races was in the mid 80s while I was living in Wyoming. It had rained pretty hard the night before. The trails turned into a greasy mud -- locals refer to it as gumbo -- which clung to tires, frames, chains, everything. I was in a pack of riders that powered through an especially boggy area. Suddenly my bike started acting crazy. My chain started jumping wildly and mud was flying everywhere. I kept pedaling hard, but that was the wrong thing to do. The rear derailleur twisted around and was destroyed, as were the cogs. I remember there were three or four riders who shared a similar fate and ended up riding home in the back of a pickup.
    Turns out the mud is bentonite, a kind of clay that comes from volcanic ash that was deposited around the region thousands of years ago in an eruption from Yellowstone. Many areas of Montana and Wyoming are almost impassable in the spring because of gumbo.
    I'd take sand any day.
    MT Cyclist

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  7. "Dirt" is a crazy complicated thing, ask any tire engineer how to quantify different soils and they launch into vocabulary not unlike that of wine aficionados. I got exposed to a little of that a few years ago on a project we worked on at an engineering firm I worked with. I also have a brother in law who's spent his entire professional life with Goodyear, he's got interesting things to say on the subject.

    My own observations are gleaned as much from crashing as anything else. I know quite a bit about how the limestone soils and red clay in central Va. where I live now, differs in taste, smell and difficulty of scrubbing out of abraded skin from the creamy pale ocher Caliche soils of S. Texas where I grew up.
    But hell, even our paved roads in Texas sometimes looked like archeological phenomenon rather than anything that could have come off the back of an asphalt truck. Skinny, wavy little farm roads that appear to be the exposed spines of prehistoric creatures that sensed death and crawled into low spots between hills or against creek banks. Strips of winding grey crocodile skin, cracked and corrugated like the remnant rind of the original planet. It's tough to tell where the dirt stops and the pavement starts. It's country where it would be as likely that we would just drive on fossilized remains as stand out in the sun scratching a road out of the ground.

    From your description it sounds like there's a whole new world of dirt to be crashed on up there. Maybe I ought to pack a first aid kit and come try it.

    Spindizzy

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  8. Being connected and in the moment....two themes I hear over and over amongst a specific group of folks. Bicycling certainly forces/allows one to be just that!

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  9. Good point!

    You're right, of course, and that connection is powerful for the same reason riding in a forest is better for you than riding in a city is. Mountain Bikes by their very nature have taken me on a multitude of trails, and in all kinds of weather, too. Some trails drain well and are hard-packed even when wet, while others turn into quagmire quite quickly!

    Sand drains well, but clay!?? Did it get slimy?
    Those are the kinds of rides where we all used to get home looking like mud monsters from the silly swamps. Still, some of those days were the best rides of all...

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  10. Hopefully without diminishing the poetic and retrospective value of the observation, here's a way to put some specific data to the question:

    Soil type maps from UC Davis
    http://casoilresource.lawr.ucdavis.edu/soilweb_gmap/

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  11. I trust you understand that you just posted on the topic of dirt. More - you made it insightful AND poetic.

    I'm feeling rather humbled at the moment.

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  12. Ha! This post gave me a bit of a chuckle because I live in Denver, where gravel and tailings from the radium mining industry was used as construction fill for laying out many of the early streets. Seriously, if you take a geiger counter you can get radioactive readings on many of our city streets. So I sort of shudder to to think about what's under the streets that I regularly ride on!

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  13. I know exactly how you feel.

    10 years ago I started studying Geology and Environment and it fundamentally changed the way I interact with the local environment wherever I happen to be. Walks, cycles, runs have beome so much more fascinating as I look at and attempt to interpret things around me from soils to rocks in walls and patterns of vegetation. I now feel that I am permanently wearing a pair of time-travelling glasses allowing me to look back thousands and millions of years, seeing ancient oceans, mountains, floodplains and now dried-up river systems.
    Life will never be the same (or as dull) again.

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  14. It is outrageous that we should know so little about one of the things that sustain our lives.

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  15. they could be spraying magnesium chloride on their roads

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  16. A good forensic geologist, or the inimitable Sherlock Holmes, could deduce, from a small sample off of your wheel, where your bike (and presumably you) had been, give or take a few miles. One of my favorite pieces by John McPhee, "The Gravel Page"' was published in the New Yorker some years ago under its Annals of Crime banner. Here's a link to the full article. I guarantee you will find it fascinating:

    http://www.jeffreycreid.com/mcPhee_gravel_page.pdf

    More generally regarding roads and how they got the way they are in this country, I found The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, by Earl Swift, to be illuminating. His writing is not on par with McPhee (a hard feat) but the story is well told. Among other things it dispels the notion that somehow Dwight Eisenhower was personally responsible for the interstate highway system; One of the engineers responsible for the New York State Thruway walked its entire length; dirt roads in many parts of the country became impassable after heavy rains.

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  17. Dirt is mutable as well.

    My recent mini-tour followed paths I have done earlier when not under drought conditions.

    Speeds on the dry hard ground were well above my previous averages.

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  18. Geology will tell you almost everything you would need to know. Checking out the soil surveys would take a little time but would yield interesting information. Having a GIS would be useful for looking at all this.

    It is amazing how variable the soil, geology, and vegetation is across New England.

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  19. One of the beauties of an outdoor activity like biking is how it forces us to be aware of the small changes in the environment. Our calculations of the time taken to complete a trip need to include wind speed and direction, grade, quality of road, and the ever changing weather. It's more than just soil surveys and weather reports,though that data is a start, its using our senses to understand and relish the world around us.

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  20. There are few topics as fascinating as soil and I cannot explain why that is. Forgive me, but I would say that soil is even more fascinating than bicycles. Any thoughts about starting another blog called "Lovely Soil"?

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    1. No need for excuses. Soils are the warp of the tapestry we call landscape. My main motivation for bike riding is to see more of that tapestry.

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  21. Thought you'd might like this report, nothing to do with this post.

    http://www.autoblog.com/2012/10/04/italians-buy-more-bikes-than-cars-for-the-first-time-since-wwii/

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  22. This post reveals a couple things...One, you're still relatively new to cycling and two, you're an academic! :)

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  23. For the record, the dirt in Redlands is... well, red!

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    1. Ha, you want red?

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/7516215@N03/7686020966/in/set-72157630842503748

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    2. I'll see your Red Road and raise you one Red Trail!

      That road reminds me of Hetres BTW.

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  24. I was out riding dirt roads in VT on the day of the Vermont Fall Classic, and conditions were great, even with the rain. Sadly, I was out on a solo ride, but did cross paths with a bunch of folks descending Stage Rd down into Jonesville as I was grinding my way up the hill. I've lived here for over 10 years, and have no clue what our dirt is composed of, but I do know how it breaks in over the summer, how it feels in the rain and how loose it can get after it has been graded. Even though I couldn't make it out for the Fall Classic, I have a sense of why it is taking so long to digest... VT in the fall leaves a lot to think about.

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  25. Geology is a wonderful closet hobby to just dabble in.

    Go borrow from the library (or buy, what the heck I never met a book I liked that I wouldn't buy) ROADSIDE GEOLOGY OF ___ (whatever State you might be interested in).

    They're not intensive reads, good for maybe a week on the bathroom floor . . . oops mebbe that's a man thing. Anyway, they do page-browse read nicely.
    alf

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  26. Ah yes, our roads. They are fantastic aren't they?! That's why we love dirt so much. It is important to remember that they also benefit from grading and 4-6 months of having sand added to them for traction. Also, since so many of our roads are "dirt" they get a fair amount of attention in the form of added stone during the wetter spring months.

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  27. This is all part of my bread and butter (I'm a plant ecologist), but it's always good to see more people awakening to the landscape.

    We take better care of what we notice.

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  28. Nicely expressed, as usual. No wonder Central Park is so popular.

    Separately, which of your trusty steeds do you most favor on roads like these?

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  29. A really common rock in the VT Green Mountains is schist. A lot of it must end up in road base material. Dark or medium silvery green or olive color. When its ground up, it does have a somewhat different gritty but slick feel when you rub it between your fingers, which I suppose is because it is foliated and breaks into little particles are very thin or plate-like. I'm not a geologist but recall this predominance of schists from having spent some time in the Mad River area years ago.

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  30. More dirt than pavement, by mile here in VT.

    Scroll down:
    http://www.aot.state.vt.us/planning/mapgis/mapping_stats.htm

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  31. Soil. It's called soil. Dirt is the stuff you sweep up off the floor or brush off your clothes. :)

    As a Geotechnical Engineer, my job is to basically determine how to build on soil(foundations, pavement, etc.) or with soil (dams, basins, etc.). Since God doesn't build to spec, it tends to be a bit more art than science, relatively speaking, compared to other engineering fields. That is what drew me to this field of work in the first place, though. It probably takes on the order of 20 to 30 years dealing with the stuff, before one has enough experience to be considered an expert. And that is just in one region. It's all local, so a guy who has 30 years in in one area of the country might not have any more knowledge about another area of the country than some newbie fresh out of school. It's all very humbling in the end.

    The NRCS has a nice interactive soil survey mapping website, in case anyone wants to geek out on this.

    http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/

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  32. I wrote a little post for MusclesnotMotors.com about the Brevet and added a link to your photos/blog to it. I hope that is okay. Nice pictures of a really nice ride! !
    http://www.musclesnotmotors.com/blog/view/gravel_grinding_at_its_best_the_fall_classic_brevet_per_tonn

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    1. Nice post and yes, definitely okay. Please include an attribution to this blog underneath the picture.

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