Thursday, March 7, 2013

What Maps Don't Say About Roads

Processing some pictures from my Northern Ireland trip last year, I remember how different the roads there are from the roads around here. I do not mean just the landscape, but features of the roads themselves. The patterns they follow, the ways in which they wind, the presence or absence of shoulders, even the texture of the asphalt/ tarmac and its feel under a bicycle's tires. Before I headed over to Ireland, I used maps to plan out my routes and was pretty sure I knew what to expect. But the types of roads I encountered had not been in my experiential vocabulary. The maps could not prepare me for the feel of them.

Is it a stretch to compare roads to types of music? The rhythm of the elevation changes in Northern Ireland is jazz-like, whereas here in New England USA it feels more like classical music. How can you describe jazz to someone who is only familiar with classical? They would have to hear it for themselves.

This is more than about topography. Do roads have style? Can a road be elegant, sophisticated, nuanced? Or perhaps it's a matter of physical presence, of chemistry and rapport between road and rider. Cycling on a road about which you've read on the internet can feel like meeting a person and finding them different from their online profile.

With new roads there will always be an element of surprise, a recalibration of the senses. There are things that maps don't tell us, no matter how good we may be at reading them.

35 comments:

  1. I love the roads on US federal lands (like national parks). They have a certain feel and fluidity. Their cambers are always consistent which is important when motorcycling sportingly.

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  2. Nice post... I love the musical allegory.
    Everything seems more circular over there, somehow. Not sure how they do it, but in England, every road leads to London!

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    1. It's true, basically it's because most of the roads in the UK are based on ancient tracks, roman roads and pathways. London is a major hub, but the same can be found with other ancient cities like Canterbury, Winchester. The old Roman roads are easy to spot because they're generally dead straight, where as more modern ones twist about more to link up major towns. The most modern roads are seldom straight as they have to deal with planning laws and local opposition.

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    2. Dennis:

      Is it fair to say then the Romans are to blame for some of those flaming straight steep climbs in the Lake District where a switch back or two might have been fun?

      Arguably one of the most beautiful areas in the world to cycle, but boy, some of those roads were a lot of work. I can imagine some Roman engineer laughing at us wimpy moderns.

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    3. Thank you both for this mornings Python moment. "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

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    4. I think you'll find all roads lead OUT of London!

      http:/gosforth.cc

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  3. What a beautiful road! Where is this?

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    1. somewhere between Ballycastle and Larne on the Antrim coast, possibly Carnough; very beautiful!

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  4. Great photo of the Black Arch between Larne and Ballygally. Brings back memories of cycling through this most Sundays during the winter, on club runs, many years back. It was much safer during the winter as much less traffic and hassle from drivers in their cars.

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    1. Black Arch, that's right - thank you!

      There was surprisingly little traffic on this road in May last year; I mostly had it to myself.

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  5. I'd love to experience the roads in another country, especially Ireland. Some people pedal with iPods and I wonder if that influences how they relate to a certain road. I've both motorcycled across the country and pedaled across the country and certainly found that the various conditions and surfaces were more on the unexpected side which was part of the beauty. Expectations have a way of robbing one of the moment. Of course roads are only a small part of the experiential/musical composition. Depends on the instrument, the acoustics, the mood, and on and on....But yeah, I'm glad maps don't tell us what to expect.

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  6. Climate plays a big part in the surface of roads. Tarmac is in a constant state of fluidity, it never actually sets like concrete. In a warm climate roads are more easily smoothed and rutted by the action of traffic using them. In cold climates they're more likely to crack and become pot holed where water can seep into the cracks and freeze.

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  7. Oh yes.

    And while it is improving, even the best on line maps sometimes proves to be a Fantasia in real life.

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  8. How lovely to see this, I didn't think you made it to Larne! Did you cycle all the way or take the bus to Cushendun?

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    1. I cycled from Ballycastle to Cushendun via Cushendall (not Torr!) road. Even that was pretty tough on the Brompton, but okay. I took a break in Cushendun, then rode straight to Carnlough and went wandering around to the waterfalls. By the time I left and arrived in Larne it was getting dark, and I took the bus back to Ballycastle. 40 miles (not counting waterfall tour), mostly flat except for the Ballycastle to Cushendun stretch. Beautiful.

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  9. Roads in the Northern Plains, where I am from, were laid out in mile square blocks for agriculture purposes. With very little interference from topography, it runs almost uninterrupted for hundreds of miles. If these roads were music, it'd be very rhythmically strict Puritan hymn.

    The upshot of this is that about 9 of every 10 miles are quiet gravel roads. There more consideration is given to following the contours of the land, and you can be surprised even when you can see for miles.

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  10. Um, I think you have very narrow definitions of what jazz and classical music are.

    As to the title, well yeah. Famous Left Coast Google Map mishaps come to mind.

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    1. , even the texture of the asphalt/ tarmac and its feel under a bicycle's tires"

      Awhile back you said you wanted to know the soil compositions of the what you were riding on. What came of that? It's more interesting to go, "this stuff is binding, clay, leads me to feel this, but i work with it, it improves the way I ride, my confidence, my ability to handle adverse conditions on the bike and off, whereas gravelly roads make me want to puke blah blah..."

      Than to say, "a line on a piece of paper is not life." I mean it's just super general.

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  11. How is the rhythm jazz like in Northern Ireland? What kind of jazz? How is it classical in New England? What composers compare?

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  12. If roads in New England are classical, I assume those in Boston itself are specific to George Antheil?

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  13. That would make the mountain roads in Washington State Wagnerian...

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  14. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

    What really throws the classical listeners is the improvisation. Similarly there are riders who can't pedal a stroke without swinging and jamming and blowing cool blue like true gone daddies. The riders who only pedal the notes miss out.

    Cole Porter and Lionel Hampton for the climbs. Sun Ra and Jaco for the flats.

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  15. Depending on what kind of map you have, they can tell you plenty. Hills (links to a post on hills and speed, with map links) are easy to see, even on highway maps if the map shows you the streams. The character of the land and roads is something you need to discover and then you get a better sense of what the maps might mean. Riding in the desert is very different from riding in New England. Being from New England, the roads here are comforting and familiar. Classical? I guess you need to listen to enough classical music to get that reference. But they are in class that is different from the desert, the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest and for reasons not having to do with the terrain. One of the prominent differences between the American west and New England, aside from the vegetation and topographic differences, is the presence and absence of guardrails. In the west, you are on your own. For emphasis, check out this section of the Million Dollar Highway. No guardrails. You get off the road, you tumble. There are much bigger drop offs if you drive that highway and not a guardrail in sight.

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    1. Satellite function on map programs can help - at least in those areas where the satellite picture shows a lot of detail.

      Couple years ago an acquaintance cycling around Lake Michigan called seeking the best way around a dead end google maps on his Iphone had run him into on the Southeast side of Chicago.

      Google maps showed the road he was on going over a rail yard. On my lap top the Google hybrid map/satellite function showed the outline of the road going through the rail yard, but the satellite image clearly showed (as he was well able to confirm) that the road terminated at a large jumble of train tracks.

      With my faster cable connection I was able to help him come up with a viable route up to the southern end of Chicago's lake front trail.

      I (and apparently a few others, as I have since read about this problem on local cycling forums) notified Google of the error and it is now corrected.

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  16. Oops! Apparently there are now lots of guardrails down low these days. I guess everyone is getting soft. This is a better illustration.

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  17. And then there's road signs. In America, it's rock and roll with a little noir: soft shoulders, dangerous curves ahead, etc. Jim Duncan

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  18. May the road rise up to greet you , the Irish do have a sentimental side ! And may you be forever young !

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  19. This post reminds me of two things I've heard/read in the past:

    1) A This American Life episode about maps, that started off saying making a map is a process of cutting out information.

    2) A David Foster Wallace quote that writing non-fiction comes from a place full of noise.

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  20. I love your musical analogies.

    I'd say that New York City streets are like John Cage compositions. French Departmental routes, on the other hand, are like fugues. In particular, one I from Toulouse to Pau felt like the fugue that ended Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique."

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  21. It's funny....almost every ride I set out on starts off in my head like one of Satie's "Trois Gymnopedies", but always ends up more like Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" by the halfway point.

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    1. Satie and Bach probably play in my head the most in New England.

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  22. This post and something I heard on NPR got me thinking about my favorite routes in terms of Major and Minor keys.

    Without going into too much detail about the stuff that spins around in my head, sometimes my favorite routes are bright, friendly Major key kinda' places and the soundtrack reflects that. But, let the sky darken, the wind pick up and the clouds start tumbling over themselves and I find myself feeling and hearing the spaces described by my favorite ancient music. Any ride that brings something like Allegri's Miserere to mind is going to stand out for a while and make me feel like I squeezed a bit more than usual out of that particular day. I'm not going to be here forever and I want to feel more of that before I'm gone.

    I love those minor key rides.

    Spindizzy

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  23. This is actually the Red Arch between Waterfoot and Cushendall. Just for the record....

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    1. Oh right, there were two of them I remember now. The Black was further down.

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  24. "There are things that maps don't tell us..." That's what Google Street View is for. While reading (your suggestion) Malachi O'Doherty's adventures on Irish roads, I explored those same roads on Street View. Just as fascinating and unlike what most of us are familiar with as you say.

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