Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Feel of the Road

Chipseal, Northern Ireland
I never gave much thought to the feel of pavement until I started cycling in Ireland last spring. Then I noticed the difference straight away: The tarmac, as they call it in the British Isles, felt distinctly softer than the asphalt in my part of the US. Having lived for years in the UK before I was a cyclist, I'd somehow never noticed this. But on a bike it was difficult not to. I could feel a give in the road's surface under my tires. It was also more porous, gravely in texture. Feeling more resistance than I'd come to expect from pavement, I kept wondering whether my tires had gone flat, or whether something was mechanically amiss with the folding bike I was riding. Later I learned that the roads in Ireland are a kind of chipseal. The differences I sensed were real. 

Being back this summer, and with a skinny-tire roadbike this time, the characteristics of the Irish roads feel even more pronounced. The softness and the rough texture make me exert more effort to achieve the same speed as in the US. I would place the experience as somewhere between riding on pavement and riding on tightly packed gravel. 

When the tarmac is freshly laid or repaired, the top layer can be quite loose. It also loosens easily after stretches of bad weather. Cornering on such sections without realising what you're dealing with can be dangerous. 

There are other interesting effects. Once I did a long distance ride in a 75°F "heatwave." On the return leg around 4pm, I noticed that the road in front of me was glistening, getting shinier and more liquid-looking by the minute - almost as if it were melting. I thought to myself "Nah, can't be. I must be tired and imagining things." Next things I know, viscous clumps of tar were sticking to my tires and clogging my brakes. I had to pull over and scrape the gooey black chunks off, then use a stick to knock the hardened clumps out of the brake calipers. Then I sat in the shade and waited for an hour, until the road cooled off enough to continue home. To my relief, the following day everyone was talking about the melting tarmac, so at least I did not hallucinate the surreal experience. I guess the tarmac here is not rated to withstand such boiling temperatures!

If you're riding a harsh-feeling bike on Irish roads, you'll know it. The rough texture exaggerates the jarring sensations of road buzz. When I tried a friend's racing bike, my hands were vibrating so much I could not believe it. "Oh it's like riding on razor blades, to be sure," he laughed. I stroked my own bike with renewed appreciation. 

Once I do get used to the roads here, the roads in the US feel unnaturally hard and smooth in comparison, and readjusting to them takes some time as well. As for the New England potholes... well, that is a topic that deserves its own post, possibly in poem form.

32 comments:

  1. Must be made lain with chip lard.

    Flats!

    For yet a smoother ride ditch the Ksyriums.

    Smooth, hard and hot -that's the way we like it as the original First World car society.

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    1. Second Jim's suggestion to let go of Ksyriums. Scratch-built low profile silver rims will match the Irish landscape. Billboarding is not needed.
      So few people ride flat rims except for city bikes w/heavy duty tires that the resilient feel of a good light wheel has been forgotten. Sadly the very light rims cannot even be laced to 130mm hubs.

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    2. 4 flats this summer in NI, then finally tore the rear tire (Grand Bois). Replaced with something belted, so far so good/ fingers crossed.

      Funny enough all the experienced roadies here ride Ksyriums.

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    3. They hardly wind up and accelerate fast.

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    4. Everybody everywhere rides Ksyriums. They are an enormous marketing phenomenon. No sales resistance at all. They're also overweight and glitchy and incredibly overpriced. And the aesthetic is just off.

      The subject was road feel. Just as the heavy wheels do not accelerate as readily, the heavier wheel transmits more shock.Heavy wheels are a bigger hammer and a harder hammer. As a quick and modern example White T11 hubs at 24/20, Pacenti SL23 rims, and Wheelsmith XL spokes will build up lighter than Ksyrium SL and at full retail the pieces are about $600. The Pacenti wheels will outperform the Mavic in every way. Except they are hard to sell, and maybe not so good for Clydesdales. Really hard to sell. For maximum smooth riding the lighter PL23 rims would be even better. The downside there would be they are not aero for those who genuinely spend much time above 25mph, and not racy looking for those who pretend they are fast.

      For really light wheels it's all your money for carbon or it's vintage. Vintage smooth makes all roads perfectly paved.

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  2. Bicyclists are simply sensitized to so much more than those drivers. Every aspect of the bike, the weather/wind, the terrain, and the kind of fuel we use .... all cool :)

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  3. Chip seal is actually common in the US, just not around the Boston/greater MA region, it seems, so I wouldn't describe "US" roads in such general terms as you mention at the end of your post.

    In upstate NY, on county and secondary town roads, chip seal is actually far more common than asphalt, and in fact the road my house is on is chip seal (also known as "tar and gravel"). The ratio of gravel to oil has a lot to do with how it feels, how it holds up over time, and how it turns "oily" when the temps rise. These ratios vary depending on location and type of aggregate used.

    On new chip seal it is common for the freshly laid gravel to remain loose for months until traffic has embedded the gravel into the oil layer beneath it. And during heat waves, it's normal for the oil to seep to the top and even transfer onto the tires.

    And the rolling resistance is definitely noticeable!

    Yep, what you're describing sounds just like the back roads of NYS.

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    1. I was thinking the same thing. On the West Coast and in the Mountain States, chip seals are very common. You do see them more in suburban or rural settings, but here in Seattle, they exist in the city on low traffic residential streets.

      Cyclists need to be very careful with a newly laid chip seal, as loose rock lies on top for the first few days to first few weeks - depending on how much traffic the road gets. After a chip seal looses the loose rock and takes a "set", I actually prefer them for cycling, as they have good grip and are not as smooth and polished as some asphalt or concrete roads.

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    2. Is this similar to macadam? I remember such roads in western Massachusetts 30-35 years ago. Oil-ish glue with some stones as surface.

      BTW I saw you commuting a couple of weeks ago. You have to be one of the most polite and careful riders in the Boston area.

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    3. NEB, are you referring to LB or me? (If me, thanks for the compliment :)).

      Where was this?

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    4. Yes, chip seals and what many refer to as macadam are the same thing. Basically, you lay down and compact some gravel, spray some asphalt on it and then spread gravel over the top. The gravel embeds into the fresh asphalt. Named after John Macadam, a Scotsman.

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    5. Somervillain - you as you already know. It was great meeting you and seeing your new bike at the D2R2 lunch.

      I'm sure LB is also a polite and careful rider in dense urban settings.

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  4. We call it oil dirt here in Minnesota. It's basically rocks with a tar substance to connect them together, the last time I can remember it being use here was in the mid 1960's

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    1. Chip seal still pops up every now and again in SW MN (and the nearby corners of SD and IA) Usually turns up when a county gets too low on money to do a full resurface. Depending on what kind of rock is available, we can end up with pink roads.

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  5. British roads can vary tremendously in character - some are smooth as mirrors, some as rough as fixed gravel and unless you are riding a long stretch of major 'A' road, the riding experience will usually include both extremes and everything in between.
    Near me, the cheapest 'repair/re-surface' technique is a layer of liquid tar with fine chippings spread in excess over that. Vehicle wheels wear it in and the loose excess is driven to the kerb side - where most cycle wheels spend their time.
    If the tar layer doesn't reach the kerb the resulting area between kerbstone and where the new chippings have ended results in a violently bumpy/uneven couple of feet to ride on.
    The proper, most expensive re-surface method has the top couple of inches of ruined 'felt ground off, then a completely new layer of smooth 'felt laid on top: pure bliss if it happens near you but as it IS expensive for local council budgets to bear, its occurence is rare AND is unfortunately only found in relatively small patches of maybe half a mile at a time.
    On a regular Sunday ride I used to do, over 40-45 miles on one particular road, I could experience riding with a big smile on my face or with tears welling up within a couple of miles of riding...
    I have taken account of what some roads I've ridden on actually felt like as a driver and it's chalk and cheese sometimes: a mirror-like surface remains smooth to both users but the nasty, 'fixed-gravel' rough near-kerb surface hated by cyclists is irrelevant to a driver. Riding slightly 'around' a known hated rough section can put you into the path of a non-aware driver.
    I envy those who can ride for miles on CONSISTENTLY decent stretches of road, but that are NOT main trunk roads with heavy traffic.
    I have a road bike running on 23 (or 25) section tyres but with carbon forks and seatpost, and thick bar tape. I actually enjoy a long ride more on a 'cross-framed single speed machine that has 42 section tyres and almost unpadded bars. If the racing-spec frame of the road bike could take broader tyres, I'd fit them.

    I'm not going into potholes....

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  6. many of our off-street paths are chipseal. their other downside is that they deteriorate more quickly.

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  7. While in Ireland you might see if your friend Chris 531 could arrange for you to have a ride on wood rims and also a ride on light alloy sprint rims shod with silk tires. These things won't fit on your Seven but you will find that the feel of the wood or the weightless sprints overwhelms all else.

    A bit of minutiae here but we cyclists do that. Road feel starts with the road and is transferred to the tires. Then to the rims, the basket of spokes, the hubs, the frame, and finally seatpost/saddle and stem/'bars/tape. The closer the component is to the road the more small differences impact the whole system. Which is why we are all so fanatic about tires. Tires are a large part of the entire riding experience.

    AFAIK you are still on the Cerfs, which are so good I can't fault them in any way. Different tires are different. The tire that is nonpareil in Boston might not be your top choice in Ireland. I can't choose a tire for you but I will suggest you try a few. Something could click.

    Pretty much all current system wheels are cartwheels. Some carbon rims have shock dissipation qualities and that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish. Daily ride system wheels are cartwheels. The final ride the bike ends up with is all in the tires and in the frame. Once we could tune ride characteristics by choosing rims, by choosing spoke tension, choosing spoke gauge, choosing hub flange size, even by choosing spoke cross pattern. All that stuff mattered. Most who rode nice bikes built their own wheels and maintained their own wheels and we tinkered until it felt just right.

    The system wheels are not all bad. They are way stronger and more dependable than the old style. Reliable wheels is one reason the sport has grown so much and a big reason it was once small. But they are not so versatile. More reason than ever to fuss over the tires and to experiment with tire pressure, tubes, talc, tubeless and any other variable you can find. As a lightweight rider you would have better luck than most with tubulars and you want to try that someday. Road bikes used to race gravel and cobbles routinely. Paris-Roubaix VTT is a grueling event on full-suspension and fatties yet it is still done on sprints. There are a lot of small adjustment to the machines and a big adjustment in mental perspective and there's a way to get it done on a bike. In comfort and style.

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    1. Removed the GB Cerfs last week after too many punctures (only here - never in the US) and finally a torn rear tire. Trying some Clement Strada LGGs.

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    2. When the GB tires are worn out they just give up entirely all at once. LGG sounds interesting

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  8. Yep...Today, alone, I rode over a freshly chipsealed road, concrete pavement, crushed gravel, and hard dried clay soil, though most of the day was on asphalt. I'm tired!!

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  9. We called it tar and chip in Ohio, and the stuff I grew up on was more tar than chip -- which when cold was reasonably smooth, but in the summer seriously necessitated fenders if you didn't want to occasionally get a skunk stripe OF TAR. Sometimes it seemed like they fixed holes by just sort of letting the road melt into them. It would actually kick the gravel out into loose gravel, so cornering required paying attention.

    The roads potholed just as fast as MA, but there wasn't the kind of frost-heaving, probably because of what kind of soil/rock/clay was under the roads. And the roads were so heavily salted in winter that one had to worry about it on a bike, but there was no sand to deal with in the spring.

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    1. They still have those in the rural parts of Union and Delaware counties!
      I was riding near my family's place just north of Columbus during the heatwave they were experiencing earlier this summer, and I could hear my tires popping little bubbles in the road surface on the chipseal/tar and chip roads.

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  10. Chipseal- welcome to Texas.

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  11. In my part of the country, Montana, highway workers grind off the top couple inches of pavement then lay down a new smooth layer of pavement on top. That is usually topped by a layer of chip seal. The leftover millings are combined with chemicals that bind together the millings and the asphalt binders. That mixture is laid down on unpaved country roads, creating a surface that's nearly as good as new pavement. Not quite as durable, but a vast improvement over rutted gravel.

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  12. You are all correct, parts of the US use chipseal and I've altered the text to clarify that I meant the region of the US I'm familiar with.

    But, if I am not mistaken, statistically chipseal in the UK and Ireland is more ubiquitous. They will use it on main roads, not just back roads.

    I've actually ridden on a couple of chipseal roads even in Massachusetts, not far from Boston. But they were very tiny rural backroads.

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  13. Come to Donegal and if you are lucky you might find some strips of tar between the potholes.

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    1. Promises promises! I will be there this weekend.

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  14. You haven't truly experienced the joys of british roads until you've had to walk the bike several miles along a newly surfaced road due to the sticky stone chipping sticking to the tyres. Sorry to hear of your difficulties when you were over here. It's notable that around my local area where a lot of road repair work has been going on this summer in advance of the TDF next year quite a few stetches have been done with proper ashphalt, so proper resurfacing rather than the usual crappy surface dressing (chippings rolled into bitumen) we normally get so perhaps some of those Ulster roads you experienced may benefit from the Giro visiting there in the same way.

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  15. I moved from California to Thames Valley in the UK about 8 weeks ago. The bike I brought was a road bike with 27mm tires. I ride to work 14 miles each way mostly on "B" Road of the three digit type as well as four digit country lanes. I too expererienced molten roads a few times. Now I have my commuter bike that came in our big container by boat. 1.25 inch tires with Kevelar. At times it is a push but so much better for holding a straight line in trafic. Also vastly superior brakes to my '64 Road bike with steel rims !

    All in all, a joy to ride to work. Lights are ready for winter.

    Mike in Little Haseley

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  16. In my N. Florida area there is more gravel in the road surface than you see further north. You can tell when you are on those roads in a car as the car will sound different. I do not use maximum air pressure in my bike tires - generally 10 pounds below max. I prefer 25c or wider tires and use gloves with more padding to soften road vibration. That seems to help.

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  17. Nothing worse to ride on than a freshly chip sealed road... Once I discover one on my usual rides, that particular is removed from use until it's back up to "form" and rolling fast(ish) again

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  18. Hey there Groovester,

    can't believe you were in Ireland during the tail end of the summer and no talks/ exhibitions/ led tours or whatever. What's the story?
    Just for the record, us folk here balk at being described as part of the British Isles- we're a separate country- you know. (I'm sure it was just a typo). Annyways, next time, please organise a talk or show or something.

    Cheers,

    Simon

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