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.