Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gradient or gravel?

Many cyclists, especially those new to the game or returnees after a break get excited or alarmed about slopes or steepness, often regardless of whether these are uphill or down dale. Of course gradient is relevant when planning a tour and sometimes it pays to consider a route in two directions. Steep short climbs followed by long dreamy descents may be much better than riding the route the other way round. However, in our opinion riding surfaces are almost as important, to speed, general comfort and enjoyment. Even the simplest of bikes can cope with very different surfaces, when need be and mountain bikers relish bunny hopping over boulders, however when on tour most of us want to reach our destination safely and in time for a beer before bed. With provision of designated routes for cyclists growing and the costs of laying and maintaining these routes clearly important for local authorities, we’ve put together our experience of different types of surface. Though there is a school of thought that suggests that we cyclists should be grateful to be allowed to exist at all and to ride along the cast off shoulders of roads thanking our lucky stars, we always hope for improvements.
In the best possible world, top of our list comes the high speed metalled surface we’ve encountered along the upper Rhine, where the cycleway is combined with river flood protection work. At the bottom comes loose sand, an unfriendly surface that often tips the rider off as the wheels stop. Our local woods, growing on glacial sand dunes, feature several of these Sahara practice runs though only for short stretches. In between is a whole gamut of broken or decayed metalled surfaces, bouncy runs across tree roots and the various problems associated with Messrs. Gravel, Pebbles & Co. Over the years we’ve ridden touring bikes and Brompton folders across almost everything including freshly blasted rocks, high in the Swiss Alps, especially interesting after rain and long distances on rounded river pebbles newly dredged out of the nearby Scheldt in Belgium. The latter are frustrating and wearing on legs, seat and arms despite shock absorbers or springs and can slow speeds down as much as a headwind. Another horror concerns maintenance when pea gravel or small stones can be dumped on trails to a depth of several centimetres and simply flattened with a grader and lightweight roller. Without warning the cyclist passes from hard old gravel to unconsolidated track, on which headway is very difficult. In wet conditions some of these gravel surfaces become sticky or glue like so the rider’s thighs bulge to achieve a measly 8 km/h. So it was for us along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in the wake of the rains of Hurricane Fran some years ago.
The original Paris-Roubaix race was rightly feared for the hazardous cobble sections, now the organisers have difficulty in finding a few kilometres of motor roads with cobbles to include in the route. However the cyclist on the Flanders bike route may find plenty of these surfaces to relish, including some being re-laid when we were there some years ago. At the top of the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland a sign warns of the danger of riding down the section of cobbled road, designated a National Monument, unless your bike has front shocks. Ours hadn’t but we made it without real problems.
Roads too have many hazards from the much documented grids to cracks and potholes and beyond to kerbs that topple unbalanced riders and even melting tar that dapples with black spots. A new version of this was a thin layer of tar sprayed on roads in Bavaria one summer. It was designed to seal old and new surfaces together and allowed us to leave our tread impressions to be fossilised but resulted in our sticky tyres collecting many small stones, extremely hard to dislodge. Most of the surfaces mentioned are just cause for delay or exasperation but some are dangerous and possibly fatal. We’ve rarely been defeated, thanks to determination and low gearing, and have even made headway over the dirty ice remains of avalanches lingering over remote trails in the Alps until late summer. We thought we’d coped with most vegetation problems, like overgrown hedges where roses and brambles try to pluck bicyclists from their saddles to high grasses from which the rider emerges like a figure in Monet’s paintings, growing out of the trail. However, a farmer along the Leinetal had clearly delighted in arranging his swaths of drying hay directly along an already narrow clay path. Our Bromptons triumphed, as ever, but it was a drag.
A quick glance at the Internet has not revealed any standard surfaces for bike trails in either Europe or North America. A recent wet day on new cycleways along the Danube in Germany suggested that the preferred gravel chip’n mud left much to be desired and most it was left on our gear. Bikes, packs and riders needed hosing off at the end of the day. Is it beyond engineers/road makers to suggest cheap materials that function well in wet and dry conditions, that give reasonable traction and don’t inflict too much damage in a tumble? No doubt other cyclists have their own stories of horror surfaces or perhaps solutions to offer?

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