Friday, May 18, 2007


Given we have a day off today, we have time to share some general musings. Here is one.


I have heard it said that Eskimos have over 100 words for "snow". Snow is such an important part of their environment, and subtle differences in the type of snow has such a significant effect on their day-to-day lives, that those differences warrant different words. It occurs to me that an analogous situation exists for bicyclists regarding the concept of "road".

Subtle differences in the texture, surfacing, and condition of the roadway, which one would never notice when traveling by car, can make huge differences in the comfort, and often in the safety, of your bike ride. Here are some of the examples that we've encountered in our first week, roadway surfaces and conditions which, if we were interested in trying to develop a new dictionary, would qualify for their own separate words.

-Smooth asphalt: generally means a smooth, comfortable ride

-Blacktop: similar to asphalt, but in extreme heat, the tar can begin to liquify and stick to your tires.

-Concrete: Usually smooth when in good condition, but frequently the dividing lines between the concrete blocks cause repetitive bumps as you cross them.

-Composite surfacing: When consisting of small pebbles in the composite, the surface is usually pretty smooth and easy to ride on. Composites of larger stones make rougher surfaces, and cause significant vibrations on the bike and on your body.

-Patched/repaired roadways: These will have different sections that were surfaced at different times, and often make for ridges and bumps when riding from one section to another.

-Roads with potholes or pitted surfaces create their own obvious problems for bikes.

-Dirt roads: We did get a little experience with this a few days ago, on our way to Coffeeville. On some sections of the road, the dirt was tightly packed, and pretty easy to ride on. Other sections had loose dirt or sand which caused our tires to lose traction and stop. Some sections had embedded rock in the dirt, which meant more bumps, but at least stability under the tires.

-Gravel: I'm not talking about gravel roads here, but rather paved roads that have occasional pools of gravel on the roadway. This is a real potential hazard, as the gravel can make the bike slide out of control. We continually look for gravel and give it a wide berth when we can.

-Debris in the roadway: rocks, wood debris (the logging industry is huge here, and the volume of lumber trucks on the roads is incredible. Some roads have wood chips, bark, twigs and sticks everywhere on them.) Broken glass presents another obvious issue for the bike tires.

-Railroad track crossings: Besides causing bumps for bikes riding over them, railroad tracks can present a hazard if they cross the road at such an angle that the bike tire could run nearly parallel to the tracks. Then the tire could get caught in the ruts along the rails and cause an accident. We always try to adjust the direction of our approach to train tracks so that we hit them as close to perpendicular to the rail as possible.

Road shoulders carry their own variations of conditions, and because we try to ride in the shoulder where possible, this has a lot of relevance for us as well.

-The best shoulders are those that are simply extensions of the smooth roadway, separated only by the painted white line. The wider the better!

-Often, the shoulder is made of lesser quality materials, e.g., coarser composite, compared to the roadway, and offer rougher riding. Then, we ride the road when it is clear and move into the shoulder when a vehicle approaches from the rear.

-On most large state roads in Alabama, shoulders consist of rumble strips -- diagonal grooves in the pavement designed to awaken a driver whose car has drifted off the roadway and onto the shoulder. Great idea, but really bad for bike riding. Again, we ride the road when we can, but there were some very busy highways where we just had to put up with the bone-jarring ride on the rumble strips in the shoulder.

-We have learned to expect more debris in the shoulders, especially the concrete shoulders on bridges. I should also note that when crossing a bridge, mounted up on the bike, the bridge railings often look precariously low. We try to not ride too close to those railings, not ride too close to the traffic, and still avoid any debris or broken glass.

So, as Eskimos apparently do with snow, we find ourselves continually assessing and evaluating the road under our bikes. Those road conditions, along with the traffic conditions around us, determine our second by second decisions as to where to ride, how fast, when to stop, etc. Seems like a lot to think about, and it is, but we are finding it is beginning to come second nature to us now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story! Anyone that has ever done any "real" cycling knows exactly what you are talking about. I would have to say that the "low bridge railings" and the "blacktop" are by far the hardest for me to handle!