Look at the two road coverings below, both have appeared on my local lanes over the previous weeks and both applied by the same council. The one on the left is a pure pleasure to ride, as smooth as silk and as fast as lightning, were as the one on the right, a hideous, dangerous, gravel track suitable for nothing but agricultural machinery.
Let’s consider the one on the right first, and yes you’ve guessed it, it’s the dreaded, the despicable, the unbearable, ‘chip and seal’. Summer is the season when cash strapped councils take it upon themselves to seemingly randomly dump tonnes of gravel on your favourite country lanes rendering them useless and more importantly freaking dangerous for cycling. We’ve all experienced it, instead of fixing holes or laying a nice new topping the common practice is to simply spread a thin layer of tar the width of the road then chuck a load of stones on it, stick up a warning sign, then p*ss off to let traffic bed them in. Why? Because it’s cheap, because it’s easy, and again, because it’s cheap (at just 20% the price of a proper job). Logic, if you can call it that, says this new ‘temporary’ but hard wearing surface will last up to five years, at which point it will be in such a state of distress the council will be forced to do the proper job. Which genius thought of that? Why not just do the proper job in the first place and save yourself both time and money and save cyclists, and for that matter all road users from this unnecessary hell.
An aside from the danger of being hit by flying gravel, or coming off on a pile of loose stones, the roads are just rendered slow, so terribly slow. We all like riding our bike fast, we all like a nice smooth road, that is a given, but this abomination of an excuse for a road surface robs us of that, takes away our joy, ruins our average speed and of course our chance to grab precious KOMs. It’s just so unbelievably mind numbingly frustrating, I know the practicalities, I know the reasons and I know I am powerless to stop it which just makes it worse.
As soon as you start see the dreaded 20mph signs you know trouble’s ahead and if you’re unlucky enough to arrive at a freshly laid stretch then your progress will be all but totally impeded. With the gutter filled with a mound of loose stones you have no option to ride wide into the carriageway sometimes as far as the crown just to find a clean line, and of course this is not popular with other vehicles. Forget training, your primary concern is now to not get mown down from behind and to nurse your nice tyres across a surface they simply weren’t designed to negotiate. Could the council not sweep up the excess? Could they not roller them in a little more? No, it’s cheaper to just run away and let traffic do the work over the coming weeks and months creating miles of ‘no-go’ zones where you usually ride. To say it’s frustrating is an understatement of gigantic proportions. Road after road after road are destroyed until the inevitable thankfully happens which brings us to the surface on the left.
A few years ago this road was in a terrible state, there were a few smooth patches and rough patches then the inevitable happened, it was treated to the chip and seal. Instantly it was arduous to ascend and perilous to descend then over the years it began to further deteriorate until its condition worse then ever. Only then does the council give in and realise that a proper job must be done. Over night a beautiful, wonderful black layer of tarmac arrived, rolled out like a fresh carpet and it was and still is maybe the smoothest road in Essex. Joy we all cry, of course, and relief, but, this new topping does come with a drawback, and conversely I think I may have found the single positive that can be taken from the awful chip and seal.
I hold* a KOM on both of the roads featured, both of which required an eyeballs out, tasting blood, shredding the legs effort to acquire I might add. One of them is in great peril and one of them is safe. Let me explain. The new surface on the left now runs so fast that it’s worth seconds over what it replaced, leaving the KOM I have on there out there for the taking. It lies naked, fragile, exposed and with a good tailwind, a strong rider will be able to knock it off with ease as the smooth tarmac is worth at least 1kph if not more. I have no need to return until this happens but every time I log into Strava I expect the worse. I nervously click the notifications tab, just waiting for the U-oh. On the chip and sealed road, well, that’s a different scenario. The KOM I held there now lies buried, sealed in a catacomb of coarse stones, locked away from smooth tyres and carbon wheels and tailwinds. Such is the abrasive and jarring nature of this diabolical topping that to counteract it would take a herculean effort, or a rider with true class to take any KOM.
Almost as I wrote this said KOM, on the said newly laid surface has been taken, lost to local hitter and all round class rider Isaac Mundy. No shame to loose it to someone with such ability, but of course losing any KOM hurts, and what will hurt even more is heading out to try and get it back, but maybe that new surface, together with a favorable wind means I can.