Friday, September 10, 2010

That's rough


"Could be worse. Could be raining," Igor says in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, just before it starts to rain.

We Midwestern cyclists could have a similar Pollyanna refrain: "Could be worse. Could be chip-sealed."

Chip-seal is a pavement-maintenance material and technique that, to my untrained sensibilities, works like mopping your floor with mud. Yeah, I don't get it, either. What they do - again, I'm not a highway engineer, but if I get a few details wrong, trust me, I've got the feel for it - is take gravel about the size of ball bearings only with sharper edges, mix it with a little bit of tar, and then apply it to a paved road. There's little enough tar in it so that it can be scattered, rather than poured, all over the road. And there's enough tar in it so that the heat of the sun and the weight of car tires eventually mush it down until it hardens into an additional layer of pavement. More specifically, an additional layer that follows the same beat-up contours of the old surface, but with a new texture that turns the road into one long Magic Fingers mattress, no quarters needed.

From a cyclist's standpoint, there's just enough tar in the mixture to give the stones free rein to fulfill their ball-bearing destiny while sticking to your tires so that if the lack of friction doesn't dump you, there's always the chance of a flat tire. The closest thing to an upside is that you're not terribly to crash, because you know what that gravel will feel like embedded in your hip, so you ride with all the carefree nature of a bomb-squad detective with a cluster migraine.

This weekend is the Rev3 Sandusky, a 140.6-mile triathlon (what is generically known as the full Ironman distance, except that the Ironman folks who own the trademark are not too thrilled with the idea of something that valuable becoming generic) in Ohio. I was toying with the idea of racing it when I was planning this season out, but I couldn't do both that and the exquisitely accurately named Savageman* in western Maryland a week later. I decided on the latter and I don't regret it.

I will regret it at some point, as will anyone who's trying hard enough on what Triathlete magazine deemed the toughest triathlon course in the world. And that's when I will remind myself what I heard from my bike mechanic earlier today: The road commission down there reportedly chip-sealed the Cedar Point course this week.

My heart goes out to the racers, and just as much to the organizers.

At least it's not supposed to rain. That would be worse.
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* Do click on this link if you've got time to kill; it is, in my opinion, the most appealing, well-done Web page in the triathlon world

12 comments:

schafeman said...

Around here (central IN) they actually spray the tar, then spread the gravel. One afternoon I turned a blind corner and got 20 feet into the fresh tar and gravel before I could stop (I could still see the truck at the other end of the road!). It took me a half hour to get my wheels clean enough ride home, and another three hours of scraping and cleaning my bike with mineral seal once I got home...

Jim Smith II said...

Chip-seal is EVIL! I'm convinced that it was thought up by non-cyclist as a form of torture for those that ride. It's not just the lack of purchase and the chance of falling, is the bone rattling ride that it provides as well. Like I said, evil...

Bonnie said...

Jef, will you be doing any book signings while you're in MD this time, or is this trip purely triathleting (surely not a proper verb, but not sure how else to put it!)?

Jef Mallett said...

Good news, Bonnie! The Savageman people have ordered plenty of books, and I'll be happy to sign them between races. Better yet, I'm bringing several Savageman-themed Frazz originals for them to auction off for the Melanoma Foundation. And of course I'll sign those, too. I'll probably draw a couple of pictures at the dinner (I'll be speaking at that) for them to auction off, too. So, yeah, I'll be doing a lot more than just triathleting -- and I'm looking forward to it!

Helen said...

Wow. I thought the Breakwater bike course was tough, but that looks brutal! And your description of chip sealing is very accurate. The "rain" in this area is that the Ann Arbor "newspaper" published an article about a cyclist's complaints that caused all the anonymous anti-bike folk to engage in a week-long bike hatefest in the comments section.

Luckily, my tri season is over for the year anyway because this is tomorrow: http://danceswithdirt.com/. It seems like the type of thing Frazz would enjoy.

justfivegrins said...

I live in an area where they chip seal the roads & dread it every time the county crew freshly applies a new top coat (usually mid-summer). I will admit that 1 positive upside is that it's actually preferable to ride/race in the rain (especially cold rain) as the water has somewhere to drain rather than spray up from the competitor in front of you or from your own tires (assuming you race sans fenders). This compared with a slick road (asphalt or concrete) that will get you much more wet (& colder) much more quickly.

Jef Mallett said...

Helen, I'm a little envious of your Dances With Dirt weekend! (Frazz has been known to show up to work in a DwD t-shirt, but I've not yet raced it myself. Yet.) And yeah, the anonymous hatefests in the "paper" are discouraging. As are the rare but noticeable riders who give them whatever ammo they have. The road's too dangerous a place for that kind of anger. Hopefully they get it out of their system in the comments, but I always rided like I have my doubts.

Jef Mallett said...

You know, the roostertail aspect of smooth vs. rough pavement never occurred to me, but in retrospect, yeah! (Even "duh.") A bright side after all!

Noel said...

We did a metric years a go in late spring where almost all the roads had been chipped just weeks before. The tire tracks were smooth and rideable, but the edge of the road and shoulders were like sandboxes in spots where the chips had been worked to the sides. The most amazing part was the sunburned calves a redheaded friend of mine got from the sun bouncing off the white chips.

RickO said...

I call this "bubble gum pavement" as you wheels seem to stick to it. I don't think they really do but once the pavement changes back to "normal" you will pick up 5 - 15% more speed- and easy 1 mph at 20 mph.

I have recently begun to wonder what this does to fuel economy on real cars. There has to be a similar effect. If this is in fact the case, there is a VERY strong case to discontinue the practice. Maybe the terrorists are behind it all. Or the oil companies.... Take you pick.

Strangely, roads used to "recover" from the chip sealing and in a year or so, there was no bubble gum effect. The speed was the same as it was before it was sealed. There is some new (and improved???) formula that cannot truly be better. But you can bet it is cheaper and it's much more important to preserve a bureaucrat's job than properly execute said job.

Steve Magas said...

"Chip seal" is also the blog of Reed Bates, a cycling advocate in Texas who has been arrested, jailed, prosecuted and found guilty for "taking the lane," a practice the judge described as "reckless" to get him convicted...
http://chipsea.blogspot.com/

Steve Magas
The Bike Lawyer

Boise Ed said...

Here in Boise, they do it right. First they scrape the street, to get most of the old layer off. Days later (with a really rough surface exposed for that time), they do the asphalt and gravel. They use enough asphalt that the end result is quite smooth. They rotate the city through 12 or 14 areas, so it'll be about another decade before our neighborhood gets it again.

And Jef, maybe you should come to Boise for the Race to Robie Creek (see www.robiecreek.com and www.halfmarathons.net/usa_half_marathons_idaho_race_to_robie_creek_ half_marathon.html).