The road you ride on

Road cycling. We think about cycling all the time but when was the last time you ever considered the road? It is just there. Perhaps you know where the rough sections appear on your riding routes, but what makes one road smooth and another rough? What makes a road?

The earliest roads were forest trails. Visit woodland today anywhere in the world and you’ll find trails worn by animals, whether a fox in Europe or an elephant in Africa. Their weight firmed the ground underneath preventing new plants from growing, and their passage pushed foliage aside, thus clearing a route. In time humans started using these paths and began to clear the way, breaking branches and pushing away stones. The wheel was invented and greater loads needed better trails; roll through history and various civilisations began to use paving, marking the move from simple paths created by common passage to routes that were planned and engineered: the road was born.

From 4,000 BC some civilisations were beginning to pave routes and others were using logs for Corduroy. These were the first roads. 2,000 years later a road in Crete was formed with different layers of material and finished with flagstones and drainage ditches. Another 2,000 years and the Romans were building a layer of crushed stone for drainage over which they put cobbles, a technique still used today.

The road to today
We cannot credit a single person for inventing roads but Pierre-Marie-Jérôme Trésaguet deserves a mention. A French engineer, he sat down to write guidelines for the construction of roads. In 1775 he became Inspecteur Générale for roads and bridges in France and the country began updating paths and tracks. Trésaguet insisted on excavating the ground, installing a layer of large rocks and then adding finer layers of gravel on top, all with drainage channels by the side. Like that, horse-drawn carriages could ride smoothly across mud-free roads as water would now drain away.

First the road. Tomorrow the race.

The next prominent name in early road construction is John Loudon McAdam, a Scot whose name lives on today thanks to macadam and tarmac. Macadam is the use of soil and stone that is then rollered into place to form a compacted layer that resists the passage of traffic, horseshoes included. This technique is still in use the world over and today cycling races use such roads in the strade bianche of Tuscany or the Colle delle Finestre, a regular in the Giro d’Italia  which was built for the Italian army.

Tarmac then involved spraying hot tar – a thick extract from petroleum – on top of the macadam to bind the gravel as the liquid cooled and hardened – a technique used on unrollered paths in Babylonian times.  Tarmac, when combined with Macadam, became the modern way of building roads.

Contemporary roads use asphalt concrete. Asphalt is also known as tar or bitumen. A new road will see the route excavated and a layer of hard rocks compressed in place, a technique used in ancient times and refined by Trésaguet. Then comes Macadam’s contribution with the layer of aggregates (ie gravel) mixed with melted bitumen pour in place. This is then compressed by a heavy roller and left to cool, leaving the blacktop road surface that our sport relies on.

Roads vary. French TV commentator Jean-Paul Olivier once described a road as being “as rough as a cat’s tongue.”  Some stretches of road are paper-smooth whilst others are rough. Construction techniques, uses and budgets all play a part here. More rural roads in Europe are often “chip seal”, also known as “tar and chip”. Here some liquefied tar is poured on the road and then gravel is spread on top.

$25,000 per mile of two-lane road, compared with $350,000 for asphalt

The aim is that the gravel sinks into the tar, either under the weight of a heavy roller or often in France, the weight of passing traffic. The loose layer of gravel is to be avoided if you are on a road bike because even if you’re happy on the loose stuff, the liquid tar underneath is just waiting to ruin your tyres and splatter your bike. Once settled the gravel is effectively glued into the tar but you have to ride over the stones, creating the rough feeling. This is much cheaper than asphalt concrete.

Other parts of Europe see winter damage and subsidence. Some Alpine roads get smashed by coachloads of tourists and subzero temperatures, they are relaid every year. But away from the resorts the frost is left to crack and shatter the road. And in Belgium especially you will find the betonweg or concrete road with its infamous gaps.

Modern roads also feature additives, for example rubber is added to the asphalt to soften it a touch, offering improved grip and above all, better acoustics. Residents near busy road junctions get quieter routes.

I’ve explained the methods behind their construction but surely the greatest engineering comes in the form of bridges and, for me, mountain passes. The two meet occasionally when the Tour de France crosses a bridge like the Pont de St Nazaire that is so long that it counts for the mountains competition.

Mountain passes existed long before roads, but the act of surfacing a route across a mountain has given races like the Tour de France the theatre that makes them so great. Hairpin bends are works of engineering but at times things of beauty and of course, thrilling too. The sporting battles and scenery granted by mountain roads are supreme. Cyclists from around the world visit these roads because of their legendary status; the strip of tarmac is a field of dreams.

Roads impose. Paths are carved into the rock, nature is disfigured. There is something impressive about a straight road; the Romans knew this, and Napoleon’s armies marched along linear avenues. But even if it is a false pretense, I prefer roads that work with the environment, whether following the shape of a river valley or twisting like an ancient trail through woodland.

Roads are the venue for our sport. They might just be there, a drab grey surface, but without them there’s no road cycling.

We enjoy moments when races leave the tarmac to use cobbles or gravel, but note even these sections are heavily-engineered with their drainage channels, camber, and design. And if we celebrate some mountain passes, give thanks for the humble strip of tarmac in front of your home.

Photo: the main photo above is from Mavic’s website where it accompanies their footwear. I think it is the Trafoi hairpins of the Stelvio pass in Italy. It makes an impressive desktop background and the full image is here. Thanks also to Zachary Olson for collaborating on this piece.

29 thoughts on “The road you ride on”

  1. I have never considered what a road is exactly before, it begs a moment of meditation…

    The Romans are given too much credit for their straight roads, as lot of the time they simply built over existing paths, normally the shortest distance between two settlements. Certainly a lot of “Roman” roads in the formerly Celtic regions had their foundations on already ancient routes.

  2. Roads, a sore, (pain in the ass) subject here in the UK at present, lack of maintenance, shoddy infilling of utility work, non existant roadside drainage all combining with last winters snow and ice producing an ever increasing number of potholes, subsidence and fissures. Enter stage left, the Road Bike, tyres pumped up hard transmitting all the vibrations to the frail power source namely, me. Yes, for sure the road can make or mar a ride.

  3. I can confirm the first photo is of Stelvio pass. I will never forget having had exactly that stunning view after having climbed it. If you ever have the chance…

  4. I have a photo of myself sat with that view behind me. I was particularly glum at the time as I’d dropped my motorbike on the way up. To be exact, on the second distant bend in the photo.

  5. Blatant commercial plug to follow HW’s cue, we enjoy it every year - I really dislike the Roman roads for cycling as they’re too straight, especially when they go up, you get no sense of gaining much elevation for all of your effort. I had to laugh reading the bit about the chip seal, one year in Emilia-Romagna one of our clients had a brand-new Mondonico bike on the tour and we came across the dreaded road crew. Halfway up the climb there was nothing to do but keep riding, the sticky stones building up on the sides of your tires and handily grinding the paint off your chainstays, especially galling on your new bike!
    But let’s not forget the (arguably) golden age of cycling took place when few roads were paved, especially in the mountains -which is why for me the unpaved bits included in some of the recent Giri d’Italia have been so meaningful..along with the pro Strade Bianche event, l’Eroica, etc.

  6. Thanks for the confirmation of the pass. There is another one with hairpin bends and a building down below the valley that narrows, I think it is the Grossglockner but can’t be sure.

    One thing I forgot to add was the melting tar. Very common in France, roads can liquify in the summer sunshine. It can stick to you bikes but you can clean this with a mild solvent. But it ruins any rubber on your wheels, I’ve had near-new tyres destroyed. Plus you can round a bend and plant the front wheel in treacle; it’s rarely dangerous but never enjoyable.

    bikecellar: roads seem to vary by country, each place has their own techniques and priorities. The best I’ve seen are in Switzerland. With all the troubles in the economy us cyclists will face rougher roads around Europe.

    Owen: you are not alone. I was looking for evidence to identify the climb and saw this video

    Larry T: you’re a regular here to the plug is ok, especially as it is in context and amusing.

  7. @ Bikecellar: UK roads don’t seem that bad to me, no worse than when I lived there. Here in France (particularly in the mountain) roads are pretty smashed up most of the time but is explained by the extreme weather conditions. As the Inner Ring says melted tar is a pain here, this year the bend next to the house started melting at the end of April! Only the French péage seems to have well maintained surfaces, in typical fashion the nearby Swiss roads are a different beast though.

    A recent visit to the US shocked me, despite the world famous car-culture American roads seem to be badly built and maintained. I have never seen such uneven roads with junk and shredded truck tires littering the lanes (and broken down American vehicles – didn’t see a single Asian or EU car waiting for a tow truck in three weeks).

  8. When I read your comment about bridges and mountain passes coming together I immediately remembered the stage to Luz Ardiden in this year’s TdF. Gilbert and Vanendert attacked in the downhill leading to the final climb of the stage, setting up Vanendert for a strong 2nd place. There was some awesome camera work by the French and we saw the Pont Napoleon in its full glory

  9. Excellent post. And it get’s better when you think/read about the roads in different countries/continents.

    In Europe and North America most of the roads (at least the main roads) are made from concrete. It’s more expensive at first, but better on the long run. In South America, especially in Brazil, the majority of the roads are made from asphalt. It’s cheaper, but it demands constant maintenance. As a result, bad roads and life-threatening potholes are common.

    The maintenance expenditure required to maintain the concrete in good shape are considerable, but only in every 40 years or so. Perhaps the need for a big intervention in the US roads came in a bad time for the economy.

  10. We find Italian roads pretty good too, though now and then we ride one and say to each other “the Giro needs to come here” as those roads usually get freshened up before La Corsa Rosa arrives. I think it was Alex Zulle who said he found the roads in Italy the best….wonder if he know how many of ’em were freshly paved just for him and the rest of the racers? I’m still amazed at the condition of the Finestre climb this year – we’ve been over it a few times with our groups, but for La Corsa Rosa it was watered, rolled and groomed to amazing perfection. After riding it this time I could understand how DiLuca was able to ride no-hands while unwrapping some food! I would never have believed until riding it myself.

  11. @Igam Ogam You’re right. Shouldn’t have used ‘most of the roads’, especially in Europe. Nonetheless, US uses concrete on something like 20% of its roads. That’s a lot. For instance, in Brazil that rate is about 2%. It’s more expensive, but lasts longer. And as I’ve said, when the time comes for a intervention, better be prepared to spend some money.

    As for the Swiss roads, I have not yet had the opportunity to know them. Maybe next year.
    As for the Italian roads, totally agree with Larry T., some amazing paths.

  12. A long long time since I saw melting tar here in the UK, childhood memories of “tar babies” blobs of tar on sticks I am now 63yrs old, thats how long ago.

  13. Wow, fantastic piece as always, roads are something I never really thought about except when cursing them for their potholes or stones that gave me a puncture!

    On a side note that photo from the Stelvio is fantastic, and I may be wrong but am I correct in remembering that you (Inner Ring) posted this photo and some others that were all on the mavic website? With links to versions fitted for a desktop background? I think this was on your old blog before the move to this new one? I just remembered them being fantastic and was wondering where I could find them again.

    sorry if it wasn’t on innerring and I’m thinking of somewhere else

  14. Thanks for posting the Stelvio image link. It is a sentimental favorite. I tried on another site earlier to make that my desktop and wasn’t successful. Nice essay on road construction. The fun part of cycling is that over the years one can sample all manner of road and trail and get to know the textures and gradients that you have described. It is a point of pride to be ready for whatever the road serves up.

  15. I had the good fortune to follow the route of the 2009 Tour through the Pyrenees, about a month before the race. One disadvantage of doing this, however, was that we were constantly riding over roadworks. The resulting roads are pretty amazing, though. It seems that pretty much the entire route gets resurfaced with billiard-table-smooth hotmix.

    By contrast, Australia’s rural roads are usually sealed with particularly cheap and nasty coarse-chip. Worse, there’s one particular climb (“back-of-Falls”) in the Australian Alps that used the waste from boring a water tunnel through the mountain, for the coarse chips. The summer after it opened, they held a sportive ride that finished on that climb. There were apparently dozens of punctures!

  16. Another point that is sometimes underappreciated is that it’s economics, more than geography, that dictates the steepness of mountain roads.

    The single steepest sustained stretch of road I have ever traversed (on a motorcycle, not a bicycle) averages 17.7% for 2.6 kilometres, according to ridewithGPS. I don’t think even the Zoncolan sustains a stretch quite that steep! But there’s a very simple reason for the steepness. It’s an unsealed fire trail that’s been bulldozed straight up the mountain, without any switchbacks or other gradient-flattening techniques.

  17. One of the beautiful and unique things about cycling is the arena in which it takes place. The roads offer up a plethora of kilometres, variously winding, climbing, familiar, snaking, rough, windswept, exhilarating, lung-busting, calming, unknown, inspiring, descending, beautiful, relaxing, smooth, shaded…

    The cycling arena knows no numbered seats, or any seats for that matter, save for the ground or the camping chair you bring along with you. There are no turnstiles or hotdog vendors. If it rains, you get wet. If you want to touch your heroes, there are no security guards or barriers to stop you. If you stand close enough, you will be sprayed with their sweat.

    You don’t pay to see cycling. There is no one to pay. No one owns the roads any more than you. In this way, cycling is more a part of its fans, and fans more a part of cycling, than any other sport.

    That’s what I think about roads…

  18. Nicely written Laurence! I like to think that you do pay, at least if you ride (or walk) up the steep climb to await the race. The Finestre climb’s closed to motorized traffic well in advance of the arrival of the race which means you either go up there and camp out in the virtual wilderness OR you walk or ride your bike up there. Other than a few police vehicles, NO other motorized vehicle goes up there until the actual race caravan arrives. Because of this the spectators riding up actually enjoy a better surface than the pros. Most everyone there has struggled in some way to get up there, PAYING for the experience with their own sweat and effort. Unlike so many other climbs where it’s much, much easier to arrive at a special place like this, the atmosphere was much more friendly and welcoming as the vast majority of us had a special appreciation of the effort needed to get up there.

  19. With regard to the surfacing, it will also depend on the road usage. What others have described as concrete roads are more prevalent on highways which are subject to high wear with much higher traffic volumes and larger vehicles. Roads less travelled (by motorised vehicles) and areas which call for less road noise call for asphalt.
    Associated with all roads are other features including joints in the road, barriers, road furniture, roundabouts, kerbs, speed bumps, cross fall, drainage etc. all of which I’m sure you’ve all noticed and they’ve played some part in your cycling experience along the way.
    Engineers (usually) consider cyclists when designing this sort of stuff. Though some of the more historic roads I see in the European races don’t have much in the way of fall protection on some of those high walls.

  20. The “chip seal” method used on rural roads in France is a menace because the loose gravel is every bit as treacherous as black ice, particularly on downhill bends. Unfortunately, the prime time for refurbishing damaged roads using this method is the summer.

    The clubs I have ridden with have an unwritten code that the leaders shout “graviers” to warn those behind. It’s all part of the camaraderie.

Comments are closed.