Friday Group Ride #305

Friday Group Ride #305

On Sunday, the men of the pro peloton will be racing over the cobbles of Flanders, hoping not to crash or flat. With both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen closing on retirement (though still capable of winning), this feels like the most open race in years. Peter Sagan has to be a favorite, and of course there are others.

The cobbles are stupid. If they were on the shortest route of my regular commute, I would take the long way to avoid them. On a road bike? Forget it. In the rain, the cobbles become slick. When it’s dry, the dust will choke you. This is not a surface for riding, and yet, and yet.

Where I grew up, Alabama, they have red clay. The clay roads can be great to ride, tacky and smooth, or they can be absolutely miserable, like peanut butter or worse. A fine sand settles on top and makes traction impossible.

Here in New England, we have challenging surfaces, too. Our pavement is by-and-large old, cracked, pot-holed and broken. Our trails are made of rooty, rocky soil courtesy of the last ice age and heavy traffic. It can make that magical mountain bike flow elusive. It can challenge your bike handling. I can challenge your dentistry.

I can recall snow rides that were absolute magic, white stuff fluttering down all around, traction still perfect, quiet everywhere. And I can recall snow rides that were just not possible, my back wheel spinning out every which way, dragging myself along foot-by-foot, trying to stay upright.

This week’s Group Ride asks, what is the worst surface you’ve ridden? What was it like? Have you sampled the cobbles? Are there some especially terrible riding conditions where you live? Do you ever dream of riding the cobbles yourself? Do you romanticize them? And who do you think will win on Sunday?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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  1. AG

    There was a So Cal mountain bike trail consisting of chunks of basalt, each about 5 inches around all loose and without bottom on a trail that was only about 3 feet wide with a 10% grade. And there was miles of this stuff. Traction was momentary until the front tire started to plow under the rocks making forward motion virtually impossible. Then I remember roads in Boulder a week after a good snowfall, icy black ruts that grabbed my tire trying to throw me to the ground. I would like to try the cobbles, of course, just as I would like to sit in a Belgian cafe sipping beer afterwards laughing about my sore butt. Sunday’s winner…Fabio? He wants it pretty bad, I think. Sagan, Boonen, Kristoff, even Haussler is in! What a start list. Should be a great race.

  2. Aar

    There is a road that is frequently used on my regular Wednesday evening ride that is just brutal due to the road surface. It’s old heavily cracked pavement and the road surface has a bit of heave at every crack. It is a 2 mile long dip with a 5% grade on each end and a lengthy flat in the middle. So, you just fly on it and the frequency of vibration loosens the strongest of fillings.

    That said, as long as I’m on a bike, I’m lovin’ life. So, I love every surface that I ride on. From nasty, deep, muddy gravel into which you sink 4″ and have massive stiction through gravel to perfect fresh pavement, I really do like it all – some for the fun, others for the challenge. Enjoy the ride!

    Enjoy the ride.

  3. Alan

    Colorado clay mud is awful. Builds up until you can’t move.

    Mount Evans and Sunshine Canyon in Colorado. Climbing the steep stuff is fine, descending those degraded high mountain roads can be a nightmare.

    Other than that, it’s all good.

  4. Dan Murphy

    D2R2 2013. Pennel Hill Rd.
    After riding a flat paved road for a few miles, the 115k route takes a hard right up what appears to be a wall of dirt. This is the second of three brutal dirt road climbs in the middle section of this route, each one progressively more punishing than the other.

    Normally, this would just be your plain old ordinary long, steep climb. But, we were especially lucky that year because the road had just been graded. This may sound like a good thing, but believe me, it was anything but good. The road was a combination of loose dirt, sand, and small gravel. Finding enough traction to keep moving was the game. Lean too far forward and the rear tire breaks away, forcing the rider to recover, but don’t recover too abrubtly, as sudden power will cause the rear tire to break traction again. Smooth strokes only. It was a constant cycle of slip-and-recover.

    Because the dirt was loose, you could see the history of riders on the hill. One line would look good, you’d follow it, then you’d see a wobbly tire track – then footprints. Push thru that, find another line, then more footprints. You’d pass a walking rider, try to grunt some pleasantries while maintaining traction, and keep going. Are we having fun, yet?

    I actually made the climb without dabbing that year, just one of those small victories we all have during our rides.

    Yup, that was the worst surface I’ve ridden.

  5. toro toro

    I have the strava KOM on a hill just outside the village in Devon where I live.

    Even by the standards of the lanes here, it’s horrendous; too narrow for a car to pass, steep banks on either side, grass and loose mud down the middle, strewn with rocks, and running below 15-25% for the first 800m. Deep potholes, patches of spilt, dried, concrete, overhanging brambles, and covered in farm waste. In places, one side or the other drops away completely into the ditch. That’s when it’s dry; after a few days’ rain, it’s completely covered in thick red clay.

    I love it.

  6. Pat O'Brien

    Mud sitting on top of a layer of caliche, which is common in SE Arizona in the summer rainy season. Slippery and the mud builds up on the tire until it can’t clear the fork or the frame. Only happens in a few places here a few times a year. But, when it does, you’re going nowhere until you clean the mud off the tires.

  7. Les.B.

    Here in SoCal, up in the Santa Monicas, Yerba Buena Road is long overdue for resurfacing, but Public Works in Ventura County tells that resurfacing for Yerba is not included in the current 5-year plan.

    The road was paved with large gravel and the asphalt has long worn down leaving the embedded rocks sticking up, making a for rough ride.

    To add insult to injury the surface is seriously cracked with cracks running transverse and longitudinal, wide enough to fit a 23mm tire. After a rain the debris gets “washed out” from the cracks, making them deeper. Some of the grades on Yerba are double-digit and there are a lot of blind curves.

    On a descent the handlebar vibration feels like a jackhammer. The Mulholland Challenge ride used to traverse this part of Yerba, but has since detoured around it for safety reasons. That doesn’t stop me from riding it — what’s the use of riding if you can’t get a little crazy sometimes?

    In the middle of nowhere the road transitions from this kind of surface to nice smooth asphalt. That’s the county line with LA County, and the name of the road changes to Little Sycamore Canyon Road.

  8. David Admire

    North Texas “chip-seal.” The large aggregate used by the state is everywhere. Not just a section of the ride, but the whole ride is characterized by constant heavy vibration and a drag on the wheels. There’s no escaping it.

  9. Michael

    I guess I just ride skinnier tires until the road/trail/dirt road gets to be challenging. I love the challenge of putting the wheels on the best line through the mess. Of course, it can look pretty pathetic to someone with the right bike for the job. I was picking my way through a boulder garden today with 32 mil tires on my cross bike when a fellow in full downhill gear bashed his way past, calling out “That looks challenging!”t through the muffle of his helmet. He gave me plenty of space too, like what you might give to someone who looks vaguely dangerous.

  10. Tom in Albany

    OH, and my wife’s comment while I was sitting at the computer watching Sagan attack on the Paterberg was how stupid it was to be racing on cobbles and why the hell would they do it. I began to try to explain and realized I couldn’t. Just wait until next Sunday with Paris(Compiegne)-Roubaix…

  11. gregc

    I put riding cobbles on a road bike, particularly in foul weather, in the same category as driving a Formula 1 car on a dirt track. Certainly possible but I just don’t see the point. NBA playoffs on outdoor courts without regard to weather conditions? I doubt it. Still, it does make interesting viewing in a masochistic sort of way and maybe that’s ultimately the point. For me though, no romanticizing but I do completely respect anyone willing to do it. Just not for me .

  12. bigwagon

    Hands down the worst surface I’ve ridden on is the Paris-Roubaix course itself last year during the P-R Challenge sportive. The cobbled sections were insane. Nothing I had ever seen or read about riding on cobbles prepared me for the moment when I hit the first cobbled section (in the rain no less). Frankly, it was a bit terrifying, especially Arenberg. By the end of the ride I was looking for every inch of foot path to stay off them. But it was all worth it when I finally entered the Velodrome.

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  14. Jay

    I think that freshly chipped and sealed roads have to be up there with the worst of road surfaces for riding. The other summer I was out and started down a road that I use regularly that had been chipped very recently. I was going downhill at a good clip when I noticed that I didn’t seem to be in control anymore. The loose chips were preventing me from braking or steering. Luckily there was a grassy shoulder that I was able to slide over towards and then ride to a spot where there was less of an incline. I was able to get back on the road and to my amazement didn’t crash. I avoided that road for several days thereafter, at least until the automobile traffic redistributed the loose chips.

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