By Christopher Cudworth
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
By the time you’re an adult, you spend most of your time looking at roads only as a route to get somewhere. And that’s a shame, in a way. Because roads are an endless feature of our existence, wrapped in infinite wonder if you know how to look. Yet we roll over them with hardly a thought as we run and ride. Not even a word of admiration or thanks. We ride on snapshots of our memories. The well-ordered sidewalks of life. Instead we should consider the raggedy madness. The hell of it. The senseless emptiness. Because that’s where the real miles take place. On The Road.
Good and bad roads?
We cherish the good roads and disparage the bad ones. We pass judgement, in other words. With which reasons, and why? A fresh new strip of blacktop on a fresh summer morning can be a joy for both runner and rider, of course. You cruise along without looking down because you do not need to watch your footing or where your tires will go. It is temporarily safe to assume you’ll be safe.
But get down low, at road level, and even the worst road is still a miracle of construction. Billions of stone particles and tar woven together and compressed into a relatively consistent surface. Or broken into bits by traffic and the elements.
No road goes on forever
Looking at a new road, you figure it will last forever. Many a city or municipality or township wishes that were true. We take all that administration for granted as we run our 20-milers or ride our 70 milers on a Saturday and arrive home bitching that those middle ten miles were a little rough for our liking. What a bunch of pretentious pricks we runners and riders can be.
Get down low and really look at a road sometime. Bend down and put your face close to the asphalt, like you used to do as a kid. Then you’ll see up close the miracle on which you run and ride. The fact that we human beings assemble all this material and smooth it out into a road should not be taken for granted. Our messy lives deserve some messy consideration.
If you’ve ever been present when the steamroller pushes the hissing tar into place, flattening and smoothing as they go, then you know that roads don’t just happen on their own. It takes skill for the steamroller driver to hitch back and forth, mile after mile, pressing the road into place. I once rode across a freshly placed piece of road and felt my skinny bike tires sink into the surface for 30 feet. I thought the tire would pop from the heat, and I might tip and fall into the hot, steaming asphalt, burns all over my body. That’s how fast the mind works when you realize you’ve just fucked up.
So I kept riding, hard as I could go. Figured the steamroller dude would have had a right, if he chose, to jump down off his rig and punch me in the face with a tarry glove, to pay me back for messing up his hard work. And I’d have had to take it without complaint. Next time I won’t ride across his artistry. But we all live messy lives. So we ride on.
Tarsnakes and potholes, brick streets and cobbles
It’s not just fresh asphalt about which we need to talk. It’s the older and less tame type of road that holds so much interest if you give it consideration. The kind of road that makes up the Spring Classics in cycling. Hell of the North. Paris-Robaix. Tour of Flanders. 101st Scheldeprijs. Hard roads in Belgium and France. Cobbles and country lanes. Dust and mud and shredded tires.
Asphalt and cement that’s been left in the elements for several years takes on an unworldly patina. Cracks and potholes. Tarsnakes and sealants line the surface. It’s like the whole road is glued together, yet keeps falling apart.
There’s a strip of downhill road in a rural township on our main Saturday loop that no one seems to claim. It seems to have fallen between the domains of two townships, who can’t seem to agree whose job it is to pave the 100 yard strip of road.
For several years that section of road got worse and worse. Potholes as big as your foot, then deeper and deeper. Pinch flats and dropped water bottles were a common occurrence riding down that little hill. You could hear the unsuspecting riders in the group, the ones who’d fallen asleep and forgotten about Hell’s Road cursing and weaving trying to avoid potholes. Usually someone would have to stop and search for a water bottle thrown out of its cage. You’d sometimes see several riders hunching around the ditch in their cycling shoes trying to find $11.99 worth of plastic filled with water or Go Juice. We cyclists live in an absurd world.
Then one day last summer we turned the corner toward Hell’s Road and. It was Paved. Paved! No more potholes. No more pinch flats. We sailed over the road whooping and hollering, going 35 miles an hour when it used to slow us down to 10 or 15 just to survive.
Hands on the road
I get down low and look at the road sometimes. I like to look at tarsnakes and think of the guys out laying that goo in the cracks. It must be a long and lonely job, walking down those roads with the tar dispenser. I’ve stopped to talk to the guys (it’s always guys) who put the tarsnakes in place. There’s a bunch of technical language to describe their job, but pretty much it all adds up to one thing: Filling cracks.
The weather changes and the roads buckle under the pressure of cold, heat and tires. A lattice of cracks forms on the road edge and slowly the integrity of the asphalt is compromised. Our county has taken to throwing down a substance I call gravel slaps. They pour tar in a big fat patch and then dump gravel on it. Cars and runners soar right over those slaps, but cyclists feel them. The gravel crunches and the slight rise in the road reads like a speed bump. It’s a cheap and easy fix but it’s a costly feel.
Take some time and get low, sometime. Be a kid and look at the road through a kid’s eyes. Take your digital camera out on a shiny wet day and take photos from road level. You’ll find a shining, miraculous world at that level, and it will make you appreciate the miles you cover, and what you cover them on.