“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”
— Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961
AUSTIN, Texas — Ernest Hemingway lived a life filled with adventure, but I don’t believe he ever rode a bicycle across America. And if he did, I wonder if he ever rode on chipseal.
Chipseal roads are ubiquitous in Texas. I’ve driven thousands of miles on them during more than two decades of living in the state. Except for the wear on tires, they seem adequate in a car. But on a bicycle, a chipseal surface — particularly a poorly laid one — is hell on two wheels.
Because we travel the back roads on our transcontinental bicycle journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., virtually all of our thousand miles through Texas has been on chipseal. And I’ve been able to make a study of chipseal up close and personal from my bicycle saddle. Generally, I hate riding on the stuff.
I’ve found that the older a chipseal surface is, the smoother it is to ride on. That’s because a steady flow of traffic drives the jagged rocks into the tar. But a newly laid chipseal surface is essentially a gravel road. On a surface with such a high rolling resistance, it’s difficult to get up any speed, especially if you’re going uphill or fighting a headwind. During some of our ride segments on chipseal, I was barely able to make 5 mph.
Real County, in the Texas Hill Country, which features a very tough climb along Ranch Road 337 fom Camp Wood to Leakey, seems to have gotten the formula for a chipseal surface just about right: a bed of tar followed by a layer of gravel and then covered with another layer of tar. That last layer of tar seems to smooth out the jagged edges.
The Hemingway quote cited above does indeed capture the essence of cross-country cycling. But he might also have written of the less grand aspects of a transccontinental trek on two wheels — the roadkill with the attendant scavenging turkey vultures, snarling canines with a laser-lock on your Achilles tendon and the detritus of a wasteful society: plastic bags wind-blown onto fences, amber shards of glass from smashed beer bottles, aluminum cans tossed along the side of the road and the ubiquitous Styrofoam.
Among the roadkill on this trip: numerous skunks in Arizona and New Mexico, a javelina and a diamondback rattler in West Texas and lots of deer, raccoons and a wild boar in the Texas Hill Country.
A cross-country rider also must contend with subtle shifts of the wind and slight changes in the incline of the road that a driver wouldn’t notice, the abrupt transitions in the road surface as one passes from one county to another — smooth asphalt or concrete, for example, changing at a county line to the cheaper, and much rougher, chipseal — slotted drainage grates that can grab a wheel and throw a rider, threatening clouds that can suddenly open up and force a rider to seek sparse shelter in the middle of nowhere, and some roads whose tired surfaces have been patched so many times with tar that they’re like washboards.
Yes, as Hemingway wrote, you do get an “accurate remembrance of the country” you’ve ridden through. But, more often than not, it might be a vivid remembrance of a geezer in a Winnebago whose extended rearview mirror missed your left ear by a hair than of the sun coming up over the range of peaks on the eastern horizon.