Riding on Rough Roads

I’ve never ridden the fabled cobblestone roads of northern France or Belgium, the ones that shake riders into insensibility in Paris-Roubaix. But on my local training roads we have the next best thing for masochistic riding -- genuine western Colorado chip-and-seal. Recently, they’ve been using gravel so large that a visitor would call it rocks. Your county road crews may be doing the same thing, or your roads may simply be rough with cracks and patches. You need to learn how to ride gnarly surfaces without losing fillings or bruising your kidneys.

Some great pro road racers have never learned the trick of riding cobbles. They hate races like Paris-Roubaix. Others have the knack and revel in bouncing over the slippery stones. A combination of skills is required. Only a few pros excel. The same isn’t true of recreational riders, however, because we don’t have the competitive pressure to go as fast as possible. At a more sedate pace, anyone can learn to handle rough roads.

Here’s Help

--- Reduce tire inflation. The firmer the tire, the harsher the ride. And the greater the risk of punctures from sharp gravel and other piercing road debris. Hard tires also corner badly on bumpy pavement because they chatter instead of absorbing impacts. I weigh 150 pounds and normally run about 100 psi in the rear tire and 95 psi in the front. But when I'm riding extremely rough roads, I reduce pressure about 10 psi.

Caution!  Don’t run tires so soft that you make them susceptible to pinch flats when you hit especially big chunks of rock or the edge of a pothole. This type of puncture happens when an impact causes the tube to be pinched between the tire and rim. Experiment to find the psi that works best on the worst surfaces you ride.

--- I also like to run wider tires -- 25mm or even 27s or 28s for greater comfort. Studies by Jan Heine (www.bikequarterly.com ) show that wider tires are faster than narrow ones on rough roads if the wide tires have supple casings.

--- Use a slightly higher gear. Shift up when you come to a rough section. That is, use the next smaller cassette cog. Doing so slows your cadence and puts more weight on the pedals, less on the saddle, to reduce bounce and chatter.

--- Relax! Sit toward the rear of the saddle and hold the lever hoods or bar tops with a secure but relaxed grip. Let the front end "float" over the roughness and find its own line. Tense arms and a death grip are much more likely to make the front wheel veer on impacts. Loose arms encourage it to flow past them.

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(Adapted from Coach Fred's Solutions to 150 Road Cycling Challenges , a helpful eBook especially for cycling newcomers.)

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