I’ve never ridden the fabled cobblestone roads of northern France or Belgium, the ones that shake riders into insensibility in Paris-Roubaix and some of the other Spring Classics.
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 How to Deal with the Rough Stuff
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 about 150 pounds and normally run 25 or 28mm tires at around 90 psi. But on extremely rough pavement I reduce tire 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.
Use a slightly higher gear. Shift up when you come to a rough section. Thatis, 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.
Don’t forget balance and relaxation on descents! Hitting a pothole or even a large bump at high speed is a recipe for at least a pinch flat or rim destruction if your full weight is on the wheel. Practicing lightening your weight over rough pavement on downhills can save your wheel and maybe your butt.
David Frost says
I recently converted my favorite bike to 650B with lightweight 38mm tires on light rims (total rotating weight is a bit less than my 700C wheels). Definitely loving the “plush ride” on rough roads and gravel capabilities that others describe. It’s still early, but I don’t sense any downsides, other than making sure that I’ve got the correct size spare tube in my seat bag.
Mark Pemburn says
In my area, we have a broad spectrum of pavement types on any given ride, from pristine, smooth asphalt, to chip-and-seal (or tar and chip), to municipal-neglect-pothole-city. I wish there were some way to change tire pressure on the fly (there’s a great invention for you!) but I’d rather suck it up on the bad sections, and have decent pressure (100 psi) for the of the best roads. Since chipped surfaces can be miles long, and cover the spectrum of up, down, and flat, the gear you use is dictated by the cadence you feel most comfortable with. I will certainly try a higher gear, based on this article, but my old knees will be the final arbiter.