By John Marsh, Editor & Publisher
Before riding in the Tour de Wyoming last summer, I thought I knew all I needed to know about cattle guards.
I grew up in Missouri, and on hunting trips out in the country around my hometown of Independence (a K.C. suburb) I had seen plenty of cattle guards at the end of long farmhouse driveways. Cattle guards are horizontal rows of metal spaced a few inches apart to allow cars (and bikes) to roll over them, but that spacing is enough to keep cattle from crossing the guard. (See photo.) Cattle get spooked when a hoof goes between the metal slats, and they tend to stay put on one side.
Wyoming is an open range state, which means that cattle are allowed to range mostly freely. (If you want to keep them off your property, you have to fence them out.) What this means is that – if you’re in “cattle country” – you’re apt to see cattle guards not at the end of farmhouse driveways but rather stretching across many of the roads you’re riding on. (Cattle guards are fairly common throughout much of the West, so you’re likely to see them in any number of states.)
Before riding in the Tour de Wyoming last summer, I thought I knew all I needed to know about tar snakes.
I’d ridden on a few roads up in the mountains of north Georgia that feature the dreaded chip seal, which is bad enough, and asphalt roads that have some small cracks filled in with tar. But these were, in effect, “baby” tar snakes.
I understood that when I saw the veritable Anacondas all over the roads on the lower stretches of Powder River Pass and through the Badlands in Wyoming. (See photo.) These things, when they started heating up in the late-morning sun, became man-eaters. (It didn’t help that the stretch of weather during the Tour was brutally hot, with temps reaching above 100 on one or two days, which meant the snakes came out to play even earlier than normal.)
Just Hearing About Stuff Isn’t Enough
In rider meetings, we had been told about both cattle guards and tar snakes, but if you’ve never experienced such “obstacles” yourself while riding, it’s very difficult to understand how to deal with them, even if you know to expect them. I was riding the Tour mostly with two buddies from California who were equally inexperienced when it came to the guards and the snakes in the road.
There were two extremely scary moments for me on that Tour related to these insidious things.
The first was the first time I rolled through a horizontal tar snake at around 30mph on an otherwise amazing 17-mile descent and felt like I had just been snagged by a tailhook. It was one of those times on the bike where you don’t know what is happening – but you sure as heck hope it ends well.
Once I figured out that the day was heating up to such a degree that the snakes were “alive” and menacing, I did my level best to avoid them or navigate them at the most directly perpendicular angle possible. Getting into a horizontal one was the worst, and most fraught with danger. It was to be avoided above all else.
The other super-scary moment was crossing a cattle guard in the road on the 8% descent on the Tour’s last day at between 35 and 40 mph. You can only scrub so much speed when you’re rolling down an 8% grade and the thing is on you faster than you can believe possible.
Learning By Doing Is a Fast Teacher
The key to dealing with fired-up tar snakes is to, as mentioned, scrupulously avoid the horizontal ones and do your best to cross the others at no more than a 45-degree angle (see the motorcycling graphic below, which pretty well works for bicycles, too). Sometimes, in instances where there are seemingly endless tar snakes, you have to double down on your concentration and choose your line very carefully, knowing that you’re going to need to weave a bit here and there. That means don’t even try to paceline or hold a wheel when you’re in such a snake-infested zone.
As for crossing cattle guards, your best bet is to treat them as you would any known significant “bump” in the road, like railroad tracks. The more warning you have that one is approaching, the better. (So if you happen to be on the front of a paceline – or riding in a group – heading into one, call it out loudly with ample advance notice to warn your fellow riders.)
With a good, wide grip on the bars for stability (see photo), keep your pedals parallel to the road and come slightly out of the saddle to let the bike “float” over the guard straight on, at 90 degrees, keeping your elbows and knees bent to help absorb the rattle. (See today’s How To article, “‘Float’ Over Rough Pavement” for further tips on navigating the rough stuff.)
Tap Locals for Knowledge
If you’re ever riding in a place you’re unfamiliar with, try to get in touch with a local rider or two and bend his/her ear about what you need to heed when it comes to the local lay of the land. There may be certain roads or intersections or areas to avoid. And there may be local obstacles (like cattle guards at 40 mph and tail-hooking tar snakes) that you’ve never experienced.
Don’t just ask what to be aware of, but also ask how to deal with these things. Learn by doing if you must, but having some tips in mind before you roll out is even better.
If there’s one constant among roadies, it’s that we love talking about riding and sharing knowledge nearly as much as we like to ride. So tap that local knowledge; you’ll be better, and safer, for it.
Gardner Gray says
Cattle guards are dangerous in both directions. I crossed a wet cattle guard on a climb and almost went down, twice. With just a little power, it is very easy to spin out.
Bike Fitness Coaching says
Several years ago, I cycled up Haleakala and I was surprised to see several cattle guards on the volcano road. If you ever get a chance to do this ride going up, I highly recommend it – but, contact me first and I will give you some insight as to where to get water, and what to expect. Only 32 miles but went through 7 water bottles!
I always dismount and put on my cleat covers and walk accross ‘texas gates’ as we call them…wimpy, & time consuming, I know, but safe!
Occasionally there will be a horizontal seam in a cattle guard. Don’t hit it because it may inhale your wheel which is an instantaneous trip over the bars and likely the to the ER. Other than that, unweight and watch for a lip on the far side. A little hop and full tilt is fine.
Greg Titus says
After riding over any soft, hot tar (snakes, or just chip & seal when you hear tar bubbles snap/pop), check the cable guides under your bottom bracket. If tar splatter gets in there, when it cools down it can make the cables sticky, causing shifting problems, and you’ll be scratching your head trying to figure out why adjusting your derailleur isn’t fixing it.
John Marsh says
I didn’t mention it in this piece, but 2 riders crashed going over the same cattle guard on the TdW this year. And it was a fairly innocuous cattle guard, in that it was on a flat road and the speed was likely between 15 and 20mph on approach.
So, you’re exactly right. They can be very dangerous. The only absolutely safe way to cross is your way.