By John Yoder
As I watched the Tour de France on television the past three weeks (I’m retired), besides enjoying the insane sprint finishes, free-fall like descents and out-of-body time trials, I also enjoyed seeing the cycling landscape of France again — the smooth roads, the minimal number of stoplights in small towns, the countryside free of billboards and railroad tracks that go over the road as a bridge. I know it’s futile for me to envy (in the hope of equaling) the skill, speed or stamina of the riders, but I can’t help being jealous of the roads I see them riding on, roads that do not require exceptional skills to build.
What a contrast these French roads are to the county roads in my corner of the world, north central Indiana, where all too frequently the road edges are a ribbon of wavy cracks and where the patched and re-patched asphalt turns most rides into a game of dodge-the-bumps. Then, more often than I’d like to count, when these country roads are resurfaced, it’s with the gravel-and-tar mix called chip seal, an inexpensive make-do that every cyclist I know hates with a passion.
Our city streets aren’t any better. I routinely ride my fat-tired mountain bike in town to minimize the jolts that come from streets surfaces that look like they’ve suffer from a mixture of small pox, eczema and shingles.
By contrast, the roads of the Tour de France look as smooth as if they were repaved the week before the race, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. They may do some resurfacing and repairs, but the roads of France are in better shape than ours because they are repaved when they get rough, not just for a race.
I’ve reached that conclusion from my personal experience of driving in France. The first time these smooth roads registered with me was on the summer day that our family drove from Amsterdam to Strasbourg, France, a distance of about 600 kilometers or 370 miles. In my journal of that day, Aug. 5, 1992, I wrote: “Went through Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France…. On trip of 600 KM, saw and felt no more than five bumps in the road. What American road or turnpike would be so good?” Nine years later, when I watched two stages of the Tour de France in person, I observed the same smooth roads again.
What’s the difference? The French make roads a priority and levy the taxes needed to make frequent repair possible. We live in an anti-tax society and our roads show the result of that attitude.
I’m sure there are other factors involved in France’s better roads, i.e., a milder European climate, the weight of trucks allowed on the roads and the fact that France has a functioning passenger rail system. But their roads wear out and need repair, too, and the difference is that they fix them sooner rather than later.
As if to prove my point that investing in more frequent resurfacing would solve the problem of subpar roads, I’ve seen the state, county and city roads in my area improve greatly since Indiana increased its gas tax by 10 cents per gallon two years go – the first increase in 14 years. The extra income has gone into resurfacing roads. Now Indiana is only five years behind where it should be in repairing the roads instead of 10 years. That’s radical progress in Indiana. Read more here.
The connection between good roads and road bike riders is practical: good roads are more enjoyable and safer for bikers and motorists. Bikers can keep their eyes on other vehicles instead of scanning the road for potholes and vertical cracks that could catch a front wheel, and motorists can scan the road for other vehicles like cyclist instead of being distracted by dodging potholes.
I don’t like higher taxes anymore than the next guy, but I like it even less when politicians turn a blind eye to our crumbling roads in the name of lower taxes, as if the roads would fix themselves.
John D. Yoder is a recreational cyclist, former cycling commuter and League of American Bicyclists cycling instructor. He has been active for over 25 years establishing the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a rails-to-trails project connecting Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana, Indiana (www.pumpkinvine.org).