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What Is Chip-Seal: The Cyclist’s Bane

July 2014
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Last year I wrote a post complaining about chip-seal roads. The road commission had just done about 25% of the roads on my favorite routes and I was quite a bit less than pleased.  After two to four weeks of constant road traffic newly chip-sealed roads are fit for cycling traffic again… Before that, they’re dangerous so I had to come up with new daily routes for a month.

In response to that post, I had a couple of people ask what chip-seal is, well here you go…

In words, chip-seal is a new 1/2″-1″ topping of fresh asphalt which is left to cure for a few weeks. During that time, roads are awesome for cyclists – imagine a once bumpy road that is now just shy of glass smooth. Life is good – and fast.

After the setup period, the crew comes back and sprays a thin coat of tar over the road followed by a thin coat of gravel. As cars travel over the gravel (rock “chips”) it becomes embedded in the tar and creates a hard, mildly lumpy road surface. Chip-seal, at least for the first year, is a speed sucker for a cyclist.

Over the space of a year the surface becomes smoother and more reasonable for cycling, though the surface is really rough on tire longevity. The rough stretch, the 2-4 weeks it takes for traffic to trample down the chips, is where we cyclists run into trouble.  In a perfectly dry setting, flats are common.  Throw in a little rain and the smaller chips stick to tires and become embedded in the rubber and you almost can’t avoid a flat. Needless to say, we avoid the newly chip-sealed roads like the plague.

This year, the crew is at it again so while out on an easy day I stopped and took a few photos of a brand new “chipped” surface – thankfully this section only butts up to my normal 16 and 20 mile routes:

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Now, I think you can see why new chip-seal sucks. If you’re not sold yet, imagine the dust kicked up by a car on a newly chipped road.  It’s nasty.  On the other hand, after the chips are smoothed out a bit and after they’re swept (think rotating broom, one lane wide, on the front of a dump truck), they turn into this:

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I’d say 75% of the roads I ride on are chip-sealed surfaces and they normally wait until August to start spreading their joy but (thankfully) they went early this year. All of the surfaces are done (I hope) before the big centuries get rolling.

That’s chip-seal folks.


5 Comments

  1. Bike Noob says:

    Problem is, while cars and trucks can tamp down the chips in several weeks’ time, the chipped shoulders we cyclists ride in stay chippy. One favorite biking road in my area was chip sealed three or four years ago, and the shoulder is still rough to ride.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Never even thought about that – we don’t have shoulders in my town (or any of the ten surrounding towns for that matter – we have to go up north for real shoulders).

      Sounds like they didn’t do a thorough sweeping afterwards like they do up here. Absolutely unacceptable. I’d be getting in touch with city hall or writing a letter to the editor of the local paper… They’d have that road cleaned inside of two weeks if you bring the right pressure at the right time. Any luck with that route?

  2. Chasing Fifty says:

    I despise this stuff. Our roads vary between this garbage and decent asphalt. You hit the nail on the head… besides the flats, this surface is a speed killer.

  3. Ugh. They just chip-sealed my favorite out and back county road route last week. Yesterday’s ride was so brutal I turned around, gave up, came back and did a search for “chip-sealing sucks” and found your work. There’s only one other good option south from my house, otherwise, it’s all dirt roads, which makes a fat-tired stumpjumper and a vote against all the county incumbents in November now added to my agenda.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I know, it’s a serious pain in the butt, but truth be told, I can live with it, at least for the two weeks it takes to settle properly. I live in an excellent part of Michigan where I’ve got hundreds of great riding roads just outside my front door. I also pay half the property tax of those who live in the surrounding towns. We all know chip-seal is cheap and it’s at best a Band-Aid, but I’ll take a cheap pain in the butt over higher taxes any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

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