Two years ago I found myself in the chase group of GFNY Deutschland. One of the key features of that GFNY are its smooth roads. Germans pride themselves on their road infrastructure. Having lived abroad for many years, I thoroughly enjoyed racing “back home”. It’s fun to not have to pay any attention on the road surface.
As our group rolled over a section of road that was just a bit below perfect, a rider aside me started complaining. While not perfect, this particular road would have been unnoticed in many countries and considered perfect in most. But all things being relative, it wasn’t what a German expects from his roads. I had to ask him, “Have you ever ridden abroad?»
I pictured myself jumping potholes, no, «pot-craters» outside Mexico City, navigating bumps and gravel in France and sledgehammer cobbles in Brasil.
“Yes!” he emphatically replied.
Now he had my attention. Italy isn’t – at least currently – known to be a country of good roads. Since recession struck in 2012, road maintenance was low on anyone’s agenda. Don’t get me wrong: Italy is still cycling Disneyland even with a sub-par road quality. And some regions are better than others. Step by step things are improving. So I had to ask.
Well, that explains everything. If you don’t know, South Tyrol feels more like the neighboring Austria than Italy, and Austrian roads are like German roads so South Tyrol doesn’t really count as abroad for a German if we are speaking about road quality (and of course only in that sense, mind).
The takeaway is clear: your baseline for what is an acceptable road surface for you to ride on is your local loop. Think about it: you’re not riding around all year long thinking “this is unacceptable”. If it would be, you’d stop riding. I see people getting their rides done on roads that are much worse than yours. Challenge me.
Your conclusion could be to never ride or race on roads that are worse than the ones at home. If your home loop roads are terrible enough that you consider changing to a full suspension mountain bike, you actually are the lucky one: you can race wherever you want. Congratulations!
The German rider in my group would be out of luck: he’s more or less restricted to racing at home. There are no horizon expanding experiences for him.
Road racing is a sport well over 100 years old. What was considered “roads” in the early years would barely be called a gravel road today. To add, the bikes back then were much harder to control. Now, that doesn’t mean we should go back even 50 years when it comes to our roads. But races like Paris-Roubaix or Strade Bianche are centered around parts of the course that are all but perfect. Whether it’s cobbles or gravel, either adds a unique challenge.
And that’s what road races are all about: unique challenges. If you seek a controlled environment, go for track racing. Like life, road racing isn’t perfect. Mastering the course doesn’t only mean dealing with nasty cross winds or steep climbs. The roads are our playground and finding the most suitable line is just as much part of road racing.
That said, we don’t take our race courses “as is”. The cobbles at Paris Roubaix are so essential to the race, that they are protected from getting paved and are maintained by volunteers. The strade bianche (white roads) are a national heritage and not allowed to be paved.
On the opposite side, potholes and crevasses usually aren’t intentional features of a road race course. I spend several days scouting our race course in NYC by bike and take pictures of every single pothole. It’s a job that can only be done on the bike because our perception of potholes is very different from the comfort of a car.
Then I inform the responsible municipalities and discuss the feasibility of addressing any issues. Three to four weeks before the race, their road crews start fixing issues. Two weeks before the race, our race course crew marks the roads with arrows and determines any issues that haven’t yet been addressed. More phone calls, emails and agency visits follow. Thursday before the race, we start our course marking. Any issues that are left at that point, get spray painted and pimped out with CAUTION and ROUGH ROAD signs. Particularly hazardous spots will have personnel with flags and whistles on race day.
All of that improves a race course but it doesn’t turn it into a track. Roads like Henry Hudson Drive (aka River Road) just aren’t smooth until they get completely repaved which often is simply cost prohibitive (several miles of road will cost several million dollars).
Yet, we have riders tell us that this and that section of a course “isn’t safe”. But road racing isn’t inherently safe. And the skill of riding and racing isn’t learned over night. Just like the strength required to climb a hill, safely navigating a course takes practice.
Be happy that not all road races have impeccable and smooth surfaces. Embrace the diversity and look at course imperfections as part of a race and its challenge.