Why Does This Road Suck?
While pushing his bike down Fleecer Ridge on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, Spencer Dillon found himself wondering, “Why does this road suck?” In this unique essay, Spencer investigates the question and examines some of the many kinds of roads available to bikepackers in the United States and how they came to be. Read it here…
Words and photos by Spencer Dillon (@sponge_on_snow)
You are pedaling on a highway-sized logging road. The gravel is deep, and so are the washboard ribs. Your hands are almost shaken off the bars again. You are a bobblehead, especially helmeted, cresting each pebble wave only to fall into the next trough. Maybe the shoulder is a little better, being less frequented by the logging trucks that roar by every 20 minutes.
It isn’t. The grey gravel is supplanted on the shoulder by stupid, soft, beige sand. You hit another, smaller washboard and are almost sent into the ditch. It feels harder than it should. You’re tired, but are you really this weak? Is something rubbing? Is your tire low? It feels like you’re doing a lot of work. Maybe a rotor is rubbing. Is it a slight climb? You check the maps. Nope. Down even. How many more miles are you riding today?
Every moment tests your resolve. This is your vacation. This is what you chose for yourself. You yearn for somewhere less traveled, an idyllic two-track winding on pine needles through a quiet forest. Days later, you find it. Knee-deep ruts and 20% grades make for some of the slowest miles you’ve ever pushed. The washboard of yesterday is taking on a rosier glow by the vertical foot. Where are all the beautiful doubletracks printed in the magazines? Why is this not that?
A hill hammered by ATVers, a long straightaway washboarded by truckers, a neglected two-track put in 50 years ago and long forgotten, or even something like Fleecer Ridge on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) all contend to be our least favorite roads. As you’re cursing, pushing, falling, and shaking your brains out of your nose on these gems, questions burst in.
Why am I here? Why did BIKEPACKING.com’s route send me here? And, most interesting to me, Why does this road suck so much? While I can’t personally buttress or disavow any routes you may find published on this site, I can crack open that last question and try to understand why one or another particular road is unrideable in its own unique way.
I toured the GDMBR a few years ago, and it was an absolute joy. After coming down Fleecer Ridge in southwest Montana—perhaps the most notoriously steep and frustrating individual section of the route—my partner and I stopped into the Wise River Mercantile for refreshments and a resupply. Loudly, and not very tactfully, I complained to my partner and the cashier about the quality of the “road” we had ridden down: a two-track so steep and eroded that with both brakes locked, you would just skid down helplessly among the flowers and grasses for about 500 vertical feet.
We walked our bikes down after I accidentally skidded the first 200 feet, reciting the mountain biker’s Hail Mary: “Ohshitohshitohshitohshitohshitoshitohshit!” the obvious impetus for my complaining. As I bloviated, a man browsing white bread and canned soup behind us slowly turned his head, looking up from the baked beans, a real Montucky kinda guy, by the looks of him. He grinned slowly, “I put that road in with my buddy when we were 18. Blew out a couple tires on our ATVs doing it.” His grin grew wider as he spoke. For a moment, I was worried I offended him, that I was getting what I deserved for my peevish behavior, but it became clear that he relished our frustration. His creation was fulfilling its purpose. He was thrilled to meet cyclists struggling up and down it every summer.
So, there’s the answer to the question you didn’t ask about Fleecer. It’s unrideable because an 18-year-old made it. What remains inexplicable to me is that the US Forest Service decided to include it on official maps—to dignify it with a dotted line on paper. But what of the other terrible roads, each unique and engaging in their dysfunction? There are myriad ways for our favorite public utility to let us down, whether it’s washouts, ruts, overgrown vegetation, fallen trees, washboard, potholes, or unrideably steep, loose rocky climbs.
As you might imagine, the answer is, “It depends.” In my digging into the nature of unpaved roads in the United States, I’ve come to realize that our relationships with roads and the roads’ relationships with the land they occupy are rich and complex, that the suck depends on who made the road, who paid for it, who uses it now, who manages it, and geologically what kind of land it’s on.
The original purpose of a road is often the easiest to discover and will tell us volumes about what it might be like to ride on now. Of sanctioned roads, a portion are fire roads, some are for recreational access, and the majority are for timber and mining access. And in the desert, there are huge networks of semi-sanctioned jeep tracks that only need to be driven once or twice before they are permanently established in the landscape. These rogue, forgotten roads are considerably rarer in vegetated ecosystems, as low-traffic roads are ever so quickly swallowed up by the green masses. So, mostly fire and resource extraction roads.
A typical fire road will run along natural fire breaks and ridgelines and, as we have all experienced, seems to have no upper limit on grade and little concern for road surface, as they’re not designed for regular or pleasurable use. These are typically the most scenic roads we ride, but they also have the highest bullshit factor, routing to prominences and ridgelines. They also often don’t really go anywhere, worming around ridgelines before circling back to the junction you were just at. Let’s say that maintenance is variable. You can tell they’re fire roads on a map if they refuse to contour for smooth climbing up valleys or if they all seem to end in strange places, uninterested in connecting with other roads.
The resource access roads seem to be the bulk of gravel roads on public land. They go places and connect to other roads. Imagine! Paid for by the lessees but handed off to the land managers after the trees have been cut and the topsoil blown away, these roads make up the bulk of road expansion on public lands in the last 50 years. They are constructed to a significantly higher standard and tighter restrictions than fire roads to handle the brief but intense industrial traffic they endure before being put out to pasture. Their friendly grades and efficient routing can make them attractive to us, as long as the trucks didn’t love them too much. In addition to being beaten, these roads are often too good at connecting places, which makes for a sometimes frustrating amount of traffic.
That covers the majority of road miles on public land in America. Either fire infrastructure or mining and timber roads. But what about us? Why isn’t there more recreational infrastructure? Why doesn’t the US Forest Service maintain heavy-use recreational roads, even as they often become comically, remarkably unusable?
You know why. We, as cyclists and public land users, rarely generate any revenue for land managers. We just ride through, maybe buy a $10 parking pass if we’re flush that week. But you know who does fund the Forest Service? Of course you do: timber and mining interests. Gravel roads cost a lot of money. Like $15,000+/mile to build and $2,000-$4,000/mile to regrade and regravel, all depending. Funding road work through recreational revenues is like having a bake sale to buy a fighter jet.
So, our use of these roads after they’ve been retired from active use is a happy accident. We get to toodle our way through gigantic road networks that go nowhere fast. That they’re not built for efficient transit between points of interest reduces traffic to a trickle and makes them even better for us. We don’t have much of an impact on the roads, so the plush US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management budgets can be spent elsewhere. We are ghost users, leaving little mark and often uncountable in our use, logistically invisible to the land managers. And who doesn’t get a laugh at our expense as we flagellate ourselves on these often un-road-like roads?
Where do we go from here, then? Do we go bumping along, pinch flatting over the inexplicably large, square rocks in this stupid god damn road, getting sucked into water ruts and rueing our choices? Or can we move forward? Can we have more fun riding these roads? Can we make a positive change to these roads? No. We can’t. But we either have to be smarter about avoiding the worst of the suck or just accept the shake, sand, mud, and dust.
While we may be powerless as cyclists to reduce that shaken baby feeling on our favorite roads, we can at least avoid it somewhat. The first step in avoiding the chunk, big-wave washboard, moondust, and drainage issues is to ride the state and county roads. While some transit roads get hammered by commuter traffic, they receive regular maintenance as public utilities for rural communities. I have never ridden better gravel than the packed clay of southern Minnesota after its annual spring resurfacing.
The second thing, which is maybe more practical than moving to Minnesota to ride the farm roads, is to be more in tune with the environment of the road and act accordingly. Is it in slickrock country blasted into bedrock? Or is it an overgrown Tarzan trail in the mud of Washington or Kentucky? Or just another of the endless tracks in the sagebrush desert, punched into sandy soil and scoured by the wind? Each has its own needs, its own best season to ride, and its own lifecycle.
I’ll close by relating a short story about one of my favorite not-favorite roads, illustrative of the above conundrums. Southern Utah is home to some of my favorite bikepacking. Beautiful crushed sandstone jeep tracks winding endlessly among the mesas and hidden draws. Shelfy, backcountry double and singletrack under a fiery, atomic sunset. It’s also holds some of the worst, hardest, no-fun-even-laughing-about-it-months-later roads I’ve ever ridden. Almost all the worst roads I’ve ridden in the state suffered from the same problem: a lack of actual soil. On these roads, there is no right season, no appropriate way to engage with them. There is only suck.
BIKEPACKING.com’s Grand Staircase Loop is a 5-star (out of 5) route. Huge views, widely varied landscapes, minuscule traffic, engaging local political and historical interests, and the worst piece of road I’ve ever ridden come together to create bikepacking alchemy. It is simultaneously too hard, too beautiful, and too boring. It captures the desert experience perfectly.
The section of road in question sits just west of Big Water, Utah, and is made all the more painful because it comes just after a water source. Rolling out of town with that extra 10 liters of water, my partner and I followed a powerline up a short, unassuming draw until we reached the tablelands several hundred feet above. What lies in that unassuming draw, however, is exclusively beach sand.
One after another, 50-foot hill after 50-foot hill, up and down at grades too steep to ride on the up or the down. The sand was too deep and fine, even for my 29+ tires. We wallowed for hours, walking our bikes down and dragging them up an endless series of arduous molehills. On the map, it looked like maybe a mile and a smooth 300 feet of climbing. That’s because each of these infuriating hills hides just beneath the contour lines, rollercoastering up and down, too loose and slow to roll much on downs, let alone pedal the ups.
We pushed one bike at a time, each taking a side of the handlebars, feet slipping out underneath us in the sand and falling over and over and over. The mile took us almost half a day. Every time my hip cramped from getting off my bike again, I wondered, “What the hell was this road?” I could make out ATV tracks in the sand, but they weren’t recent. And why would should they be? Maybe it was an access road for the powerline? But the track snaked back and forth, vacillating hundreds of yards to and fro. Sweating and trying hard to not drink too much of our burden of water, we wondered. What on God’s green (sandy) earth?
Turns out our road, a county road, sits on state trust lands. The power line above us belongs to the local electric utility co-op, Garkane Energy. It is, I believe, their road to use for the maintenance of their line. In a way, this revelation spoiled the fun of ragging on that awful road. A local, community-owned cooperative uses it to support small towns in rural Utah and Arizona. The Co-op is certainly trying its best with limited resources, and this awful, awful road is a symptom of that, not some dork messing around in the desert.
Maybe if there was some dirt in Kane County or something besides sand, we could’ve enjoyed a shorter, more pleasant visit to the state trust lands. That beach sand awaits more weary travelers sent to their fate by BIKEPACKING.com’s alluring route among the mesa lands, sage, and sand.
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