Riding Highway 1's rough road

Tribune reporter braves the gravelly chip seal on scenic roadway

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJune 8, 2013 

I’m not an avid cyclist.

I have a bike, but it’s one of those cruisers with fat tires and pedal brakes. A handlebar basket full of flowers wouldn’t be out of place.

So when my editor asked me to test the rough road on Highway 1 near Cambria, I had to borrow a pair of wheels from a co-worker.

The issue is this: Caltrans resurfaced 20 miles of the scenic roadway, from Cambria to the Monterey County line, with what is called chip seal — a treatment that uses larger, less expensive rocks. Because the chip seal is more gravelly, bicyclists complain it provides for a rougher, uneven ride. Sometimes, they say, passing cars pelt them with little pieces of rock.

At best, it’s unpleasant, they charge; at worst, dangerous.

Caltrans has been working to find solutions, but resurfacing the road would cost between $7 million and $8 million. And, well, these are frugal times. Which is why Caltrans spent just $2 million on the chip seal in the first place.

On the other hand, the stretch is a popular destination for bicyclists because — news alert — it’s awesome. If you were a bicyclist who chose Interstate 5 near Kettleman City over Highway 1 along the coast, I might suspect you hadn’t been wearing a helmet enough.

But bicyclists say one major cycling event through Cambria has already been canceled because of the chip seal. And, frankly, that’s tourism dough.

Being a novice cyclist — you won’t find Spandex in my closet — the prospect of riding along Highway 1 was sketchy enough. Chip seal? I’m worried about the speeding driver texting his bros about camping at Limekiln.

By the time I started, the wind had already picked up, making me a little nervous. I only rode about 4 miles before my thighs started burning, but it was a pretty good sampling of the road. And, yes, you could definitely tell the difference.

The portions of road without chip seal are smooth and flat. When you hit the chip seal, you first meet a little lip, then things get rough — sort of like riding in a shaky old U-Haul as opposed to a new luxury van. Nervous about the texture, I found myself staring at the road a lot, which sort of defeats the point of enjoying views of the ocean, mountains and Hearst Castle zebras. 

The bike didn’t glide as smoothly over the chip seal, so I found myself peddling more. As the tires made rumbling sounds over the rock, I figured I’d be pretty zonked out if I had to travel this surface for a long stretch.

While this is a better surface for an off-road bike, I wasn’t fearful. And, to be honest, the video from my GoPro camera doesn’t show much of a difference, other than the coloration of the road. While I did get pelted by a few tiny pebbles near Hearst Castle, it didn’t cause me to veer off the road to an untimely death.

Still, if I were a tourist on a cycling trip, I would start south of the area, skipping Cambria. After all, there’s still plenty of oceanside highway from Cayucos to Morro Bay. Or, shoot — that stretch north of Malibu sure is nice.

Eventually, Caltrans says, the chip seal will smooth out with usage. Caltrans workers tried to further roll and flatten the surface after complaints from cyclists, but a Caltrans spokesman said that  effort hasn’t had much immediate effect.

Meanwhile, Caltrans is sweeping the road regularly to clear loose rock. 

And this summer, Caltrans and UC Davis plan to test various surfacing treatments on chip seal near King City in an effort to find some way to help the Highway 1 situation. Eventually, they hope, cyclists will feel comfortable rolling along one of the country’s most scenic stretches of highway.

Personally, I’d prefer a leisurely cruiser ride in a nice, quiet neighborhood. A basket full of flowers would be calming.

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