Even the most glorious scenery—the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the Colorado Plateau carpeted with desert flowers—is enhanced or diminished by the roads on which cyclists must travel. When the highway is well engineered, wide with reliable shoulders, and smooth, cyclists can focus on the vistas all around, but when the roadway is compromised at any of these points, it scarcely matters how glorious the scenery. All attention has to be given to the road itself.
Freeway and frontage road: The arterial spine for PACTour’s Grand Canyon trip is I-40, the aging freeway that links Albuquerque and Flagstaff. It was built alongside of or on top an already existing U.S. highway, the much-heralded Route 66. Except in urban areas, long stretches of the interstate system are open to cyclists. Unless signs at on-ramps explicitly prohibit them, bicycles may enter the freeway, staying, of course, on the shoulders.
Some of the worst cycling roads of this trip were on freeway shoulders, with a stretch west of Holbrook, Arizona, especially bad: old, crumbling, litter ridden, and diagonal rumble strips every few yards extending across the entire surface. Worst of all, these old sections of freeway cause steel belted truck tires to explode, carpeting the shoulder with tiny, hair-like slivers of wire that work their way into tires until they penetrate tubes, causing flats. In addition to two flats, one rider also discovered and extracted six other wires that would have brought him down later in the ride.
One of the best stretches of road was also on I-40, somewhere east of Grants, New Mexico: newly rebuilt, smooth, so free of litter that it seemed that it had been swept, and it ran down-hill with a tail wind!
Cyclists choose the frontage road, which on this trip consisted, for the most part, of snippets of old Route 66. Mostly two-lane, these roadways survive because the old highway wandered a little rather than taking the straightest way possible. Most of the time, these little loops of older blacktop are pleasant roadways, taking cyclists through the old villages and towns, and through some of the most interesting and intimate scenic attractions.
Long loops off to the side: In order to experience a wider range of terrain and human settlement, the Grand Canyon Tour took the long way on several occasions, swinging on long loops far removed from the freeway. Usually these roads were state highways, built to a wide range of standards. For many of these miles, there were no shoulders, and cyclists used the traffic lane, claiming as much of the space as seemed necessary to have a dependable surface on which to ride. When they existed, the shoulders tended to be in poor repair, litter-laden, and more dangerous than the roadway itself.
On this itinerary, many of the roads consisted of coarse chip and seal surfaces, which whether new or old created a constant road rumble that had to be absorbed by a cyclist’s hands, feet, and rump. The smoothest place to ride was the white line at the edge because the paint itself smoothed out the road surface a little.
The worst road of all: Other than the bone-shaking stretch of highway under construction, the worst highways of this year’s tour were in Utah. As soon as they crossed the Arizona-Utah state line on US 163, the cyclists encountered some of the coarsest chip and seal of the entire thousand-mile route. After their night in Mexican Hat, Utah, they turned south on US 191, an old red road with wide shoulders composed of older, rougher composite . Compounding the misery of the rough surface were freeze cracks every two or three pedal strokes. On the shoulder, they were from two to four inches across, while on the main roadway some were even wider. No escape from the numbing thump, thump, thump. Cyclists could take comfort in the structural integrity of their bicycles.
Maybe the best road of the trip: After a pleasant day at Canyon de Chelly, PACTourists turned onto Navajo Tribal Road 64. For thirteen or fourteen miles, they climbed steadily on a new road of exceedingly coarse chip and seal. At the top of the grade, however, everything changed. A steady, sometimes exciting descent was one factor, but more important was the roadway itself: wide and smooth traffic lanes in very good repair, and shoulders that provided absolutely secure places to bicycle. Furthermore, the harsh, unsettling rumble strips that characterize state and federal highways in Arizona and New Mexico were nowhere to be seen!
Not yet heavenly streets of gold, but as close as we can ever hope to see on this side of the great divide. One more foretaste of heaven: with few exceptions, the cyclists encountered the greatest of courtesy and respect from motorists—not quite angels, but close enough.
Note: Images (except for the one below) courtesy of Scott Park.