Tar and Chip

I was about four years old when we first moved out “into the country”1. When we moved out to the house across the field, the road we lived on was gravel, as were most of the roads connecting to it. And the road in front of the house we live in now was gravel up until I was a young adult. Many of the roadways in the region have since been paved, but certainly not all.

When the roadways in the area get upgraded from gravel they most typically are converted to tar and chip. If you’ve driven on country roads this is a surface that you are probably familiar with - it’s very common. According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong), tar and chip is cheaper than asphalt or concrete pavement, so it makes sense that it would be applied on more lightly traveled roads like ours.

The past winter was pretty hard on the roads in our area, and as a result the township road crews have been dutifully working on them. The first phase of that often involves simply patching holes, but as the summer goes on they have reapplied the road surfaces in several areas.

This leads to an... interesting period of time with respect to those surfaces.

You can tell when a road has been recently resurfaced. The visual effect is exactly the opposite of what you see on a new asphalt roadway - with new asphalt the surface is a very dark back. With tar and chip, it’s much lighter - often almost white.

Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip

I’m no transportation engineer2, but broadly speaking, as I understand it, tar and chip essentially involves putting gravel (“aggregate” - the “chip”) into a layer of tar, then rolling over it to smooth it down. I’m quite sure it’s more complicated than that, but that’s my layman’s understanding.

The reason any of this is important is that, when one starts to encounter those newly whitened roadways, one also needs to be prepared for a change in the quality of the road surface. Often, for the first few weeks following resurfacing, there can be a considerable amount of loose material on the roadway - chip that did not choose to join with the tar.

For this period of time then, roads that were once apparently solid and unyielding suddenly become slippery, sometimes in an unexpected way. For all intents and purposes, for this period of time, those roadways behave in many ways as if they are gravel roads. This means that not only can you expect material to be moving from under your wheels, but you will also have the joy of passing vehicles throwing gravel up at you as they pass (and, to be fair, you at them as well).

This is especially delightful if you are operating an open vehicle like a bike or trike when people drive by. And because people are used to driving on these roads like they would on any other paved surface, they often operate at speeds commensurate for those surfaces, rather than what you typically see on gravel.

None of this is to complain - not really. As a person who has routinely operated a variety of vehicles on both gravel and tar and chip, I can confirm that the latter is a far friendlier surface. When I was a kid I can remember having a friend who lived only about 2 1/2 miles away - a paltry distance for our bikes to manage, even at a young age, back then. But the fact that the last mile of that ride was on gravel made riding to see him seem challenging at best, insurmountable at worse.

As an adult I no longer see it as insurmountable, but as a general rule, I avoid gravel where possible, regardless of the vehicle I’m in or on3. What this means is that, if the direct route involves gravel, but there’s a way to either avoid it entirely, or at least minimize it, I’ll be going out of my way (sometimes by a couple of miles).

So the tar and chip is an overall good, relatively speaking. But you’ll want to keep your eyes open for that characteristic white roadway, and adjust accordingly.

  1. I put that in quotes because urban readers will consider the small town we moved out of to also be “in the country”, but there are absolutely differences. The primary difference is proximity. In a town, your neighbors are typically within a couple dozen feet of you in every direction. They are always in earshot, and often in view and, consequently, so are you to them. As my brother-in-law once said: “If you can’t pee off your back porch without being seen, you aren’t in the country”.  ↩

  2. I’m not a transportation engineer, but the guy who wrote the Wikipedia entry might very well be. Including the part where it’s written as if everyone reading it will also be an engineer...  ↩

  3. Perhaps somewhat ironically, gravel roads are at their best for cycling when they are in poor repair. Give me a gravel road with well worn tire tracks in it and I’m happy, but a newly surfaced gravel road is an instrument of torture.  ↩