Asphaltophilia

I don’t like musicals. There’s something about suddenly bursting into song to express your feelings that doesn’t work for me. That and random street urchins, shopkeepers and others showing unexpected dancing skills and the ability to backflip down the street as part of the big showstopper number stretches credibility. It freaks me out. But I’m not a complete luddite so a few of the songs from famous musicals have crept into my consciouness over the years. One of thoese is My Favourite Things from The Sound Of Music. I think of it everytime I ride my bike on some particularly lovely road – a strange and satisfying thing that most people don’t appreciate except my fellow cyclists.

The everyday pleasure comes from smooth asphalt or an inviting corner that just begs you to lean the bike over and enjoy the G-forces. Dig a bit deeper and I realise I have strange addiction to finding and riding beautiful roads. Let’s call it “asphaltophilia”. I’ve structured whole bike trips around getting to a perfect bit of road seen on Instagram, glimpsed out of train window or tracked down on a map (the best ones tend to look like a bit of overcooked spaghetti dropped onto a mountain).

Not all roads live up to expectations. A poor surface usually dampens the enjoyment but sometime makes the climb. Traffic, scenery, gradient all factor in. Some roads are great for climbing but rubbish for descending or vice versa. The time of day and weather matters: cycling to Manchester and back last year we climbed out of Buxton just as golden hour hit towards the end of a long sunny day setting the fella on fire and accentuating a beautiful, traffic-free swooping descent down to Whaley Bridge. It was a prefect moment.

A hint of exoticism or esotericism help as well – Alpe d’Huez and Sa Calobra lose points for their fame (not that I’ve ridden the latter) compared to something outside cycling’s heartlands.

So what’s got me going at the moment? Here’s a shortlist of roads I want to ride, sometimes even though I’ve ridden them before:

  • Irohozaka in Nikko, Japan is unfinished business. I intended to ride down it then back up it when I went cycle touring there in 2013 but a wheel going out of true meant I had to abandon that idea. Stick it into Google image search and feast your eyes on the hairpins stacked up on top of another, winding through beautiful autumn foliage next to a magnificent waterfall and tell me you don’t want to ride this road?
  • Closer to home Houndhouse Lane in the Surrey Hills always puts a smile on my face. Climb out of Shere, over the railway line and dip down before entering the woods. The road enters a Hobbit-like sunken tunnel of clay banks with trees obscuring the sky. Gentle curves hide the way ahead and mean you don’t notice the gradient ramping up – never too steep but enough to make the legs burn by the time you get to the top. The fact it’s a quick descent to Peaslake Shop and a sausage roll is only a bonus.
  • Tsugaru Iwaki Skyline just blows your mind when you see it on a map: 69 (snigger) near-perfect hairpins heaped on top of another up a dormant volcano in northern Japan. I love cycling in Japan (I could have filled this list with Japanese roads) and this looks daunting and beautiful. Sadly it’s usually closed to bikes apart from possibly one day a year for a hillclimb event which of course has no details in English… not sure I’ll ever tick this one off.
  • La Torre is mainland Portugal’s highest mountain and has roads all the way to the top including one which has a lengthy section of gravel. But it’s the route up from Manteigas that I’m picking out. It’s a big old climb but the scenery is amazing too starting with a long, straight drag up through a glaciated valley, a few lazy landscapes before a remarkable road chiselled into the rock peak and then the strange dereliction of the abandoned observatory at the peak.
  • Not a short Strava segment but an entire road, the Carretara Austral winds its way through fjords and across lakes where Chile kinda starts giving into the Pacific Ocean before reasserting itself in Patagonia. Currently mostly gravel, the scenery looks stunning and as it’s a deadend you might have to cycle back having ridden it.

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