From the age of 10 or 11 I have been exposed to chip seal repairs on rural paved roads. The first experience was in front of our home in Whitman County on state highway 23. As kids we took advantage of the slow and stopped traffic to sell Walla Walla sweet onions in a roadside stand.
As a cyclist, though, chip seal on the pavement is a serious inconvenience, safety concern and can be a maintenance headache for our bikes when tires wear out much faster than they normally would.
One of the county engineers told me last year that studies have shown chip seal (gravel laid over oil/tar and rolled into the existing pavement) extends the live of the road by 70 years or so. They put primary roads in Kittitas County on a seven year cycle of chip sealing. It seems to me that some of the argument is just an excuse for not doing more regular road maintenance. Cracks develop in pavement - that's a part of life - but I don't see the county doing a lot of sealing of those cracks and doing more basic road maintenance (I drive thousands of miles a month so get a chance to observe a lot).
From a safety perspective the state laws state a cyclist needs to ride as far to the right of the roadway as is SAFE. The problem with chip seal is it eliminates your shoulder as a safe place to ride because it is never worn down by traffic and it accumulates all kinds of debris (sand and rocks) versus having that debris blown off a smoother surface by passing cars. Because of the elimination of the shoulder as a prime place to ride the cyclist is now forced out into the lane of travel to safely ride.
I cringe to think of the day we loose Look Rd to chip seal. It is, by far, the best road close to Ellensburg to ride safe and fast on. It is developing some cracks but none have been sealed by the county. It's a refreshing break to come off chip seal and ride on the silky smooth feel of Look Rd increasing speed and comfort even if it is only for five miles or so. But the day it is chip sealed will be the day I get more nervous and frustrated riding on it.
The biggest problem I have is much of the chip seal is not done efficiently. Gaps form in the gravel cover, rocks loosen up all the time and more importantly there doesn't seem to be much follow up to see how the seal worked. On my road, Thomas Rd, the chip seal is so rough and sparse in some areas it seems like an absolute waste of money to have even laid it down.
I recently decided to ride on the Vantage Highway, which was chip sealed this past summer. Normally I wait at least two years before riding a newly sealed road to give the autos a chance to wear down the rocks. The Vantage Highway is very heavily travelled and I thought maybe the pavement would have been smoothed out quicker than other roads. Safety was never much of a concern for me in the because I had up to 12 inches of shoulder to ride on as cars and trucks passed. Now you literally have to ride 12 inches inside the fog line to get any semblance of a smoother ride.
I only road for 2.5 miles on the highway and I was floored at the poor job the county did last summer. The chip seal undulates and skips and is one of the roughest pavements I've ridden on in the past year. If I worked at the county I would be embarrassed at the quality of work that was done. You don't notice it in a car, but on a bike you feel like you're being shaken all over the place.
Chip seal is obviously here to stay and we have to deal with it as cyclists. It would just be nice if government personnel thought of safety for all who use these roadways and became more proactive. For me, I'll continue to stay off the Vantage Highway and use parallel routes that are smoother and offer a more comfortable ride.