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What Makes A Road Not Just Good But Great?

During a relaxed evening, I like to dig out DVDs of the old classic Top Gear show and watch an episode (bonus points if they decide to feature something I’ve written up for Private Fleet’s reviews). Now and then, the Terrible Trinity of May, Clarkson and Hammond take whatever gorgeous piece of metal and/or carbon fibre they’re talking about onto some road somewhere in the world and they start talking not just about the car but about the road and what a great road it is.

This got me thinking: what is it that makes a road not just good but great? Obviously, to be a good road, it has to be in good condition. Anything with potholes just doesn’t cut the mustard, no matter what other features it has. It has to be safe as well, which rules out the notorious Camino del Muerte in Bolivia from Yungas to La Paz (this has now ruled itself out – the government has now shut it to motor traffic and it’s a very, very popular mountain bike trail).

A bit of poking and prodding around online produced quite a few top ten and top twenty lists of what are considered by various bloggers and authorities to be the best roads in the world to drive. Rather than simply re-hashing what these others have said, I got all analytical on them to work out which characteristics made a good road into a great road. After all, few of us are able to travel the entire world to find the great roads, but maybe there’s some little hidden treasure not too far away from you that could have qualified for these lists, if only the writers (or the tourism promoters paying the writers) knew about them. Having said that, the Great Ocean Road in Victoria makes it onto a lot of these lists, so if you’re in Melbourne, you’re not that far away from an officially great road anyway.

Hallmarks Of A Great Road

  1. Amazing Scenery. Just about all of the famous roads on the various lists seem to feature spectacular scenery of some kind, preferably the sort that can be described as “dramatic”. Mountains and cliffs seem to feature heavily in most, but not all, cases.  However, the scenery would still be just as dramatic if it was viewed from the window of a tour bus, so there must be more to what makes a great road great than just the views.  What’s more, if you are driving on a road that qualifies as having great scenery, make sure that you pull over in a sensible place for your photo opportunities rather than trying to take something while standing in the middle of the road.
  2. Non-Metropolitan. I don’t know if “non-metropolitan” is officially a dictionary word but how else do you describe routes that include small to medium towns and villages as well as plenty of rural scenery? However, this seems to be another feature of the great roads. Probably, the ability to travel at full open road speed is something to do with it, punctuated by the chance to fill up with fuel, recharge, have a coffee and go to the loo somewhere civilized.
  3. Bends. Roads that are dead straight the whole way do not qualify as great roads, although long and epic roads that have significant straight sections do make it onto these lists (Ruta 40 in Argentina and the Ocean Highway in Florida being the main examples here). However, to be a great road for a driver, a road has to have a few bends in it, preferably large, looping ones. Where else would you get to see what the handling of your vehicle can really do?  One thing to bear in mind, though, is that spectacular scenery often means big drop-offs and/or idiots taking selfies in dumb places, and being non-metropolitan means that it can take some time for the emergency services to arrive and cellphone coverage may be dodgy.  Getting the exact quality and quantity of bends in the road to make it great is a fine balancing act.  Too many and the road becomes risky and you miss out on the scenery.  Too few and it’s not enough of a challenge for a driver.  If you’re interested in taking a mathematical approach to this sort of thing, rental car company Avis has got a formula it uses for creating its list of best roads that looks at the ratio of time spent going around bends to time spent on a straight.  Exactly how many bends there are and how sharp they need to be to make a road great or perfect will vary from driver to driver. Some people like to have more hairpins than a busy hairdresser (Stelvio Pass, I’m looking at you); others prefer wide sweeps and gentle undulations.  But bends are a must.

If you are lucky enough to get the chance to travel the world and try out some of the great roads beyond what we’ve got here, then one thing to remember is that although the piccies posted by travel websites and the footage on motor shows make it look as though you will have the road to yourself, you probably won’t.  So enjoy the drive, by all means, but share the love and share the road.

If you have been lucky enough to drive a road you consider to be great, then let us know all about in the comments… unless you want to keep a delightful secret all to yourself.

One comment

  1. Bill Nixon says:

    The Putty Road between Windsor and Bulga in NSW qualifies IMHO as a great road. Plenty of bends and hills and beautiful scenery with very low traffic most days.

    November 25th, 2019 at 9:10 pm

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