Road riding compared to mountain biking or gravel road riding can be smooth and straight forward; so much so you could practically take a nap sometimes. However, in most parts of the country, roads can take a beating and be rough and full of potholes. If they are smooth you still have to watch out for things like manhole covers and railroad tracks. Knowing what to do when you encounter these will save more than just your skin. You not only need to know what to do but also be able to react to the hazard without even thinking about it so practice is necessary.
Bumpy roads are bumpy for a reason. They’re old and not taken care of so the likely hood of potholes and other hazards is much greater. The first thing in encountering any road hazard is to always make sure that you have a good grasp on the bars. You never know when something is going to pop up and having your hands on the bars will at least allow you to react otherwise you’ll most definitely be on the ground.
There are three ways to get to the other side of a pothole. Around it, over it, and through it. If you see the pothole far enough in advance you can simply ride around it. However when you spot it late and don’t have time to gradually steer around it, you have to react at the last second. The way to do this is to steer your bike to the side of the pot hole you want to go around. This is a quick flick of the bars to that side while you keep the bike in an upright positon. As you do this you will be off balance so you need to maintain that balance by moving your body toward the opposite side you are steering to. (If you steer around the left of a pothole you move your body slightly to the right of the bike) Once you pass the pothole you immediately re-center your balance on the bike to keep from tipping over. This requires a bit of practice but once you get the idea you’ll be able to do it without even thinking about it.
The second way to getting past a pothole is to go over it with a bunny hop. This again requires some more skill but can easily be learned. Bunny hopping is often the best way to get over a hole if it’s not too big as it doesn’t put you in front of potential traffic or other riders. There are two ways to bunny hop. The first can be used for shorter pot holes where you lift the front wheel and then the back wheel as it approaches the same point. Pretend there is a log there that you are trying to get over. It’s the same idea. The second way is to bring both wheels off the ground at the same time. This is the way to get over anything that is longer as well as if you are going at a faster speed. The way to do this is to slightly bend your legs and almost jump by pushing your body up from the bike and then pulling the bike up toward you. This will require practice and the video below should get you rolling.
The third way to get past a pothole is to ride right through it. Obviously this should be avoided but sometimes it’s just too late to do anything else. If this happens, make sure you hold onto the bars tight and let the front wheel drop into the hole. If you try to hold it up and don’t make it to the other side you will slam your front tire straight into the opposing side potentially causing a flat or a crash. Then once your wheel is in the hole, lift, or take as much weight off the front wheel as possible. As the back wheel comes through try and do the same. Lifting your butt off the saddle will also help to absorb the impact with your legs rather than have all your weight go straight through the seat post into the back tire.
Road grates in some parts of the country can spell disaster. Some cities make sure that they are made or situated so a bike tire won’t fit through but in many places this is not the case. Riding over one can cause your front wheel to drop in sending you straight to the pavement. The best way to avoid this is to never ride over them. Even if you see that they are safe, don’t risk it. Use the pothole techniques to go over or around them.
Gravel and Loose Corners
Gravel can sneak up on you in corners anywhere, especially if winter has just broken and you live in a place with snow. The best way to avoid crashing in a loose corner is to take it gingerly but that’s not always possible particularly if you didn’t expect it to be loose. Crashing on loose surfaces happens because as you lean into the corner there is not enough traction to counteract that movement. To avoid that, you need to lean your body through the corner, not your bike. Your bike should stay more upright, as you lean your body to the inside of the corner. Think motorcycle racer. They’re further to the inside of the corner than their bike. You then steer the bike more than leaning in to it.
Manhole Covers and Other Slippery Surfaces
Slippery surfaces like manhole covers and crosswalks should be avoided like road grates if possible. When they can’t however, you should ride across them like it’s ice or a loose gravel corner. Do not lean the bike, as soon as you do your wheels will wash out from under you. Keep your weight centered over the bike and any turns you have to make you have to do so gingerly.
Railroad tracks pose another challenge that can be treacherous particularly in the rain. Directly perpendicular tracks are relatively straight forward to cross and can be done so without too much caution. The only real issue here is when they are not smooth as you can get a flat or even break a wheel if you hit them too hard. You need to approach them like a pothole and bunny hop them if you can, otherwise unweight your wheels as they go across each bump and absorb the impact with your arms and legs.
Diagonal tracks pose another threat. They are perhaps one of the hardest road obstacles to navigate particularly if they’re wet. The best way to approach them is to make sure no traffic is coming and swing wide into the lane so you can cross them at a ninety degree angle. If you try to ride straight across wet angled tracks, you are almost guaranteed to crash. The other way of getting over them is hop each track individually with a quick double bunny hop where you lift your front wheel over and then back and as the back wheels coming down you do it again for the second track. The added space between the tracks, because it’s at an angle, gives just enough room for this to work. It takes practice but when you’re good, it’s the easiest and safest way to cross.
Road hazards come in all shapes and sizes and knowing how to get around, over, or through them will save you more times than one. All of these need practice however so when the time comes you can react and navigate your hazard gracefully and not think about it. Make sure you have a safe area with no real dangerous hazards that could injure you and give the techniques a go. You would much rather be put under pressure to do something difficult when there isn’t a car, or other riders, behind you waiting for you to get across some wet railroad tracks. Practice now, pedal past the hazard later and keep all your skin intact.