Cycling is a unique sport because its arena is the open road. That’s the same place frequented by traffic, potholes, snarling dogs and absent-minded pedestrians.
But sometimes we’re our own worst enemy. Inattention and poor technique can put us on the pavement as fast as any hazard. Use these tips and you’ll be less likely to take a tumble.
- Always ride with your head up. While cruising along, it’s tempting to stare at the whirling pattern of the front spokes or fixate on your bike computer’s numbers. A momentary downward glance that lasts just a second too long can mean riding into a problem that could easily have been avoided.
- Focus. The smooth and rhythmic motion of pedaling can have a hypnotic effect. Daydreaming cyclists have crashed into the back of parked cars, wandered far into the traffic lane or blithely ridden off the road. Don’t let yourself be separated from the outside world by the vivid canvases created by your imagination. Keep your head in the game.
- Keep your bike in top mechanical condition. Repair or replace faulty parts sooner rather than later. It’s a loser’s game to milk just one more ride out of worn brake pads, a frayed cable, or tires with a threadbare tread or bulging sidewall. Your first line of defense against the challenges of the real world is a bike with all parts in good working order.
It’s every rider’s fate to flat. But it’s relatively easy to limit the frequency.
- Choose your line with care. The best way to avoid punctures is also the easiest: Steer around broken glass, road rubble and potholes.
- Check your tires. Inspect the tread after every ride for embedded debris. Remember, most punctures are caused by something sticking to the tread and working through during numerous wheel revolutions. Replace tires before they become so thin that they’re virtually defenseless against pointy things.
- Check inflation pressure every couple of days. Tubes are slightly porous and may lose several pounds of pressure each day. Road tubeless tires lose air too. Too-soft tires corner poorly, wear fast, and don’t protect your rims against metal-bending impacts.
Hitting potholes can bend your rims beyond repair. If it’s deep enough, it will send you hurtling over the handlebar when you bury the front wheel and the bike suddenly stops. Here’s a primer on pothole evasion.
- Note where potholes lurk on your normal training routes. Plan your line well in advance to avoid them. Don’t expect the road to be in the same condition every day. Potholes have a habit of sprouting up out of nowhere, especially in the winter and early spring due to the daily freeze/thaw cycle.
- Treat potholes like glass. Ride around them, first checking behind for traffic. Be mindful of riding partners when you change your line. Newly minted pot-holes present a double hazard — the chasm itself, and the chunks of shattered pavement around it. If the pothole doesn’t bend your wheel, the sharp bits of rubble might puncture your tire. Give these highway craters a wide berth.
Unlike most dangers, tracks can’t be ridden around. You can suffer an instant crash if your tires slip on the shiny steel rails. Ride with extreme caution and follow these safety tips.
- Slow down! Tracks are rough, and even if you don’t crash you could get a pinch flat. This happens when you ride into something abrupt, like a rail, and it pinches the tube between the tire and rim, slicing two little holes in the tube.
- Rise slightly off the saddle. Have equal weight on your hands and feet. Let the bike chatter beneath you. Use your flexed arms and legs as shock absorbers.
- Cross tracks at a right angle. If the rails are diagonal to the road and you cross them at an angle, your front wheel can be twisted out from under you. A perpendicular passage is essential in the rain. Wet metal tracks are incredibly slippery. The slightest imbalance or abrupt move can send you sprawling.
Additional Slick Spots
- Painted lines. These can be slippery, especially the wide markings for pedestrian crossings at intersections. The paint fills in the asphalt’s texture, producing a surface That’s uncertain when dry and deadly when wet. The danger is worse when the paint is new.
- Dry oil slicks. These may be nearly invisible, but you can spot them as darker streaks on a gray pavement. Be real careful in corners. You aren’t safe if you ride through oil on the straights. The greased tread might slip in a corner just ahead.
- Wet oil slicks. If it rains, a small oily patch can grow until it covers the whole lane. Be on the lookout for the telltale multi-colored water. There’s no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, only a black-and-blue meeting with the pavement.
- Wet metal. If it’s been raining and you come upon anything metal in the road (manhole cover, steel-deck bridge, road-repair plate), it’s as treacherous as riding on ice. Cross it with the bike absolutely upright. Even a slight lean can cause the wheels to slip. Smart riders walk their bikes across wet steel bridges.
- Wet leaves. Be very careful in the fall, or you will. Even if the road is dry, there can be moisture trapped between leaves littering the pavement. When you see leaves in a corner, slow down and round the bend with your bike upright, not angled.
- Sewer grates. Some old ones have bars that run parallel to the street and are wide enough to let a bike wheel fall through. If this happens, you can look forward to a trip to the hospital. Many municipalities have replaced such grates with bicycle-friendly versions, but be careful in case a town hasn’t gotten the message yet.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.
Gary Turney says
Good suggestions. I learned two of your lessons very early, as a kid some 40 years ago. Saw a friend drop the entire front wheel of his brand new Schwinn Varsity into a sewer grate, up to the hub bolts. Somehow he and the bike came out OK. Myself, I dove over the handlebars when crossing a set of railroad tracks that crossed the road at a 45 degree angle and grabbed my front wheel. That got me two broken fingers and third one dislocated. Luck it wasn’t worse because I was flying along. Ever since I never cross a sewer grate and slow to a crawl at all railroad tracks.
Don Niemi says
My worst crash was on a street in Washington, D.C. I lived in Arlington and commuted to work by bike. There had been a windstorm the night before, and while riding home I failed to notice a broken piece of branch about the size and shape of a cigar. I rode over one end of the wood and flipped it up into my spokes. When the branch got as far as my fork, the front wheel stopped; so did the rest of the bike. I kept going — right over the handlebars. A passing motorist took me to the nearest emergency room, where my chin was repaired with eight stitches. I landed on the asphalt pavement and scraped my face. I looked awful, but healed in about a week. All this happened in 1976, before helmets were popular. But I don’t think a helmet would have helped much. I was lucky: wasn’t hit by a car while lying in the street; not so much as a chipped tooth; didn’t even break the sunglasses I was wearing. But ever since, I’ve been wary of sticks lying on the road.
Don’t forget about sand and gravel left over from winter road treatments. Riding over those areas can be as hazardous as walking on marbles! I went over the handlebars 60 years ago, was unconscious for 36 hours and have evermore had an excuse for whatever craziness I’ve embraced since! Wearing a helmet whenever riding being as essential as using a seatbelt whenever in a car.
Bruce Miller says
An additional issue with tracks is the road shoulder often disappears at the crossing. If you have traffic behind you, maneuverability is limited when crossing the tracks.
Dave Becker says
Thanks for the information .I always learn something new . I have more of a question than a comment. When riding if I ever hit a sharp object such as a rock, hole I worry about sidewall damage . If I get a flat because of the tire striking such a object I replace the tire also. I’ve seen sidewall in the past. Am I too cautious?
Bill Wilkman says
Another hazard to avoid is the lip on a driveway. If crossed at too shallow of an angle, the wheel can get caught leading to a nasty fall. While on the subject, speed bumps are another hazard to be wary of. These must be crossed at a very low speed. If negotiated at a higher speed, they can take a bike down in seconds.