Knowledge Level: Beginner
Whether you’re commuting, riding for recreation, training for a sportive or even racing, statistics show that cycling is a very safe activity. However, when riding on the roads it’s inevitable that there will be times when you’ll have to deal with hazardous road surfaces, stop quickly or avoid potential danger.
Avoidance is always best
Looking ahead and learning to anticipate potential problems or hazards is one of the most important skills for safe riding on the road. Watch out for the warning signs that there might be problems further down the road such as other cyclists or other traffic moving unusually or brake lights suddenly coming on. Look, signal and then move early to avoid potential issues that you have identified, don’t leave it until you’re right on top of them. Always ride in the correct position in the road or your lane. This isn’t in the gutter, where many hazards, such as drain covers, are found but about one metre out. Try to plan your routes to avoid known hazards such as poor surfaces, potholes or high traffic volumes. If you encounter bad potholes you can report them online.
If you’re riding in a group, don’t just mindlessly follow the wheel ahead, try to regularly look over or around the riders ahead to anticipate how the group will move. Be aware of any verbal or hand signals that may be passed down through the group and what action you should take. If you’re the front of the group, point out significant hazards that the riders following need to be aware of. However use judgement and common sense and don’t point out every blemish on the road as the riders behind you will have to remove a hand from their bars to pass the message along and this could prove more dangerous than the hazard.
Hazardous Road Surfaces
Common hazardous road surfaces that you should be aware of are:
Slippery surfaces (ice, water, oil, wet leaves etc.)
Uneven surfaces (such as cobbles)
Metal surfaces (grids, manhole covers)
Poorly maintained surfaces (eg upswept cycle lanes or potholes)
Speed humps and cushions
Be aware that certain weather is more likely to lead to hazardous road surfaces. Heavy rain can wash more debris into the road, oil will tend to float on top of water and puddles can obscure potholes. Cold snaps bring the potential for ice on the roads and, after thawing, can cause road surfaces to break up and form potholes. In autumn be especially aware of fallen leaves and, on roads that don’t receive direct sunlight, green patches that can indicate slippery moss, algae or lichen.
What to do
If you come across a hazardous road surface, ideally you should try to avoid it. You should only choose to take evasive action though if you can do so in a safe and controlled manner that won’t further endanger yourself or other road users. Don’t brake or steer suddenly and observe all around before changing direction to avoid a hazard.
Sometimes you will be forced or it will be safer to ride over the hazardous surface. If you can, reduce your speed by pulling gently on both brakes before coming to the hazard but make sure you release your brakes once you’re on it. Move your bodyweight back slightly and keep your knees and elbows soft to absorb any shocks. Try to stay relaxed and don’t overreact or suddenly tense up if the bike moves underneath you slightly. Steer as straight as you can and try to meet any obstacles or defects such as tram lines or potholes square on.
One of the best ways to develop the confidence and bike handling skills that’ll allow you to better cope with hazardous road surfaces is to do some off-road riding. Away from traffic and on loose, muddy and slippery trails, you’ll be able to get used to the sensation of the bike moving under you and be able to safely experiment with body position and correct weighting. Mountain bike trail centres offer way-marked trails suitable for all abilities and many also hire out bikes.
Sometimes an occasion might arise when you’ll need to stop quickly. A pedestrian may step out in front of you or a car may unexpectedly pull out of a junction. Many of these situations can be avoided by looking down the road, moving early and anticipating problems but even the most experienced cyclists are sometimes caught out.
Before every ride, make sure that your brakes are working correctly. Ride with your hands covering your brakes, especially if there are pedestrians on the pavement who may step into the road, parked cars that may obscure your vision or when passing a junction.
On a quiet stretch of traffic free road, practice the following technique for emergency stops. Repeat it until you are confident of your ability to stop quickly and have developed a feel for how best to handle your bike in an emergency stop situation.
- Ride at the speed that you typically cycle at.
- Keeping your weight slightly back and your head low and looking forwards, apply both brakes firmly, putting slightly more pressure on the front brake.
- Keep the bike straight and stay relaxed.
- If you sense the back wheel lifting, reduce the pressure on the front brake.
If the weather or road conditions are poor, safe stopping distances will increase massively and you should adjust your cycling speeds accordingly.