It’s been a brutal winter.  Our club riding mileage is down, and my riding is certainly down.  But now that the thermometer’s no longer encrusted in icicles, things are looking up.

And you should be looking down!

I’m talking about potholes and other road hazards, of course.  We’ve got record crops of potholes.  Some roads look like they’ve been bombed out!  TV and newspaper articles show how bad potholes are for motorists, but they can be at least as bad for bicyclists. We can get a flat tire just like they can, but we’re much more likely to crash.

But why the “puddles” in my title?  Because in rainy weather, cyclists sometimes don’t mind riding through puddles. That’s a very bad idea now.  Instead of a half inch of water, you may be dealing with eight inches of deep crater!  And the asphalt that used to be inside those potholes is now spread everywhere as deep, slippery gravel.  So let’s review how to handle this mess.

The first step is to be looking down often enough to spot these road hazards.  Some cyclists watch the road more than others (and you can tell by their collection of free tools found on the road!) but it’s now time for all of us to concentrate.  And that doesn’t mean just the road immediately just in front of you; you need to look far enough ahead to spot a safe route through the craters, or to choose a gravel-free line through a curve.  Plan ahead!  And remember to look not at the potholes you’re avoiding.  I instead, look at your intended path through them.  Your bike tends to go where you’re looking.

So what do you do when the entire right half of the lane is a field of potholes?  Of course, you move further to the left. This is just one more reason for losing the “gutter bunny” mentality.  You do have a right to safe use of the road, and state law specifically allows you to avoid road hazards by moving left.  So merge leftward in plenty of time, signaling if appropriate. Remember to first check for cars back.  And if you’ll need to change lanes into a stream of cars in the left lane, start the negotiation process early.  That means, pick a motorist, look him in the eye if possible, signal, and see if he’ll let you in.  Believe it or not, lots of motorists are happy to help. 

Still, emergencies come up.  You may not notice a pothole until it’s right in front of you.  So what do you do - grit your teeth?  Maybe so, but there are some last-second tricks that work better.  But these take practice!

The easiest is just to get out of the saddle and stand with your knees and elbows bent.  Keep a firm but relaxed grip on the handlebars or brake hoods.  Your legs can act as shock absorbers, so the impact on your bike will be much less than if you stay seated.

The next trick is called a “rock dodge.”  It’s a sudden move in which a skilled rider swerves the bike around a hazard while his body stays straight and upright.  It can get you around a small pothole. To do a rock dodge, crank your handlebars rapidly left (or right - your choice!) then back again.  If you time it right, you’ll steer your front wheel in a quick “S” motion around the hazard as you pass over it. Your back wheel may bump over it, but that’s usually a much smaller problem. 

Rock dodges are easy, and anyone can learn to do them with practice.  But be careful with all the gravel out there!  It ruins your traction, and the sudden motion may be a bad idea if traction isn’t good.

What if you you can’t rock-dodge around a pothole?  Well, you may be able to hop at least partly over it!  As lots of kids know, it’s possible to lift the front wheel of a bike as you ride.  For a pothole, it doesn’t need to be a full-blown stunt wheelie.  Just pop the wheel up a little!  It’s something I do pretty often, usually when crossing things like a bump at a concrete driveway entrance.  I pedal hard on the forward pedal at the same instant I raise my body upward; then all in one motion, I pull up on the handlebars.  Even if you just lighten the load on the front tire, it reduces chances of a flat tire.  And if you can add the motion of rapidly leaning forward after the front wheel’s up, you can take some shock off the back tire as well.  Yes, it’s tricky, but you can learn it if you practice away from traffic.

Beyond that?  There’s levitation!  Yes, it actually is possible to jump a bike right up into the air, especially if you have clipless pedals or toe clips.  It’s pretty athletic, and you’ll have to be going pretty fast to clear a big pothole, but here’s how it’s done: You start out crouched a bit low on the bike with the cranks horizontal.  As you get to your obstruction or road hazard, you push directly down on both the pedals and the handlebars, so your body moves rapidly upward; then you pull the bike up after you.  Be sure to keep the handlebars straight so you’re wheel is pointed straight ahead for the landing!

Again, this is a pretty athletic trick.  You can find YouTube instructions, if you search for “bunny hop bicycle” or something similar, and practice in your driveway.  Of course, it’s easier if your bike is lighter, but I’ve done it for decades with my - um, NON-light bikes!  Probably the most exciting event was when I jumped about eight inches over a little dog that suddenly ran right in front of me.  (Unfortunately he was about nine inches tall;  but only my back wheel hit him, and I landed much more gracefully than he did.)  I’m older now, but I can still jump speed bumps and potholes, so you can probably do it too.

To be a competent rider, you should know the rock dodge maneuver.  If you aspire to be an expert bike handler, you should learn to jump your bike. But really, these emergency maneuvers don’t work as well as just planning ahead!  It makes sense to plan your rides to avoid the worst roads.  And it makes even more sense to scan the road very well whenever you ride, so a pothole doesn’t become an emergency!

So remember: Practice your skills.  And keep looking down!

- Frank Krygowski, OSW Safety Chairman