Bicycling and Potholes: Hazards and Solutions

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When champion triathlete Linda Neary was on the road to victory at the 2003 Publix Family Fitness Weekend Coca-Cola Classic Triathlon Series in Nassau, Bahamas, she stopped during the run to check up on her closest competitor, Lotte Branigan of Vero Beach. Why? Branigan had fallen from tripping in a pothole on the course.

“I fell like that in Hawaii,” remarked Neary, who beat second-place finisher Branigan by a bare 14 seconds.

The fact is that triathletes know potholes. Two of the three legs in this competition – biking and running – often are staged on broken pavement, due to the fact that most venues are public streets and roads that are transformed into race courses just once a year.

Falling while running is bad enough, but a fall from a bike traveling at 25 miles per hour is something else. Triathletes love to blog, and the Internet is full of segment-by-segment posts of what happened to them during races. Here is a sampling of such comments:

  • Mike Tine, competing in the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon (Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 12, 2008) shares this: “I was flying down one hill when I hit a pothole and screamed an F-bomb – sorry to the spectators who heard that one. No damage to the rim or flat tire so I was thankful and kept cruising.”
  • “Guest” reporting on the Brewhouse Triathlon (Duluth, Minnesota, August 2, 2009) remarked: “The most negative part of the race had to be the road conditions for the bike portion of the event.  The number of potholes seemed to be infinite and poses both a mechanical and, more importantly, a safety hazard to participants.  Many bikers were swerving to avoid the larger holes, which in a fuller race could cause accidents.”
  • “Dandr614,” an extreme triathlon veteran, in prepping for the Triangle Orthopaedic Sprint Triathlon (Raleigh, North Carolina April 213, 2011), posted a query on a message board: “Was reading some of the older race reports and was curious about the bike course as many mentioned the potholes and other issues.”

Dandr614’s query is part of how triathletes shop for races in an upcoming season. A report of bad pavement can make the difference for many competitors.

Casual and competitive bikers share stories on pavement and potholes

Triathletes aren’t the only athletes subject to the dangers and inconveniences of potholes. There are the criterium races – thrilling speed races usually on a loop of 5 kilometers or less, typically staged in cities and towns – as well as the competitive and non-competitive, day-long and multi-day distance rides.

The Rouge-Roubaix is a single-day, 100-mile race staged near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the most recent winner won in four hours and 26 minutes (some competitors require up to eight hours to complete the course). Competitor Amy Alexander blogged about the annual March event: “Riders from all over compete on the potpourri of roads around St. Francisville, with their seemingly 27,000-or-so different surfaces: chip seal; broad, fresh pavement; more-pothole-than-road; narrow gravel; hard-packed dirt. Rouge-Roubaix’s name serves as a tribute to the Paris Roubaix, a classic Belgian springtime bicycle race known as ‘The Hell of the North’ because of its tricky cobblestones, narrow roads and notoriously awful weather.”

Ms. Alexander seems to speak of rough roads with endearment (or is it irony?). Relative to her biking sisters and brothers, she is in the minority.

Blogger “ricktangard” commented about the Brian Park Criterium in Richmond, Virginia (June 4, 2009): “Another sharp turn followed and directly in front of me was a pothole as long as Nebraska, but a little wider.  With racers on both sides and one close behind, there was nothing I could do but go through it.  At the last moment I saw that a path slight to the right of center looked better.  I stood in the pedals, gave up a little momentum and flew over the wrecked pavement with little difficulty…On this and later laps, after the third turn I moved to the left to avoid the monster pothole.”

RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), a 472-mile bike ride from the west (Missouri River) to east (Mississippi River) borders of Iowa, began in 1973 as a dare between editors at The Des Moines Register. Approaching 40 years old now, the ride is limited to 8,500 riders, after the estimated 23,000 riders in 1988 proved to be unwieldy. Lance Armstrong himself has made single-day appearances at RAGBRAI. This ride is off the Interstate highways, instead passing through hundreds of Iowa towns and villages on a route that has changed from year to year, in part to accommodate changing road conditions. The news websites for dozens of these towns talk about sprucing up their main streets and county roads – which largely requires filling potholes – in anticipation of the riders, who often arrive with media crews in tow.

Sadly, a rider in 2004 died from injuries suffered when his bike seized in a center-road crack. The incident led to a lawsuit against Crawford County, where the accident occurred, which consequently blocked RAGBRAI from using its highways for several years. In 2008, RAGBRAI was able to indemnify all third parties from such litigation and the county has since rescinded its RAGBRAI ban.

Iowa has an oft-cited State Supreme Court ruling (Vaconz v. Mills) asserting the rights of bicyclists to use the road, which is now a state law (Iowa Code 321.234). Cars are required to allow a distance of 3 feet when passing bicyclists, a point that is now also mandated in driver education courses and is sometimes a question on the state driver’s license exam.

Bicyclists who train for potholes

A multisport athlete from Kansas City, Ryan Falkenrath, blogs on everymantri.com to the effect of “if you can’t get rid of them, train for them” regarding potholes. To fully understand Falkenrath’s advice, you have to be aware of something very important about tris and bikes: there is a lot of money involved here. Triathletes speak of their “factory” wheels, which might retail for a mere $100-$200 each, versus aerodynamic wheel sets that retail for $2000 on up.

In his blog, Falkenrath urges bikers to save the expensive wheels for race day. Use those factory wheels, he says, on training rides. “Why would you risk hitting a pothole and cracking your rims or put undue miles on them on the trainer? … Hopefully you kept the original wheels or hit eBay for a used pair for around $100.  It will be the best $100 you will ever spend when you hit a pothole and bend the rims instead of cracking your $2500 carbon race wheels.”

Julie O’Keeffe, a self-described life coach and adventure leader, blogs for the Wauwatosa, Wisconsin Patch in a post titled, “Stay Safe on Your Bike Around Cars and Potholes.” She talks about the “minefield of potholes” she’s encountered in her bike training, and likens quick weaving around potholes to “a child darting out into the street…behaviors unexpected from the point of view of the vehicle driver” approaching from behind.

Instead, O’Keeffe offers this advice: Factor for relative velocities of your bike and nearby cars, and distances from approaching potholes – something that becomes intuitive to the experienced bicyclist. To aid this, she recommends getting a helmet mirror (cost: $20). Other bikers might add to look ahead in your path of travel to scour for anomalies in pavement. Be wary of any dark spots that suggest something other than smooth pavement: potholes, garbage, road kill, fallen tree branches, or perhaps just a shallow puddle (or a water-filled pothole?).

The proprietors of Bethel Cycle (Bethel, Connecticut), Fred Matheny and Ed Pavelka, post their own blog on “How to Survive Road Hazards.” First, practice alert awareness – “always ride with your head up” and “focus” – as the key rules for anyone who dares ride on the open road. Their post also includes a primer on what they call “pothole evasion,” which we paraphrase here:

  1. Know your road – But understand that potholes pop up overnight.
  1. Potholes are like glass – That is, think of them as a likely puncture. You absolutely want to ride around them if vehicular and bicycle traffic allow.
  1. Jump the pothole! – This takes skill, which one can practice off-road on grass. To do this, “Level your pedals, crouch off the saddle, then spring up and lift with your feet and hands,” say the veteran bikers. To practice, “start by jumping over a line on the ground, then graduate to higher but forgiving objects such as a rolled-up towel or a shoebox.”

Bicyclists organize against potholes

In the U.S. and the U.K., the bicycling communities have begun to organize to specifically address pothole hazards.

Fillthathole.org.uk is sponsored byt CTC, Britain’s national cyclists’ organization, offers an online tool to direct local authorities to potholes spotted by bikers in their travels.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition sponsors its Good Roads Campaign, which encourages its members to use the city’s 3-1-1 system to report potholes, as well as to mark egregiously dangerous potholes with neon yellow spray paint. The Coalition also conducts audits of worst-condition pavement and lobbies the city to prioritize pavement maintenance of key bicycling corridors.

Most cities have a 3-1-1 system in place, but other phone apps such as SeeClickFix and SaveMyTire enable bikers to similarly report pavement problems to the appropriate municipalities (shoot a photo with a GPS-enabled smartphone and the report is made automatically).

With 5,400 specialty bicycle dealers in the U.S. (in addition to department store bike sales), there are between 16 million and 20 million bicycles sold each year in the U.S. Of that number, more than half are “adult” bicycles – the kind more likely to be traveling on streets than sidewalks. On-road bicycle fatalities average between 630 and 850 per year, with approximately 45,000 reported injuries from bicycle mishaps. Fortunately, there seems to be a slight trending downward in these adverse-event numbers, even as many cities report increased numbers of commuters who choose to ride on two wheels in lieu of cars.

Given the size of the biking population – and the incentive bicyclists have to avoid potholes and other dangers – there seems to be a clear opportunity for increased reporting of road conditions to government entities in charge of their maintenance. It seems far more likely a biker with a smart phone will click a pic of a mean pothole than will a motorist who is 100 feet down the road before he or she realizes that awful “whump” was their car’s tire rim connecting with broken pavement.