Bike to Work Hazards Part 1: The Mean Streets

Photo of a rough road

In Martin Scorese’s 1973 film, The Mean Streets referred to the criminal politics of Little Italy. But for those of us in places where winter brings snow and ice, this time of year can cause the streets to actually become mean: breaking wheels, inflicting flats, and causing crashes.

Photo of a rough road
Sometimes the phrase “mean streets” is not metaphoric. Photo by John Martinez Pavliga.

When people think about bicycle safety, they tend to think about accidents with cars, but statistics show that the majority of accidents don’t involve other vehicles. This has certainly been my experience…in more than 24,000 miles of riding to and from work, I have never been hit by a car, but I am on my third helmet. In both of my serious crashes (serious defined as those involving blood) cars were nowhere to be found, but road hazards were.

Non-vehicular crashes can be solo or involve others. In upcoming posts, I’ll talk about hazards created by mother nature and those created by other carbon-based life forms. In this post, I’ll show that the “mean streets” don’t have to mean danger: by being aware of road hazards and how to deal with them, you can avoid trouble.

About the Road Surface

Fun fact: do you know why are roads paved? Because groups of “wheel” (as bicycles were referred to back in the late 1800s) advocates pushed for smooth safe surfaces on which to ride their new-fangled replacements for horses.

Over the years, pavement turned into something that benefitted cars, and this is important because car tires—at seven inches wide and inflated to a mushy 30 psi—are fundamentally different than 35 millimeter bike tires inflated to 90 psi. Road flaws that are only an inch or two wide and a few inches deep don’t even register in a car, and therefore don’t get fixed, but they can cause real problems on a bike.

The Changing Roadway

There are basically two types of roadway flaws: those that come and go, and ones that are permanent. The come and go variety include potholes, gravel, metal plates, and oil spills and really keep you on you toes.

In late winter, I have seen significant potholes develop over a weekend. Potholes can be devastating, I have bent wheels and had tupperware fail (spilling pasta and sauce on my dress socks) because of an unexpected pothole hit. Minimize the danger of potholes by keeping your eyes on the road, especially in the hours before sunrise or at night. Use a steady (not flashing) headlight, be ready to slow down and know what traffic around you is doing so you can safely swerve. It also pays to learn to jump your bike over such obstacles.

Gravel isn’t so bad if you are going straight, but it can be a problem if you are turning, and high-pressure tires can turn small pieces of gravel into bullets. Slow down if you see gravel and try to avoid it, but don’t try to swerve out of it.

Construction equipment such as metal plating and barricades can appear in the hours between your inbound and outbound trips. Metal plates rarely lie flat and are very slippery when wet. Slow down or avoid them altogether by using a different street for a few days.

Oil slicks are hard to see, slippery, and can stick to your tires and wheels, reducing braking. They are particularly potent during the first storm after a long period without rain; when in doubt slow down. If you find yourself in a slippery situation, avoid sudden turns, braking, and pedaling until you are out of the area.

Permanent Flaws

Photo of light rail tracks
Cross tracks at an angle that is oblique or perpendicular to the track. The more perpendicular, the smoother your crossing.

Less troublesome are the permanent features of your commute. Manhole covers, sewer grates, railroad tracks, bridge expansion joints, rumble strips, and paint are all things you can get used to and plan for; you know they’re there even when covered by snow.

Manhole covers are often recessed like potholes and can be very slippery when wet (ditto for some of the paint that is used for lane markings). Railroad tracks and bridge joints looked really scared me but turned out to not be all that challenging; just take them at a perpendicular or oblique angle. If you find yourself approaching tracks at close to a parallel path, turn your front wheel at the last moment to make its path as oblique as possible.

If you have a fear of a certain permanent feature, practice riding over it slowly until you learn the best way to handle it.

With all road surface flaws, practice is everything. Time invested practicing quick swerves and jumping can pay big dividends…and if you need to practice hazard avoidance, come to my neighborhood, we just had a snowmelt and I’ve got some mean potholes.

Question: What road hazards scare you the most? Enter your response in the comments area below.