Basic Bike-Handling #3: How to Ride on Rough Surfaces

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Bike-handling is integral to riding outdoors, and this series covers the basics — from cornering to descending and now handling rough surfaces. Potholes, cracks, debris, glass and other obstacles can sometimes create an unpredictable environment. Add in the recent trend toward getting off major roads in favor of exploring less used dirt paths and gravel tracks and it’s easy to see why improving your comfort in less than ideal situations is important.

As a cyclist you’ll need to have good bike-handling skills in order to adjust when necessary. Here, tips for developing good habits while cycling on rougher surfaces — along with a few pointers for common road hazards.

No matter where you plan to ride or what the condition of the road is, there are a few good habits you should abide by to be safe and stay upright over rough surfaces. Give these tips a try the next time your ride gets bumpy:

  • Lower your tire pressure: Lowering your tire pressure makes it easier for your body to handle bumps and debris as well as absorb some of the shock. It’ll also make a flat tire less likely and provide more control and traction. Try a wider tire, like a 28mm, which will be much more comfortable and allow you to use a lower psi than a skinnier tire.
  • Back off: While drafting might be pretty safe in most situations, over rough surfaces it’s better to back off and leave more space in between you and the rider in front of you. This gives you more time to react to obstacles and scan down the road much easier.
  • Be less aggressive: Apexing corners and taking risks are not good ideas when riding over dirt, gravel and other rough surfaces. Instead, take corners at a wider angle, lower your speed when necessary, and stay in the saddle on climbs to improve traction over your rear wheel.
  • Choose your line wisely: Just like in mountain biking, the line you choose can make a big difference. Keep an eye out for the path with the fewest obstacles to navigate and the smoothest surfaces. The shortest path might not necessarily be the safest.
  • Use a higher gear: Slowing your cadence by shifting to a higher gear allows you to place more weight on the pedals, which helps improve tire traction and reduce how much your bike bounces and vibrates when you do have to ride over cobbles or similar surfaces.
  • Relax your grip: Over rocks and dirt, you’ll want to avoid placing too much weight over the front end. Keeping your front wheel light allows it to float over rough surfaces and find a more natural line. If you grip the handlebars too tight and try to force things, you’ll cause the bike to over-correct and steer into obstacles instead of away from them. For this reason, it’s best to stay seated with most of your weight over the seat, holding either the bar tops or the hoods with a light, relaxed grip.

When you tackle different terrain on a road bike, you’ll need to make slight adjustments to your riding style. Since gravel, rocks, cobbles and even rough asphalt can be unpredictable, it’s a good idea to prepare for the unexpected as much as possible. Here are some tips you can use on various surfaces you might encounter on a road bike:

When riding on gravel, avoid the loosest sections of road. These areas cause your wheels to spin and make getting proper traction next to impossible. Because of this, it’s important to scan further up the road to look for more solid, packed surfaces.

If you’re riding on a bike without any suspension, use your arms to help control your bike and absorb some of the vibrations. Keep your arms relaxed and your elbows bent to handle some of those surprise bumps safely.

No matter what road you’re on, potholes can be a big problem — especially if you don’t see them coming. If you have time to react, steer around a pothole whenever it is safe to do so. Keep in mind that overreacting to avoid a pothole can often be more dangerous than hitting it head on — especially if you’ve got other cyclists around you.

For those cyclists with the bike-handling skills of a pro, the bunny hop is a good way to clear a pothole if you’ve got the space to do so without causing a crash.

The spring classics like Paris Roubaix aren’t the only place you’ll find cobbles. There are plenty of urban environments that have sections of stone cobbles you may occasionally have to ride over. When you do, stay seated, keep your grip on the handlebars light, and push a bigger gear to keep your momentum instead of slowing down, which can actually be more dangerous.

While not technically a rough surface, slick roads are every bit as dangerous as riding over gravel or cobbles. In cases when you have to ride over an oily spot, manhole covers, paint on lane lines or slick roads just after a light rain, slowing down is your best option. You’ll need more time to brake when you need to slow down, and the decrease in speed makes stopping easier. Take corners slowly and be mindful when a lane change is needed.

The biggest danger of tracks is in the city, when they are actual grooves in the road that run parallel to your line of travel. Crossing these to make a turn can be tricky, and if you do it wrong your wheel can get stuck and cause you to take a tumble. Instead of trying to ride over these tracks at an angle, the safest way to deal with this hazard is to swing out further left or right when it is safe to do so and ride over the track at a perpendicular angle. Of course, if you’re up to date on your bike handling skills, the double bunny hop is a risky, but eye-catching, maneuver that can get you over the hump.

Perpendicular train tracks can still be extremely dangerous when they’re wet, but most of the time they’re easy enough to manage as long as you maintain a decent speed, keep your wheel traveling in a straight line (avoid turning the handlebar left or right) and are prepared with a firm grip on the handlebars to deal with the sometimes jarring bumps.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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