Dealing with static road hazards

Contrary to initial belief, a slick bicycle tire will handle most of the things you encounter while riding on the road – whether it is wet or dry. There are a few static hazards, however, that you will need to account for when riding in an urban environment, as they all have the potential to unsettle you from steady forward progress.

Even with slick tires, wet roads by themselves are generally not a problem on a bike.

ROAD FURNITURE

“Road furniture” consists of the many standard features of a modern road, such as manhole covers, painted markings, humps, speed bumps, and drain grates. In case of road works, this can also include safety cones.

A steel grate covering a drain located in the middle of a driveway.

The safest way of navigating drain grates and tram or train rails is to cross them with your front tire as perpendicular as possible. This avoids the chance of your wheels literally falling into them, especially if you run narrow rubber such as a 20 mm tire, as it can be impossible to get out once in. Running a wider tire helps here, such as a 25 mm or 28 mm slick.

Painted markings and manhole covers, on the other hand, are dangerously slippery when wet, and so are best avoided. In the Philippine context, for some strange reason, the public works utilities love using large steel plates to cover up sections of broken road (I’d argue they barely qualify as “road furniture”). Once these get wet, these act as patches of virtual black ice.

Sometimes you just can’t ride around these things, so the best thing to do is just hit them as straight as possible, and pass over them without braking or turning.

ROAD ACNE

Meanwhile, I use “road acne” to refer to decidedly non-standard road features, such as ruts, debris, cracks, fallen leaves, loose dust, gravel, and potholes. Of these, potholes and debris are the nastiest; you want to either ride around them, or bunny-hop over them if you got the skills.

Even with slick tires, you can usually ride through patches of dust or gravel, as long as you keep upright and avoid braking and leaning – a straight-line approach is best.

If the dust and gravel are in the middle of a turn, you can maintain tire grip by slowing down and keeping upright as you approach it. This minimizes the lean-in angle of the bike as it negotiates the turn, keeping the weight of the bike as vertical as possible through the tires’ contact patches.

You tend to risk tire slippage if you lean too hard on loose-surface corners while riding on a slick tire, since the tire’s tread shoulders don’t get enough purchase or resistance against the riding surface.

Longitudinal or lengthwise cracks along the road can be deep enough to act as long narrow ruts. Dealing with them is the same as negotiating train tracks or drain grates: Approach them with your front tire as perpendicular as possible.

They look innocent, but fallen leaves are surprisingly dangerous

Fallen leaves may be a surprise as they are innocuous enough in the dry. Most leaves contain a waxy coating that plants need to help retain the moisture they already have, and repel excess water from outside. What this means for us cyclists is that on damp and wet streets, riding on fallen leaves is particularly dangerous – they are easily as slick as anything made of wet metal. As with manhole covers and steel plates, if they can’t be avoided, ride straight through them without braking or sudden handlebar movement.

How do I get faster on the bike? Part 2: More advanced tips

In the previous installment, I shared a few tips for beginners looking to up their pace on the saddle. Those will give you a solid foundation to build from. From there, these following tips should help even further.

GET LOW AND AERO

As you build up to higher speeds, you’ll notice that you expend great amounts of energy simply pushing air aside. They say that a rider’s body accounts for 80% of the aerodynamic drag while cycling at high speed. You might as well make this knowledge work for you and adopt the principles of aerodynamics.

 

The simplest way of improving your aerodynamics is to decrease your frontal area to the wind. All that requires is to adopt a lower riding position, such as using the drops on a road bike and keeping your elbows tucked in. On a flat-bar bike you can simply bend your torso lower.

Your aero also benefits hugely due to clothing. Riding in a zipped-up, tight-fitting jersey and spandex shorts will decrease the amount of excess clothing flapping in the wind, and reduce the chances of your skin chafing.

STAND UP AND GRAB TWO HARDER GEARS

There are many reasons why you’d want to pedal out of the saddle. It could be to stretch out your legs, or to relieve pressure on your groin from being seated on the saddle for a long time. You could even launch a sprint.

Most out-of-saddle situations are easiest to transition into when they are accompanied by two clicks to harder cogs. When out of the saddle, your body will naturally adopt a slower cadence, because your body weight is on your hands as it goes into each pedal stroke. You have to prepare for this with your gears by shifting to harder gears. Two cogs is usually enough.

STRENGTHEN YOUR CORE

Your back and abdominal muscles make up your core, the foundation for your hips and legs to pedal your bike. Cycling is one of those exercises that rewards good core fitness, but doesn’t build it at all. With a stable core, your legs can put out more power without having to worry about supporting the rest of your body. Try performing planks, bridges, and yoga poses like the “downward-facing dog” pose.

WORK ON YOUR SPRINT

Sprints are explosive accelerations, yielding very high speed within a very short period of time. Good sprinters make use of their bikes’ frame and wheel stiffness in order to put their muscle power into the two contact patches of the tires to the ground. This usually shows up as the bike swaying or “dancing” underneath them, in step with each pedal stroke.

With a sprint, you’re basically relying on your muscle tension to push a heavy gear from a low cadence to a very high one in as little time as possible. This takes a lot of trial and error, but is worth practicing seriously.

WISE UP TO INTERVAL TRAINING

An app like Strava can help record your intervals for later analysis by producing an estimated power curve.

At the simplest level, interval training involves short periods of hard efforts, followed by short periods of recovery. This cycle repeats. This kind of training confuses and forces your muscles to adapt, and is better for building muscle compared to long rides at a steady pace.

The hard efforts must be really hard (maybe 9 out of 10 on a perceived exertion level), while recovery must be really easy. One simple example would be to go 5 minutes all out, then 3 minutes for recovery, repeated 5 to 10 times. There are plenty of interval training programs out there, but one benefit they share is that they compress an effective training regimen in a short amount of time.

A turbo trainer can be better for this kind of training, since there’s more consistency, but you can do interval training on the road as well. You can do intervals on the flats to work on your sprinting, or do them on a familiar hill to work on your climbing ability.

ACTIVATE DIFFERENT MUSCLES WHILE PEDALING

On a long climb, such as the ascent of Tagaytay via Amadeo, rotating effort around your muscles is important to stave off overall fatigue.

Cycling is heaviest on the quadriceps muscles, the ones in front of your thigh. When fatigue sets in your quads, it will become harder to continue pedaling for extended periods of time.

Learn to rotate the effort around your legs’ other muscles, particularly those at the back. Your glutes are powerful engines for extended seated climbs, while your hamstrings can take some of the load off your tired quads and maintain forward propulsion on the cranks.

How do you do this? The trick is in your saddle position. Moving rearward allows your glutes and hamstrings to share the effort. Combine this with a smooth pedal stroke, one that’s similar to scraping the bottom of your foot at the lowest point, and you get a great way of maintaining speed while extending your endurance.

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Let me know what else you’d like to see or learn about by leaving a comment below.

Riding in the rain, part 3: Technique and strategy

So, now that you’re dressed for the part and your bike is equipped accordingly, how do you go about the business of actually riding in the rain as safely as you can? Today we’ll talk about just that.

AVOID RIDING OVER LEAVES, PAINT AND METAL

When dry, fallen leaves, painted lane markings and manhole covers are rather harmless and can be ridden over with no penalty. This takes a treacherous turn when the road becomes wet, as nowhere else will you find less grip.

While you still have the luxury of clear skies, practice riding in such a way that you actively avoid or reduce your tires’ interactions with these road features.

Unfortunately, there will be instances where you just cannot avoid these. Local infrastructure repair crews, in particular, love covering up road repairs and potholes with large rectangular steel plates. In these situations, slow down your approach, and try to ride over them as upright and as straight as possible. Do not attempt to steer or brake while riding over large steel plates, as the tendency is for your tires to slip.

Finally, if you encounter an incline or ramp made of metal in the rain, get off the bike and push it uphill. Attempting to climb wet metal ramps is a pretty bad idea, trust me.

APPROACH DRAIN GRATES AND RAILS AS PERPENDICULAR AS POSSIBLE

In places where you have to cross large fissures in the road, such as railway tracks and drain grates, the last thing you want to happen is for your front wheel to fall into them. Once your front wheel falls in, the road fissure ends up becoming a long rut that your wheels will follow, and it can be hard to fish them out of it.

To avoid this, approach them with as big an angle as you can make. A perpendicular approach is best.

AVOID RIDING IN GUTTERS

I mentioned earlier that rainwater serves as lubricant for all sorts of debris particles to worm their way into your tire and cause punctures. Guess where most of the debris comes from?

The flow of car traffic through streets naturally pushes debris off the road and into the gutters on the sides. When you ride in them, your tires pick up all that puncture-causing junk. Trust me, you don’t want to suffer the misery of trying to patch an inner tube in the rain.

BRAKE EARLIER

This applies especially for rim brake users. Since the brake track of your wheels is much closer to the wet road surface, it’s inevitably going to get wet itself. The brake pads have to get rid of the water on the rim before they can do any actual deceleration.

Compensate for this by braking earlier. It’s also a good habit to frequently test the amount of braking power you have on hand. Even if the brake lever feels crappy, you’re still cleaning out the water from the brake tracks by doing so, aiding future stops.

Disc brakes are far more effective, braking power limited more by tire traction rather than the brake hardware itself. That said, always assume less grip is available in the rain, so brake earlier too.

WATCH OUT FOR STANDING WATER

Large puddles and flooding are facts of life in our country’s rainy season. Try to avoid these bodies of standing water as much as you can. The danger is not in the water itself, but the ruts and potholes that lurk hidden in them. Hitting these at speed effectively blind is not going to end well. With rim brakes, fording standing water obviously means your brakes get wet and become less effective until you dry them off.

Don’t worry too much about hydroplaning – the phenomenon of water totally separating a tire’s contact patch with its ridden surface. The round profile of a bicycle tire tends to cut through water, instead of letting it pool in the contact patch as it does with car and truck tires. Hydroplaning is pretty much an impossibility with bicycle tires, even with slicks.

DON’T STOP SPINNING THOSE PEDALS

The longer you keep your legs moving, the better able you are to fend off the chills, which are the biggest cause of sickness. Keep your blood going and your core temperature up by turning the cranks at a comfortable cadence.

AT THE END OF ALL YOUR WET RIDING…

While you’re outdoors, do a quick rinse of the bike. This will dislodge the dirt it’s picked up along the way. It’s best to do this soon after stopping because it will become harder to remove once it’s left to dry on its own. A gentle stream from a garden hose is enough; don’t use water under pressure as this can blow out grease from your bearings and seals.

Wipe down with a rag afterwards, paying special attention to the chain. Slathering on a quick coat of wet chain lube will help fight off rust.

This whole procedure shouldn’t really take more than five minutes – after which, head indoors, strip off your wet cycling kit, and give yourself a nice shower!

Now get out there and ride safe.