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OPINION

Remember when you knew where the potholes were? Nowadays, cycling on British roads is a constant, crater-ridden skirmish

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VecchioJo looks back fondly on the times when potholes were things to be avoided, rather than taking up the majority of the tarmac on his regular stomping ground

I never realised how much I’d miss the dance now that it’s turned into a full-on brawl.

Ride the same roads often enough and long enough, and you’ll get to know every hole, bump, ripple, manhole cover, drain, white line, bobble, hump, lump and crack. All those little tarmac threats that want to smack you through the saddle, punch you a puncture or merrily drop kick you onto the asphalt that you intimately and instinctively know to avoid.

pothole 1 - VecchioJo

There’s a sweeping left-hander a few miles from home that after a quick shoulder check demands a drift out wide to avoid the rippled dimpled tarmac that chops the inside line. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve ridden up this road, it’s probably my most frequent escape from town and I don’t know how long that bit of messy tarmac has been there, frequently enough for me to automatically take a broad arc around the bend every time. One day it might be resurfaced and there will be a whoop of joy that a hedgerow rabbit might hear.

drain cover - VecchioJo

Then there’s the drain cover, exactly where I want to be if I’m turning left at that junction towards home, with the slots in it angled almost deliberately perfectly to catch a front wheel. It means the choice is to cut it tight by the grass, or go the long way around it to avoid certain comedy incident and hefty new front wheel bill.

There’s the random scattering of manhole covers on that sharp bend that needs a threaded needle line to negotiate, and an extra tongue out level of concentration if it’s in any way damp. I could carry on at length with a pages-long list, and the whole repertoire of rehearsed shimmy and weave that punctuate every ride at each familiar bump or thump that’s burnt into the ride’s memory map. The static upper body in contrast to the bike, two-step underneath to sideslip the sunken drain, and a sexy little hip-sway to woo the judges.

cracked road - VecchioJo

But what was a fun game and collection of little moments of internal victory as I picked the line just so has now become a constant skirmish as the roads have deteriorated into an unholy mess of vulgar tarmac, a moonscape of craters and less than glorious holes.

Where once was the occasional hazard, now booby traps and highway jeopardy wait unknown and unannounced around each corner. They snatch haphazard from every gutter, and the always exciting shadow-or-hole game in the dapple of the trees has an extra tang of menace to it. A destructive blend of an increasing convoy of engorged heavy and pointlessly cumbersome cars, whisked with endless months of pissing down poor insidious weather have taken their toll to create a war of attrition played out in tarmac trenches and puddle-filled craters.

pothole 5 - VecchioJo

Using the tiny bits of my brain not prioritising staying upright, I wonder how we ever managed to survive thrashing around on 21mm tyres strained up to 100psi and then some. We were much younger and lither then which helped us cope with the battering, and we punctured a lot, that’s how; but even with rose-coloured Bollé glasses on, the roads were generally in  reasonable repair.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and if 30mm-and-then-some tubeless road tyres didn’t exist to make the roads barely manageable, then they’d have to be swiftly invented. The old holes, bumps, ripples, manhole covers, drains, white lines, bobbles, humps, lumps and cracks are still there, of course they are. But the constant interference coming up from the tarmac now makes their appearance that of old friends, and a reminder of better times that warrants the subtle nod of recognition and lift of fingers from the bars as a wave.

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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27 comments

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Saucepan | 1 month ago
3 likes

I think as a nation we've acclimatised ourselves to it, there's an acceptance that this is the norm when it shouldn't be, it reminds me as a child visiting Spain in the 70's the roads were dreadful potholes and crumbling, fast forward 40+ years and its roles reversed. They've even managed to build an amazing high speed railway. So sad to see 

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NotNigel | 1 month ago
8 likes

Where are people getting this needing re-patching in a few years from?  It's usually broken up and in bits within a few weeks round our end?

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ribena | 1 month ago
2 likes

I think you need to put some drop bars and slick tyres on a full-suspension MTB 

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ceebee247 | 1 month ago
4 likes

In our bike club we have a set route from South East London to Rye - we have been doing it for years and over that time we have seen the slow degradation of the roads. We did it last week and frankly I'm not sure I will do it again. The state of the roads was appalling, the almost constant call of 'Hole' does not make for a great ride. One thing thats not mentioned is how many of these holes have been caused by utility contractors digging and then repatching which invariably then fails and you left with a mess. On top of leaking water mains constantly eroding the network further. Nobody in authority seems to take these ultilities to task.

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tourdelound | 1 month ago
13 likes

Anyone stopped to think that driving a bigger, heavier vehicle, SUV, EV, etc is part of the problem, more weight = more damage?

Bit like using air conditioning to counter the warmer summer's caused by human induced global warming.

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the little onion replied to tourdelound | 1 month ago
9 likes

Yes - and damage is relative to the fourth power axle weight. So if you double the weight of a vehicle, the impact on the road surface increases by 16 times. So vehicle weight really, really matters. "Autobesity" is creating potholes.

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cyclisto replied to tourdelound | 1 month ago
6 likes

There is the fourth power law https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_power_law regarding wear and connection with vehicle weight. I hate SUVs for various reasons and they definitely contribute, but actually the big damage is caused by heavy trucks despite their limited number.

Edit: in general weight discrepancy is a big problem in car fleet. We have tiny cars well engineered to get 5 stars in crash tests but it is useless when they crash on that Range Rover. Big cars will use more parking space too and of course will emit more harmful gases and CO2. And we haven't started yes speaking about height discrepancy in cars that also create problems. I believe 90% of car trips could comfortably be covered by kei cars, yet they are practically non existent and now the trend for the big european manufacturers is to get rid of them.

On the topic, I feel unsafe with anything less than 32c while also trying to stay slow. Heavy rims also help you to keep your balance once you hit that big pothole you never saw in the middle of the night, so going cheap on wheels has some benefits!

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chrisonabike replied to cyclisto | 1 month ago
2 likes

Here's for micro-vehicles!

I would say that even smaller versions could be a useful addition to address worries about "but old people" / "but those with disabilities".  That could be a counter to the current "selective concern" arguments used to counter any changes to our streets (e.g. "because old people we can't have any restrictions on people driving and parking everywhere; also no cycling infra because it's dangerous!").

Unfortunately I have my doubts the UK could do this anytime soon without messing things up:

  • We don't have sufficient cycle infra and where it exists the quality is poor or worse.  Specifically - width is really insufficient.  Junctions and interactions with motor traffic are far more inconvenient and indeed dangerous than they need be (see how they do it anywhere with mass cycling, particularly in NL).
  • We aren't providing sufficient feedback to keep the big motor vehicles from driving / parking and even killing people on cycle paths and footways.  We would also need some kind of feedback / enforcement of any new classes of vehicles, which leads on to...
  • We have essentially failed to manage the emergence of all kinds of new electric "things" on the market e.g. e-scooters, powerful electric motorbikes disguised as EAPCs.  It seems the current government (and indeed any potential replacements) simply don't give a stuff.  Or it's so far down their list of concerns in practice it's ignored.
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cyclisto replied to chrisonabike | 1 month ago
1 like

Such tiny cars that can fit even cycle infra, would be a game changer, but the biggest problem is that: Aside from Netherlands (maybe Denmark too) there are few countries with consistent decent quality cycling infra.

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KDee replied to cyclisto | 1 month ago
4 likes

No thanks...you can keep your mini cars off my bike lanes. I want the scooters (petrol and electric) off as well.

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chrisonabike replied to KDee | 1 month ago
0 likes

Interested in this - I know that scooters (particularly ICE) are ... controversial (e.g. here, overview here, about new electric things here - and of course David Hembrow taking a different view).

What is opinion about the Cantas?  Is there a different opinion on similar-sized microcars (e.g. the Biro)?  I would imagine that (in most places) they are rather rare?  It sounds like the latter - having expanded in wealthy places / for certain business uses - are being reined in by being moved out of the "disability vehicle" class - are they now barred from cycle paths (and if so is that restriction followed?)

Are there any issues encountered in practice with them other than "they're different" / "not playing by the same rules" (similar to motorists with cyclists?)

My information's from the NotJustBikes' video of a few years back so not current with these.

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cyclisto replied to KDee | 1 month ago
1 like

The truth is than in the Netherlands that I saw them, they were indeed a bit huge for cycle infra. However they were rather rare.

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KDee replied to cyclisto | 1 month ago
1 like

It's the mass that's the issue. Two people on a petrol powered scooter can really mess up a cyclist. Also the fact so many of the petrol scooters are illegally de-restricted so capable of 45kph.

Cantas, mobility scooters and Biro's aren't so common (Biro's maybe in Amsterdam, but not so much elsewhere in the Randstad). 
 

Edit: Scooters (brommers) are now banned from bike lanes in Amsterdam. No idea what the legality is regarding Cantas. I will try to find out. 
 

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Surreyrider replied to chrisonabike | 1 month ago
1 like

On infrastructure - a lot of it is pointless as it doesn't connect places. 

On new kinds of electric, the police do nothing. For instance, e-scooters are illegal outside official hire schemes and yet I see lots of them and have even watched a police car drive past one.

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chrisonabike replied to Surreyrider | 1 month ago
1 like

"Infrastructure pointless as it doesn't connect places".  Agreed - however at least in my area it's getting better.  Very slowly, a step forward, most of a step back.  What we need though* is a network AND also motor traffic reduction.

Definitely don't see any interest at any level in managing the new electric vehicles - except when some cut-and-shut ones cause a serious fire, then we all get a stern warning about safety and then it's "as you were".

* Unless you're an "I'm alright Jack" type, or even someone who feels that as a cyclist they're an elite and doesn't want any of the weaker / lazier / slower folks getting in their way.

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OldRidgeback replied to tourdelound | 1 month ago
4 likes

The biggest problem for the state of the UK's roads comes from lack of maintenance. There is a reason for this. Local councils have had their budgets halved by central government over the last 14 years. As a result, local councils haven't had the funds to repair roads. 

The austerity measures introduced in 2010 meant spending on things that weren't immediately required would be pushed forward to the future. It was a short term saving that's resulted in a long term expense. Skimp on infrastructure and it costs more in the long run.

We have a general election coming so if you care about the state of the roads, then you can work out for yourself what you have to do.

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ubercurmudgeon | 1 month ago
12 likes

I still ride a road bike with 23mm tyres inflated to 100psi... in France. It feels glorious on the mostly smooth roads that each local maire ensures are completely resurfaced when needed. That work is done by maintenance teams on the government payroll, who still manage to find the time for two-hour restaurant lunches, and have good pensions, making it a career that they can take pride in. I keep the bike in my parents house who, being boomers, got to retire there before Brexit. Meanwhile, in this third world country, I mostly ride on 32mm tyres at 50psi, and even that feels sketchy at times. The back roads have seemingly been left to rot, because anyone who has any influence drives an SUV. The really dangerous potholes are on the A-roads, and they do get patched, but by contractors who have an incentive to do the minimum because they'll be rehired to repatch them in a couple of years. The work crews themselves heat up beans-on-toast in their vans because, like the rest of us, they need to save every penny to keep and heat their homes. But still, we've got blue passports and the privilege of paying to keep the royal family living in luxury.

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marmotte27 replied to ubercurmudgeon | 1 month ago
1 like

France is slowly degrading too unfortunately. Never seen so many potholes there taking so long to be temporarily or permanently fixed...

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marmotte27 | 1 month ago
4 likes

Don't forget, each of these places is a life hazard.

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Sriracha | 1 month ago
7 likes

It's when I noticed that even the motorways are riddled with potholes that I realised just how bad it's got.

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Shermo | 1 month ago
6 likes

I'm running 34mm tyres on my bike, even those seem a bit slim sometimes! Some of the roads are rougher than cobbled streets at the moment.

Occasionally you hit a few hundred meters of pure bliss of resurfaced road, only to be hit in the nuts by another pot hole a few seconds later.

I'm starting to understand why everyone is driving SUVs these days too, I fear my cars suspension will get destroyed at some point by all these craters. The only viable solution is swapping it for a tractor or a proper Land Rover.

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PRSboy replied to Shermo | 1 month ago
1 like

In all seriousness I'm thinking of going over to the SUV Dark Side, as I am fed up with the constant banging and crashing along driving a 'normal' car, plus numerous new tyres and two bent wheels.  Its not helped by car manufacturers' obsession with stupidly low-profile tyres.  

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marmotte27 replied to PRSboy | 1 month ago
2 likes

Get rid of your car. Chances are you don't really need it.

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Adam Sutton replied to marmotte27 | 1 month ago
0 likes

Chances are you live in London or somehwere where you have decent public transport, to make such a dumb comment

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TheBillder replied to PRSboy | 1 month ago
1 like

I rented a car a few weeks ago, a Skoda Octavia (needed a big car for a weekend), and the ride was astonishingly good compared to my own 10 year old tiny Vauxhall. So I don't think you need an SUV.

It did 75 mpg (diesel) on the long haul from Oxfordshire to Edinburgh, which you surely can't get from an SUV. Stay away from the chariots of Satan.

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Adam Sutton replied to Shermo | 1 month ago
1 like

We just moved to east sussex and the roads are unbelievably bad. I daren't ride when light was poor as many of the potholes were outright dangerous. I couldn't avoid one in my old saloon car and it was so bad it jerked the steering wheel out of my hand. In many places people drive centrally when there is no oncoming traffic as the side of the road is falling apart so badly. 

On the positive there is less traffic and the roads while poor are generally two lane even on B roads.

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Dnnnnnn | 1 month ago
7 likes

www.fillthathole.org.uk - it's not the solution but it helps a bit.

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