How To Tackle Rough Surfaces On A Road Bike
Road riding isn’t always smooth. Look at the carnage that happened on the cobbles during Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France, and you’ll see that road bikes aren’t necessarily designed for when the going gets tough (or when the road gets rough).
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time on road bikes off road. You just need to prepare for the unexpected rough surfaces. We asked some pros for their best advice for getting through all kinds of weird, unpredictable surfaces – from cobbles to unexpected gravel segments to potholes – so you can navigate them with ease.
If you have a gravel or adventure bike, you’re in luck! It’s built like a road bike but with slightly different geometry and components to help you navigate different surfaces. But if you hit a gravel road and only have skinny tyres, the best thing you can do is to stay loose and relaxed, says Alison Tetrick, a former roadie-turned-gravel racer and the 2017 Dirty Kanza winner.
“Look for the smoothest line to navigate the difficult terrain,” Tetrick says. “By using a little finesse and long vision, you can navigate safely through the rocky portions and reduce your possibility of a mechanical. The fastest line becomes the safest and the smoothest line, not necessarily the shortest line.”
She adds that while your bike may not have suspension, your body can pick up some of that slack. “I like to think of my arms and elbows as a shock on my bike,” she says. “I keep my hands firmly on the handlebars and let my arms and loose body absorb the vibrations to be more comfortable.”
Even on nice roads, holes happen. “If you can, bunny-hop the pothole,” road racer Kyle Murphy says. That’s right, you can bunny-hop a road bike – but don’t try it for the first time in the middle of a group ride. “If you are not comfortable doing that, just hit it and do your best to stay upright,” Murphy says. “There is probably a bigger chance of causing a crash if you deviate from your line too aggressively.”
Rugg notes that you may risk a flat from riding through a pothole, so if you do need to hit it head-on, be prepared for the hiss of air leaving your tyre, and be mindful of riders around you as you try to pull over.
If you’re riding in an older city, such as downtown New York or various cities in Europe, you’re likely to encounter some dreaded cobbles. Sure, they look cool in race photos, but they can be brutally difficult to ride over, especially when wet. Push a bigger gear to keep your momentum heading into them and as you make your way through, says Ryan Anderson, a pro who’s spent years racing in Europe.
“Also, try and keep your upper body relaxed – light hands on the bars, not a death grip,” he says. He knows that’s easier said than done, but if you don’t, the stones will really beat you up. Rugg adds that letting the bike bounce around a bit means the bike is taking the abuse, not your bum. Try to be light on the saddle as well, without actually standing up, since that might cause you to lose traction.
You’ve probably been here: A road that isn’t just gravel, but a washboard of gravel that bumps you around and makes your traction tough on hills and downright unpleasant on descents. “Try to stay light on the bike, bend your arms and legs and use them as springs,” Murphy says. “If you sit too heavy on the saddle, there is a bigger chance of a pinch flat. I like to descend gravel in the drops, and the steeper the hill is, the further back on the saddle I go.”
But riding washboard safely is also all about avoiding the worst sections. Murphy says that washboard gravel is usually in the inside of the corner where the road is steeper, so if possible, ride further out in the road when cornering if there aren’t any cars around in order to find the smoothest line.
See a dark spot on the road up ahead? Be alert, as it might be slippery. “Slick pavement can be like riding on ice,” Tetrick says. “It is important to brake before the corner and plan to regulate your speed before making any quick movements.” She adds that the pavement is usually most slick when it just starts raining because the oil residue hasn’t yet washed away.
“I always use extreme caution when it hasn’t rained for a while, and we get the first rain of the season,” Tetrick says. “Slick pavement can be unpredictable, so it is best to keep your vision where you want to go and not make any abrupt movements or changes of speed.” When in doubt, just slow down. It’s way easier to navigate slick roads at slower speeds.