Winter is pothole season. Cracks in the tarmac caused by heavy vehicles fill up with water, which freezes and expands, further breaking up the road. Sooner or later you've got a pothole: an annoyance for drivers and a hazard for cyclists.
The problem with potholes is compounded by the fact that most cycling takes place on back roads and lanes. Minor roads are inspected less often – sometimes less than once a year – so the cavities on your commute could be there a long time before they're fixed.
And it's not just potholes. Other road surface defects can jolt, trap or deflect a wheel. Be alert for everything from drain covers sitting proud of the surface, through to studs, cobbles, kerbs and even debris.
Anticipation & avoidance
Don't hug the kerb. Good road positioning will keep you away from sunken drains or steeply cambered road edges and will give you more room for manoeuvre around a pothole. You can go left as well as right, and as you'll be in the traffic stream already you won't have to veer into it.
Swerving out into the road is dangerous. Scan the road far ahead so that you can change your road position gradually if there's a hazard. Pothole depth can be hidden by rainwater or the shadow from headlamps or a low sun, so always plan to go around if you can.
If you suddenly come upon a pothole, it's possible to jink around it without swerving as such. By turning the handlebar rapidly one way and then the other, you can divert the wheels (or at least the front wheel) around the hole while your body continues in a relatively straight line. This is something to practise away from traffic – off-road is best. Set up markers in a line and slalom around them in the shallowest S bend you can manage.
Hitting hazards safely
Sometimes there's no time and no choice: you have to ride over the hazard. Stand up on the pedals, cranks level, with your knees slightly bent to absorb the impact.
If you're going to plough straight over, get your bodyweight back and rotate your wrists so that the heel of each hand is more behind than on top of the handlebar, and drop your heels down so your feet can brace against the pedals. This will stop you getting thrown forward – and over the bar? - when you hit the hazard, because your bodyweight will be 'behind' rather than 'on top of' the bike.
Hit the hazard square on and ride straight over it. Don't try to steer or brake while you're crossing the obstacle. Hazards such as dropped kerbs and tramlines can sweep your wheel away if you hit them at an acute angle; try to cross them perpendicularly.
If you are a capable cyclist (and have practised this away from traffic), you can lift the front wheel up to clear the obstacle. While you're standing on the pedals, hold the handlebar firmly and pull it up. Rocking your bodyweight forward then back makes this easier; Google 'how to manual a bike' for more detailed instruction. But just lifting should be sufficient.
Once the front wheel is over the hole or obstacle, the rear wheel will follow. You can help it on its way by shifting your weight forward as the front wheel clears the hazard, so there's less weight on the rear. Skilled riders can lift the front and rear wheel into the air, one after the other; Google 'bunnyhop'. Only attempt this on road if you already know you can do it.
Change your bike
If your commute takes in roads that are always in a poor state of repair, you can reduce the discomfort and risk by fitting fatter tyres. Fat tyres absorb shock better and prevent pinch-punctures.
The maximum width of tyre will depend on how much room there is under the mudguards, brake callipers, or frame. Some race bikes and flat bar road bikes won't accept tyres bigger than 25mm, whereas do-it-all hybrids, cyclo-cross bikes and touring bikes will usually take at least 35mm, and mountain bikes 50mm or more.
Smaller-wheeled bikes suffer worse on bad roads. A pothole that might only jolt a wheel that's 26-inches in diameter or bigger might stop a 16-inch wheel dead. And even bumps that can be negotiated will jolt the wheels harder and slow them down more.
Suspension also improves comfort and bike control over bumps and potholes. However, it tends to be designed for the much worse surfaces you find off-road and saps pedalling efficiency on it. The most efficient suspension around town is a fat, slick tyre such as Schwalbe's Big Apple.
Reporting & claiming
Local councils have a duty to repair potholes. You can make sure they know about the ones on your commuting route by reporting them. Go online to fillthathole.org.uk. You fill in a few details and the council gets notified automatically. There's even an iPhone app if you want to do it at the roadside.
If the pothole or other road defect damages you or your bike, you can make a claim against the local council. This is easiest if you're a member of a cycling organisation that offers legal support and assistance, such as British Cycling, CTC or the London Cycling Campaign. If you're not, see newsstand cycling magazines to find details of solicitors who specialise in claims for cyclists.
Watch the helicopter shots of the Tour de France and you'll see the riders wheel as one, like a flock of birds. They ride in such a tight group for one reason: it saves energy.
Cyclists aren't restricted to congested commuter roads like car drivers. You can also use cycle tracks, towpaths, and bridleways – although not footpaths or pavements, unless you get off and push. The quality of these off-road routes varies widely: some are impractical, others fantastic. Most are shared with pedestrians. Don't behave towards them like some drivers do towards cyclists. No one likes to be surprised by a relatively fast moving vehicle than passes with inches to spare.
A bicycle needs two independent brakes to be safe on the road. In fact, in England, Scotland and Wales it's a legal requirement. These brakes are usually hand brakes, with the right-hand lever operating the front brake and the left the rear. You can set them up differently, and in countries where they drive on the right they do: so be careful if you hire a bike abroad!