Watch for Killer Leaves, Really!

Chester A. Kojro
Chester A. Kojro

Of course, a bunch of leaves blowing into your face is disconcerting and uncomfortable, especially when it smacks you in the face and eyes.  Just another reason for wearing some sort of eye protection when cycling. 

Far more hazardous are leaves on roadway surfaces.  As you pedal along you cannot see what is underneath those leaves. There could be sticks and stones, cracks and potholes, and other debris, stuff that is inconsequential to an automobile but can very seriously affect a bicycle and knock the rider to the ground. 

A far greater danger is slipping, loss of tire traction.  When leaves are between the rubber and the road, bicycle wheels can slip right out from under you.  Braking becomes tricky as the tires skid, slide and swerve.  When leaning into a turn, if the wheel slips out from underneath, the rider goes down onto the pavement.  At higher speed, centrifugal force sends the bicycle sliding across the lane onto the shoulder or into the other traffic lane, depending on the direction of the turn.  Sliding across into the other lane puts the bicyclist directly underneath oncoming traffic.  [Please read that last sentence again.]

Dry leaves are bad enough, but wet leaves are even more slippery.  And when they’ve been there awhile, they might be dry on top but still wet and slimy underneath. 

Imagine yourself coasting along a winding downhill road.  You go 20, 25, 30 mph and more.  Woo-hoo!  Fun!  Now you understand what the Victorians meant when they compared early cycling with the sense of flying.  With no noise but the wind in your ears, as the road veers left you cut toward the center through the turn and then back almost to the right edge as it straightens.  Whoa!  Scary but exhilarating.  You keep going, ever faster.  Now the road veers right and you are again flying close to the centerline when for the first time you see the truck coming the other way at 35 mph.  You lean the bike hard to pull back into your lane…

Think fast! You and the truck are closing at about 70 mph. Your contact with the roadway is maybe one or two square inches of rubber on each tire. Did I mention wet leaves?  If EITHER tire slips, you will instantly be on the ground, sliding across the centerline and under that oncoming truck. 

Okay, relax, nothing happened because you are careful, you never ride madly down into blind turns, and you pay attention for clear roadway surfaces, right?  But it only takes a thoughtless moment to turn you into a tragic statistic.  Always pay attention when pedaling. 

A related problem occurs on chip-and-seal roads.  Eventually they become smooth surfaced as traffic blows away all the loose debris but especially when newly sealed, they are often scattered with small loose pebbles and stones.  As the surface wears, some of that same material again comes loose.  Imagine trying to ride atop little “ball bearings” scattered along the road.  This is a year round concern, but now you add leaves on top and you can encounter some real tricky spots. 

Likewise for gravel and dirt roads.  The road surface condition varies constantly with weather and traffic.  Sometimes nicely graded and firmly packed down, other times gouged and cracked and covered with loose dirt and pebbles, the surface is tricky enough to predict.  Add a layer of leaves and you have no idea what’s below. 

Having wider tires with lower pressure helps a lot because the tread spreads out and around small pebbles and fills in gaps to maintain better road contact.  This is why I personally have no use for narrow high-pressure racing tires on these Ozarks roads and trails. 

But the safest and most effective “trick” is to simply not lean and instead stay upright, the rider centered above where the wheels contact the ground.  To do that, just go slow into and through turns.  Yes, it is that obviously simple.  Slow down before the turn and then just turn the wheel enough to get you through it.  Without leaning the bike, you hardly encounter centrifugal force and the wheels do not slip out from under you.  And even if you still fail to stay upright and fall, at least you do not slide across the lane into oncoming traffic. 

There’s still plenty of good cycling weather before winter’s snow.  Just be careful and pay attention and enjoy it. 

I hope that I’ve dispelled some concerns and encouraged others to give bicycle riding a try.  Perhaps we’ll meet soon.  I’ll ring my bell!