bikebritain News February 26, 2012

The Perils of Potholes

I came off my bike almost two weeks ago, to the hour.  I'm writing this, still experiencing the after effects of (unfortunately) my heaviest fall for few years. What I am certain of though is that had it not been Winter this story might have been very different.  As it was, I was luckily not to break any bones.  So this is a story that does have a positive ending and serves as a reminder that far from being a fashion statement, wearing the right clothes can save you from some serious injuries. It's also a lesson in keeping your wits about you at all times and how a situation can change in an instant when you are on the road. 

Two Sundays ago, Swazy and I went out for our usual spin in the evening. As we both have children, the evenings are an ideal time for us both to blow a few cobwebs away. We typically don't have a set route we just go where we feel like it and I suggested we venture over to Saltdean, my residence, off and on, for 25 years or so. Saltdean has some very stiff inclines, set hard up against the South Downs in a valley. We ascended and descended our way around it's parameter climbing one particularly savage hill that took us past the art deco ex-Butlins building (now a housing complex). 

We worked our way to the far eastern side of Saltdean to Bannings Vale, a road that runs the length of the village on that side. Here, instead of Tarmac, the roads are made out of concrete sections with a join in the middle. Best to avoid the ‘join’ with skinny wheels. The weather conditions were not great, it was damp, but not raining. Bannings Vale runs downhill, North to South, so this represented an ideal opportunity to spin our way towards the coast. About 200 meters from the top of the hill and unbeknown to me there was a channel dug out of the left hand side of the road, left by an unnamed utility company (although I didn't know this at the time). 

The Fall

Unlit and unsigned I rode over it and almost immediately lost control. The force of the bump caused me to go from my upright hand position onto my forearms/elbows. In the melee, I managed to release my right foot, with this happening in an instant. I was all over the place, trying desperately to take off the speed I'd been picking up. It was to no avail. I couldn't quite get the bike under control and I veered across the road and hit the opposite kerb. I can calculate what happened next by my injuries. I slide over onto my right side, with the bike on top of me. My right side, specifically hip and knee made heavy contact with the road, ripping through my Mapei bib tights. Instinctively I'd put my hand out to save myself but in doing so I managed to slam my elbow into the road. This impact put a hole through 3 layers of clothing (jacket, long sleeve jersey and arm warmers) but fortunately it stopped short of me. My right hand glove also took a hit, but again saved me from major injury. Mercifully I somehow did not to hit my head when I 'landed'. In fact the main area where I had sustained visible damage, was on my right thigh where I was only wearing a single layer of clothing. Once home, it transpired I had also made very heavy contact with my left thigh and the bike frame. The ensuing bruise ended up being 25 cm wide. It's still not right now.

Shaken and alittle dazed, Swazy picked me up and got me out of the road. A member of the general public had also stopped and asked if I was ok. I was more concerned if I'd broken anything, but a quick integrity check confirmed only 'superficial' damage had occurred. Not ideal, but a hell of alot better than it could have been. We then assessed the bike.

Unsurprisingly, it too had sustained damage. The Verso gear changer and brake lever didn't look too clever.  In fact I couldn't get it to change at all at first. The bar tape on the right hand side was completely ripped. I couldn't work out if the front wheel had been permanently damaged or whether it was just out of alignment. The frame looked ok though. Right hand pedal had a significant gauge along the side. Lights were still working and fortunately it was rideable home. 

I decided that the best thing to do was to get straight back on and start riding. Besides, I was getting cold and stiff. We made our way gingerly home, nursing both me and the bike back to Shoreham. Fortunately I managed to get the bike to change gear as well, but the mechanism itself was all bent out of shape. I got home and received some TLC from Mrs bikebritain who was relived the injuries were not more serious. That made two of us. I didn't sleep well that night because my hip, especially,  was beginning to throb big time. In the morning I was moving like an old man; but at least I was moving. The bruise on my left thigh was also beginning to kick in. 

The Hole

My initial reaction was to be thankful that I had not been more seriously hurt. However, as the following days past I became increasingly angry over the fall I had incurred. I calculated that the crash was going to cost me about £500 to fix the bike and replace clothing that had been damaged. More importantly though if the 'trench' in the road was not fixed other road users could be hurt and their vehicles damaged. I had been lucky not to break anything. Another cyclist or a motor cyclist might not be so lucky. I decided to lodge a complaint to ESCC highways. I found the incident reporting page on the ESCC (East Sussex County Councils) website and duly noted where the incident had occurred. In addition I sent them the details of the incident and photos of my injuries. Excessive maybe, but I wanted a reaction. I got one. Impressively, the trench was filled less than 24 hours later. I know this because I asked my Father to go and take some photos. Instead I got some images of the hole that was. The filled hole was about 2 meters long and 60 cm wide, maybe more. No wonder I came off. 

East Sussex County Council

Whilst I was on the ESCC website I noticed a reference to a twitter account. I decided to 'follow' them. As bikebritain I ‘tweeted’ a comment about the incident and a reply swiftly followed. We traded statements for a while and ultimately agreed to take our conversation off line at ESCC's behest. It was fair enough, my objective was not to run a personal vendetta against them, simply to gain their attention. Anyway, the hole had been filled. I was happy. 

Since last Friday I have had a couple of very productive conversations with representatives of ESCC's highways agency, including a discussion with the Head of Highways, Roger Williams. He was very sympathetic to my situation and seemed genuinely bothered about the cause of the accident. It was here I learned that the hole had been the leftovers of a piece of work carried out by a Gas company. In the meantime, ESCC had a sent me a claim form for me complete. 

My initial view of the council 'allowing' the road to be left in that condition had changed. Rather, it underlined the tensions between road users, councils and utility companies. In this instance though, as far as I am concerned, the utility company was negligent. How the size of the hole left in the road could be considered acceptable is beyond me.  However in the aftermath, both council representatives I had spoken to were genuinely bothered about what had happened and they had clearly taken my complaint seriously. A 24 hour response to anything these days is pretty good, and it’s not a service level you would expect of the council. Moreover, given the immediacy and 'of the moment' nature of Twitter, I think the use of this form of social media shows the council is serious about connecting with the general public. In one word, 'progressive'. 

The claim will take at least three months to settle and I have yet to get back on the saddle. The response from ESCC has been professional but I am shocked and disgusted that the utility companies are allowed to leave the road in such a condition. Overall, it has highlighted that wearing the right stuff is essential if serious injury, where possible, is to be avoided. 

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