Dr Hutch and the pothole disaster: 'The roads are returning to nature'

Cycling Weekly's columnist Dr Hutch reckons the degradation of UK roads is all a part of the circle of life

hutch holes
(Image credit: Getty Images/Future)

I was out for a ride with my friend Bernard a couple of weeks ago. He was ahead of me on a descent when he made an incomprehensible gesture with his right hand and shouted something I couldn’t hear.

Then he rode straight off the edge of the road, onto the grassy verge, indulged in a few seconds ungainly road-bike cyclocross, and eventually bounced back onto the road.

He’d got himself the wrong side of a large fissure in the tarmac, which gradually eased from right to left and off the edge of the road. It swept him into the vegetation like a group of journalists in a Tour de France media car.

A braver man might have attempted a sideways bunny hop at 40 mph, which is why brave men spend so much of their time in A&E having nurses remove their shorts with scissors. Bernard almost styled it out. The only thing that gave it away was the swearing.

I assumed it was just around our way that the roads were like this, but it seems that terrible surfaces are almost universal in the UK. I think I’m now able to experience all the major hazards within just a few hundred yards of home. Things like the converging ruts of a badly patched-up trench left by a utility company, which get closer and closer together until your only choice is which side you want to crash on this time.

Or the invisible lip in the surface, that you can only detect by feel, the feeling in question being one of unexpected blunt-force impact.

And, of course, the traditional big old hole. I thought I knew potholes till last winter. Last winter there were holes around here so deep that if you stopped for a proper look you could see the last six road surfaces (every one of them better built than the current one), several Roman mosaics, and finally all the moving parts of planet Earth.

"You have to regard the roads these days as essentially ploughed fields."

Bernard

“The thing is,” Bernard said, explaining his latest verge-adventure, “you have to regard the roads these days as essentially ploughed fields. Just made out of something much harder. Road cycling is over. We’re hard-surface mountain bikers now.”

He’s right. You really have to look where you’re going. I’ve got another friend who has taken to riding in some sort of weird golfing sunglasses, because he swears that the colour of the tint or the refractive index or something means he can spot holes better. He looks like a golfer, but says that’s a small price to pay. Personally I think it’s a big price, but he might still be right.

Where once I recce’d a race course looking for corners, hills, fast descents and risky junctions, these days I look for holes. The local council has painted a yellow circle round some of the smaller holes to acknowledge that they’ll be fixing them. They’ve left the bigger craters unmarked, presumably because they plan to sneakily reclassify them as meteorite impacts and charge admission instead.

I occasionally ride at night. I’ve got a very effective bike light. But even with a floodlight, cycling in the dark feels like it ought to have a “Gamble Aware” warning attached.

What’s happening is obvious. The roads are returning to nature. It reminds me of those photos of Detroit that appeared few years ago, with abandoned streets, trees growing through houses and families of racoons living in derelict pizza restaurants.

It’s the circle of life. I was in Mexico a couple of years ago, where they have potholes so big they appear on sat-nav apps. There was one that had traffic cones around it, and the back of a pick-up truck sticking out of it like the stern of the sinking Titanic. This is what will happen. The roads will return to nature, and then start eating cars. But not before they eat us.

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