Biking through wet leaves

Last week all the leaves blew off the trees in the Portland area, and then a heavy rain coated them all with water. It’s so pretty!

This is a bigger hazard for bicycling than most people realize (as are, I may as well mention, other non-car crash causes; a recent study by the state epidemiologist’s office found that 75% of bike hospitalizations were caused by potholes, leaves, rail tracks, ice, equipment failures, drunkenness, and other non-car problems).

Here are all the ways that wet leaves could surprise you:

1. They can cause you to slide out if you’re turning across them.

2. They can cause you to skid if you’re braking on them.

3. They can cause you to lose traction if you’re accelerating (or going uphill) on them.

4. They may be hiding a pavement hazard, like a big pothole, that will surprise you, and might even surprise you right off your bike!

I’ll bet our readers have other suggestions, but I recommend the following:

1. Do your braking before you hit the leaves, and then ease up on the brakes as you go over them. Especially if you are executing a turn – do it very slowly, but whatever you do don’t brake while turning.

2. Avoid accelerating on leaves.

3. Avoid braking on leaves.

4. Hey, just avoid biking on leaves altogether! Remember that it is perfectly legal, not to mention fair and safe, for you to leave the margins of the road and get out there in the middle if you need to avoid a hazard. The key to doing this is that you absolutely must:

a) look behind you first to make sure you’re not going to cut anyone off, and
b) signal before you do it so the motorists understand and sympathize.

5. If you encounter dangerous leaves, let your local maintenance crew know. In Portland, the phone number of maintenance needs (like sweeping glass or leaves, fixing potholes, or repainting lanes) is (503) 823-1700. (The Portland maintenance crew is really wonderful; be nice.) For other jurisdictions, see our list of maintenance contacts.


Comments (11)

  1. heather andrews Permalink  | Nov 06, 2008 09:36am

    I was just thinking about this very issue this morning on my way to work!

  2. kevin ko Permalink  | Nov 07, 2008 02:48pm

    My wife and I went down on wet leaves while riding our tandem. A rider in our group heard the commotion behind her, slowed to see what was happening and she also went down. Wet leaves are the pits, and this is the season that folks pile them in the bike lanes of Eugene for the PW crew to pick up. Be careful!

  3. Andy Permalink  | Nov 11, 2008 08:46am

    Can we forward this on to the City of Hillsboro? Many of the bike paths are covered in leaves and they don’t seem to get cleaned up. I’m sure there are similar issues in every other town out there.

  4. Kt Permalink  | Nov 12, 2008 10:27am

    Can we also forward it to the City of Tigard? The bike lanes are crank-deep in leaves out on Gaarde and McDonald, it’s quite off-putting.

    As in, I don’t even want to ride.

  5. Richard Permalink  | Nov 13, 2008 07:09am

    Leaves were demonstrated to also be hazardous to motorized vehicles yesterday, when they plugged storm drains and flooded parts of Barbur Blvd. The City of Portland should be making better efforts to remove them, and not just wait until after the trees are bare. Last year it seemed that they did a much better job of it; I guess times are tough!

  6. Dan Permalink  | Nov 14, 2008 01:57pm

    They’ve got better things to do than run around and around picking up every leaf as it falls. Just be aware of the conditions and ride accordingly. (Nice couple of days we’re having, eh? ;-)

    In Salem they ran a sweeper or something along Mission St – probably to keep the leaves from clogging storm drains. This process dredged up all the nasty gritty glassy gunk out of the gutter and deposited it out into the bike lane (which was already bad enough trying to dodge raised manhole covers and storm drains and concrete patches around sunken access thing-a-ma-jigs and median vegetation sticking out, etc.)… oh, plus the speed limit is 40 so the safe passing law doesn’t apply… (sorry – should never have let myself get started ;-)

    I wouldn’t say that you “absolutely must” signal before moving out to take the lane (which isn’t to say that it’s not advisable whenever practicable.) Signaling requires letting go the handlebar (in wet leaves?); and besides, if you already looked back to make sure you’re not going to (get creamed) cut in front of anybody…

  7. Trudy Permalink  | Nov 28, 2008 02:42pm

    Has anyone heard of turn signal lights for bikes? It’s pretty much impossible to signal at night, so they would come in handy. Maybe yellow blinkies that can be easily turned on at the ends of the handlebars?

  8. Michelle Permalink  | Nov 30, 2008 02:37pm

    You can get reflective or lighted wristbands, that would help you signal turns in the dark.

    Many gloves also have reflective piping on them.

    I have definitely seen battery-powered LED ankle straps, which could easily go on your wrists.

  9. Andy Permalink  | Dec 03, 2008 08:12am

    Bicycle turn signals are definitely out there. I found these :

    But I’m sure there are others out there. Reflective bands and straps are definitely useful since they would help get the light outside fo the profile of your bike. A flashing turn signal may not be seen that well if you have a rear light on your bike (especially if it, too, is flashing). Personally, I rely on reflective strips as well as planning far ahead so that I’m seen and plan my route.

    Good luck!

  10. Dean Permalink  | Oct 25, 2010 08:10pm

    My wife and I just rode in to work together (for the heck of it I rode to her work with her before backtracking to my office) and we were discussing this. The leaves can really be deadly! We were both taking it easy but there was a section of steep uphill where the leaves / rain made it pretty hard to keep traction while climbing.

    Anyway, my advice with leaves is: be mindful. You’re not going to be able to avoid them 100% of the time so just keep your cool when going through them and you’ll be fine. I usually try to brake mostly with my rear brake because if my rear wheel slides out it’s no big deal.

  11. HeatherB Permalink  | Oct 26, 2010 06:55am

    Studded tires also are a decent option for winter riding. The best way I’ve found to take turns in slick conditions is to brake and pedal at the same time through the turn. You gain a suprising amount of control – it’s a mountain biking trick that happens to help on pavement as well. It’s not a cure-all method, but with practice you can determine when this technique helps.