by Our Bicycle Lives

Potholes start small and innocuous, like the French name for them, ‘nids de poules’ (hens’ nests). ‘How quaint!’, one thinks indulgently. A little chip in the road, caused by ‘wear and tear’ or, to put it bluntly, by thousands of heavy motor vehicles charging down the streets of London day and night. A chunk of tarmac dislodged by car tyres. Some loose sand and gravel scattered over the roadway. Nothing to write home about. But the situation quickly deteriorates: lorries, buses, taxis and cars keep coming and going, the hole deepens, revealing new layers in the geology of the road surface. The morning after a cold frosty night, what a pitiful sight! Rainwater has seeped deep down, then has frozen over, expanded and cracked the tar coating. At the end of a long and hard winter, roads look like minefields, with gaps the size of shell holes (well, almost): my neighbourhood has become a war zone.

Potholes may be inert but they are mighty. They are not motionless but rather dormant, like volcanoes lying in wait and biding their time. I dread their power to cause damage and destruction. With its humps and hollows, its depressions and protuberances, an uneven road surface is like an obstacle course. One momentary lapse of concentration can easily result in an impact puncture, a broken spoke or even in a tumble over the handlebars and a concussed head and buckled wheel.

I live in a city. I am a macadam cyclist. I like to feel silky smooth tarmac under my tyres, as smooth as butter. Bring on the powerful smell of freshly laid tar! The road is ‘technology at its best . . . the perfect compromise between civilisation and the wild’ writes Emily Chappell.Whilst I actively seek the wilderness when I am walking or birding, I don’t like to come across it when cycling. I ride a city bike, not a mountain bike, and off-road routes – mud, roots, branches and other hazards – do not feature on my mental cycling map.

Potholes are unsettling because they expose the less than perfect structure that lies beneath the work of civil engineers, designers and town planners. They show the inner workings of the road, its messy layers and crumbly imperfections. Worse still, they lay bare the entrails of our planet Earth. They break the continuity of the road’s protective coating and prove that we are only centimetres away from mud and muck, from chaos and unruly nature (the etymology of the word actually refers to a geological feature in glaciers and gravel beds). Digging deeper, like Buster Keaton plunging clean through the Earth from a diving board in Hard Luck (1921) and emerging years later with an exotic wife and children, we would probably surface down under, on the far side, in a fantasised Southern Hemisphere where people, it is well known, live upside down. A hole in the road is like the start of a tunnel towards the unknown.

For a long time I was welcomed back to my neighbourhood by a giant pothole next to a drain cover at the start of the high street, forever hastily repaired and forever reappearing in a matter of weeks. Then at long last, after a couple of years, this offending hole was finally and durably mended and thankfully ceased to tarnish my image of Brixton. What a relief to go from botch job to skilled workmanship, from approximation to exactness. The road had resumed its core purpose, to enable me to move from one place to another, that is forward rather than down, and to get me with reliable regularity to where I am headed. Until I am able one day, like the pothole gardener, to take time to meander and weave my way through the potholes that are dotted along my route and, rather than make do with them or dodge them like unexploded landmines, make use of them as creative spaces. Plea to all drivers: plant flower pots, not potholes!