The Potholes in Life

As regular readers of this blog will know, I rely on my bike to get me around to the myriad committee meetings I need to attend across Cambridge. It is my lifeline to get me speedily to the railway station (often, I suspect, faster than car or bus during peak rush hour) where the (relatively) new bike park at the station – increasingly filling up though it is – is a huge improvement. Our previous bike parking was an ill-lit, unsurfaced, outdoor mess of bike racks of different vintages attempting to serve the Cambridge population but totally inadequately in terms of numbers. My regular weekly shop is done by bike too, with the recently-opened Sainsbury’s in the new district of Eddington a welcome addition. I can judge my declining muscle strength by the increasing challenge I face in hefting 12 pints of milk each week into my voluminous bicycle basket, or the difficulty I find in springing up from locking my bicycle to a ground floor handle when wearing a rucksack. But I will need to be a great deal more decrepit before I stop cycling for convenience, even if my average speed drops steadily year by year.

Potholes are big news these days and a massive problem for cyclists in Cambridge as elsewhere. Possibly a sign of austerity measures, they rarely get patched. They often turn up in surprising places. I can think of two roads where there is a long line of potholes down the centre quasi-equally spaced, each maybe 30-50 cm across as if some giant had tossed a large boulder into the road and it had bounced like a pebble on water. I assume (the materials scientist lurking inside me says) that, since roads are usually tarmac-ed in two halves, to minimise disruption to traffic, that actually this is a cohesive failure at the join between the two halves, where sites of weakness abound easily torn apart by freezing water expanding. Nevertheless, since the very centre of the road gets less impact from traffic than the two lanes each side themselves, I still find this mode of failure surprising.

More common are the potholes at the side of the road, in the gutter particularly around drains, that cause so many problems for the cyclists. The drain issue is no doubt another problem of cohesion, where a small hole rapidly causes additionally stresses and the hole soon becomes substantial (this materials science problem of stress concentration around cracks is of course well known; I have discussed it previously in the context of airplane crashes.) Last week I encountered a recently created crater – it was above average size – of this sort at a particularly dangerous corner on my route to the station. Imagine my surprise when, 24 hours later heading off to the station again I found it had already been mended. That is an unusual occurrence, at least in Cambridge. It is the longevity of so many of these potholes that is now being highlighted as a contributor to our nation’s health, or rather lack of it. Potholes are being blamed for discouraging cycling and hence a factor in the very obvious obesity crisis we face. So, getting them sorted is perhaps a higher priority than local councils have previously appreciated, although the budgets dealing with the two very different burdens will not be meshed in any way.

However, since potholes alone are not enough to deter me from relying on this convenient mode of transport, the question has to be how best to negotiate these gutter-based potholes. What is the safest way of doing this? And, as I was cycling down yet another road full of its own suite of potholes this week, I realised that there is a not too-laboured analogy between the other parts of an academic’s career and the pothole negotiation strategies one chooses. So here are some familiar scenarios to ponder.

1 Pushed into the kerb

On the road this would correspond to a large bus alongside you making it impossible for you to swerve away from the pothole. Instead you have to bump into the hole, facing the danger of being thrown off your bike or into the kerb (or both). Either way it can be painful. In the lab the equivalent would be the alpha (fe)male who bears down on you, trampling on whatever you’re doing and making you feel rubbish. There is no place to retreat to in many cases, so again it often turns out to be a painful, bruising experience. All one can aim for is a defensive strategy – perhaps by slamming on the brakes or, in the lab, simply keeping out of the way. In the workplace, though, there are other solutions such as forming a network of support or finding ways to stand up to the offender (I can’t think standing up to a bus is likely to lead to anything good). If they are your supervisor this is when the problems get really painful, but peer group support, alternative mentors and (if it is bad enough) turning to HR may all be helpful.

2 Hitting a pothole hard at night

When it’s dark it’s all too easy to fail to see the pothole at all. This can lead to hitting it at full speed. If, as has happened to me, your front light bounces off as a result, you truly are left in the dark.  A situation not unlike that which happens when the unexpected turns up in your in-tray (which you have not a clue how to handle) or you find an unwise prior acceptance of some task pitches you into the high stakes unknown. Exactly what will propel you into this dark corner will depend on your discipline, your seniority and your prior experience. But all of us have, from time to time, found ourselves accidentally taking on a role or responsibility that was certainly not sought, planned for or indeed desired. Those situations may be thought of as perturbing but not necessarily dangerous. However, to take the pothole analogy a little further, there are times when you fall hard into a departmental fight (for instance) without meaning to take sides yet finding your words are claimed by one side or other and the fall out can definitely be pretty dark.

3 Swerving

In daylight it may be possible to see the pothole a few yards ahead and swerve (in the absence of buses) to avoid it. This is obviously the ideal strategy: no bruises, no darkness. But, in practice in daily life, in one’s anxiety to avoid a foreseen obstacle, the swerving may take you a long way out of the path you thought you were following. Sometimes, if the obstacle was large and unpleasant enough – that alpha (fe)male perhaps – by dodging the obstacle an entirely new route may appear which offers fresh opportunities (e.g. a new supervisor). I have come to realise that this is the strategy that – consciously or, more often, not – I have used to overcome what have felt at the time to be major setbacks. The potholes in this case would correspond to grants not won or jobs not offered (to cite some specific experiences of mine); the new directions taken have included getting much more heavily involved in gender work: not exactly planned, but something that has given me much satisfaction alongside the inevitable frustration.

So, I have probably answered my question above. When a pothole looms – and you have seen it far enough in advance – when some immovable obstacle is in your way, swerving to find new directions and new strengths is probably the most constructive solution.


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3 Responses to The Potholes in Life

  1. Dear Athene,
    I sympathise with your cycling joys and woes – and like your analogy. I’m afraid this post is about tired muscles, rather than exploring the analogous fatigue. Having commuted by bicycle for >20 years I realised that my muscles were aching all the time. Surely after 20 years I’d be used to it? Then I remembered I was getting old…
    I read around a bit, and learned that as we get older we lose muscle mass and aren’t so good at exploiting dietary protein. And this age-related sarcopenia may be mitigated by increasing dietary protein. Although the mechanisms aren’t well-defined, it’s not necessarily the physical increase in protein – but that the protein stimulates the body to grow muscle.
    I started drinking protein shakes after cycling, morning and evening. Mixing the powder from the huge vats from health food shops. I usually associate this will huge weight-lifting types. Within a week, my aches and gone away. And I think I cycle a bit faster too.
    It could all be a placebo effect but, if it is, it’s a tasty one.
    And, I suppose, in a way I can use this to address your analogy. When the going is tough, and there are obstacles, potholes and other dangers, chocolate protein milk shake is a very pleasant time-out.
    Bw, Simon

  2. PhysicsBear says:

    I like your analogy – I am definitely a natural “swerver” too!

    Side-tracking back to the bicycles though, I am finding cycling with my six-year old quite challenging when confronted with the abominable selection in Histon. I end up occupying the centre of the road, defending him from all traffic and insisting that he steer round all of them rather than risk going over the handlebars. I don’t suppose the budget for road repairs is in any way linked to the NHS dentistry budget, as he’s already lost one tooth (and demolished a very sturdy helmet) by going over the handlebars once. Nor will they compensate me for the therapy I’m going to end up needing for the psychological stresses of the entire experience!

  3. Ana Vasiliu says:

    “anxiety to avoid a foreseen obstacle” – does describe a good deal of my life; then, the swerve was Churchill – not nearly the last. I owe this long story of swerves !

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