Recently during my cycling holiday I have been riding after a severe thunderstorm in the countryside, which meant the roads where covered in running muddy water and some underpasses had 5-6 cm of water.

Luckily, I had been on those same paths a few days before with dry weather and I was fairly sure there weren't any holes or cracks where I could lose balance and fall.

Later on, I have encountered water covered areas which were new to me, and I tried as much as possible to ride on the edge of the puddles if possible, or just dismounted and walked through the fields if it wasn't possible.

Long story short, this made me wonder if there are ways to assess the safest path when crossing a puddle which takes all the width of the road, in order to avoid getting stuck in mud and/or falling.

  • 8
    Do you consider exposure to raw human sewage in context of this question? All flood waters in urban areas should be treated as a biohazard and avoided if at all possible.
    – mattnz
    Jun 4 at 5:12
  • @mattnz Same goes for anywhere that has stock/animals. Based on our experiences, you can't tell if there's a low level of sewage (discharge to the River for example) but if a sewer has been damaged you can definitely smell the unmistakeable stench. Also there's frequently paper products visible. So avoid drinking it or getting it in your mouth/eyes/ears etc, and have a good rinse when you get home. Wash clothes and rinse off the bike/shoes at the first opportunity (makes sense to do the bike while still wet, before you go inside)
    – Criggie
    Jun 4 at 23:25
  • Just don’t drink the water.
    – Michael
    Jun 5 at 9:44

4 Answers 4


Fairly slowly, unclipped, and standing on the pedals rather than sitting down have always worked for me.

The speed should be such that even in an instantaneous stop you don't have enough momentum to go over the bars. I also like to be in a lower gear for the speed than I would normally choose. This is better for climbing over any hidden rocks or out of potholes.

On the hardtail I've been up to mid thigh and have had an unplanned dismount (onto my feet - I went back and did it again successfully). On the tourer my lights aren't that waterproof, and I don't go up to my hubs intentionally. I've still dropped into a deeper-than-expected hole and come to a dead stop, hard enough to eject my (rather worn) single release cleats.

On paved or well-groomed gravel roads, there's often enough camber to make the road significantly shallower in the middle. If it's a single track road, this can be messy with lose material or even grass growing, but it's less likely to be potholed than the edges. On a road with a line up the middle, you can sometimes see the line through the water to get an idea of what's coming up.

On dirt you often don't have so much choice, and ruts can get suddenly deeper.

Actual fords can also have sudden deep spots, and can also get a lot deeper in the middle. Inspecting from the bank can be a good idea of you have any doubts. If you know something has just churned up mud from the bottom, it's worth waiting to see if it clears. I failed a perfectly ridable ford because a 4x4 had just driven through it and I hit a rock hidden in the murk. Next time it was clear, no problem.

  • 4
    If you're on the banks of a recently-flooded (1980s) River Exe, cycling along what looked like a decent surface of red clay, don't stop. Jun 3 at 21:24
  • @AndrewMorton I'm failing to get the reference (maybe I'm too young!)
    – Chris H
    Jun 4 at 18:09
  • 2
    It's just that if you stop on that sort of surface, which is fine when you're going along, you'll start sinking. Jun 4 at 18:46
  • @AndrewMorton OK, I've never ridden that sort of clay mud, only the sort where you sink whether you're moving or not, but not far
    – Chris H
    Jun 4 at 19:36

You stop, analyse the situation, and look for a better way around.

From your question it's more about standing water on the road. I would avoid riding through any water where I can't see the bottom. Water should be relatively clear on a sealed road, but on a dirt road it will likely be clouded.

Do also remember that riding over wet ground will damage it. By getting off and walking, you're spreading your weight over more surface area and improving you traction.

Since you had local knowledge of the likely depth and condition of the bottom, and you could visually see the flow rate, then you could make an informed decision whether to proceed.

If you were in the same situation without fore-knowledge, and you know there's no other way around, then same as a 4WD crossing a river, you walk the route first unencumbered by a bike and gear.

All the time, you're considering what you know and what you're learning.

If the water is flowing, then you risk being washed off your feet/wheels and potentially downstream. If this is remotely possible, you get out of the water and reevaluate.

Ultimately, if you have doubts about crossing, then don't. Either back off and wait for the water level to drop, or find another way around.

Based on the new picture, you're asking about wet roads. To expand on that:

enter image description here
Just avoid the puddles where possible. Stay on the drier visible surface, and look ahead to avoid getting boxed-in. These puddles are shallower at the edge, so aim to avoid the middle and just skirt them if you have to.

enter image description here
This is wet mud and will be horrible to ride in. Find another road/path ideally, but if you ride this expect to sink in and stick. With no forward momentum you will fall sideways and have to put a foot down, which will sink and possibly throw you into the mud. Not ideal.
Look at the sides and see if there's firmer land there. Avoid crossing a fence onto private land where possible.

enter image description here
Ford This is a formed river crossing that isn't a bridge. There's a concrete surface visible through the water (sometimes this is just a strip of gravel) and poles to show the exit point on the far side.
This water is flowing from right to left, so cross on the upstream side as long as the flow rate isn't excessive. These crossings are unsafe when the river volume/flow rate is high, and they can be bone-dry in the summer. Smart road users will only have one vehicle in the water at a time, and absolutely never going in opposite directions.
In my country, these have been blamed for spreading Didymo weed across catchments, and are only seen in rural areas.

enter image description here
Not so much water here today, but imagine if it was wet. The rutts would fill in first, hiding their depth and the rocks in the right side. On a bike I'd take the middle island but that runs a risk of diving under water leaving me stuck on a narrow with nowhere to put a foot down.
So I'd prefer to be on the right bank passing left of the one rock.
Since its all dirt/mud any standing water will be murky.
If the water was high enough I'd get off, and carry the bike up the bluff on the left, or walk over the rocks on the right. But realistically, I'd be giving up and going home if the puddles were deep enough to submerge that motorbike.

  • 1
    Good point about flowing water - I'd implicitly assumed it was still or nearly so
    – Chris H
    Jun 4 at 18:08

Do not trust water you cannot see through by just looking at it.

I once rode my bike on gravel farm roads immediately after a heavy rainfall.

One of the two tire tracks was full of dirty water, I would estimate about 5-6cm deep. Then I saw some construction barrier equipment tossed to the ground on one side of the road and subconsciously I suddenly did not want to ride through the puddle. So I changed to ride on the solid (muddy) ground on the other side of the path instead.

When I rode back the same path two hours later, the standing water in that puddle had drained into the ground enough that I could see that if I had ridden through that puddle which looked like 5-6cm deep, I would have actually fallen into a >1m deep construction pit located inside that large 5-6cm deep puddle.

When on foot, I would use a stick to feel ahead, but that is a bit cumbersome whilst riding a bicycle, especially if you want to keep your feet dry.


Bunny hop:

Naturally, it's a workaround and not a direct answer to your question. And it will only work in certain situations. But it is a useful skill to have, even if just for those limited situations.

Further to some comments, here is the best example I could find quickly. This is a very easy scenario. What I had in mind is "this sort of situation, but worse". enter image description here Taken from here

Here's another example. Unlike the original photo, this situation is quite bad. It would require a really good hop at a good speed. enter image description here

From here.

Image taken from these instructions

enter image description here

  • Bunny hopping with two full panniers on the rear might be hard. In which situations do you think it could be useful?
    – L.Dutch
    Jun 4 at 14:49
  • The panniers weren't mentioned in the question at the time of my answer. It mentions a cycling holiday, and I know some of these include two full panniers, but the panniers weren't obvious to me.
    – pateksan
    Jun 4 at 15:19
  • The problem exists regardless of the panniers, therefore the answer is still applicable, if you can detail the situations in which bunny hopping might help.
    – L.Dutch
    Jun 4 at 15:21
  • 1
    Bunny hopping might deal with a water-filled pothole if you can see it, but it's not really going to help with a flooded road
    – Chris H
    Jun 4 at 18:07
  • 1
    I added a photo of an easy case of the sort of situation I had in mind.
    – pateksan
    Jun 4 at 18:13

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