Posted by: Travis | February 2, 2011

How to make riding in the rain tolerable (or even enjoyable)

Winter is the rainy season in NorCal. From May until September we might have one or two rainy days, but the winter is when we get the vast majority of our rainfall. Not only does it rain often, but it’s cold (for us), and with the sun going down around 4:30 in the afternoon, there’s a serious reduction in daylight. All these factors mean that bike riders have 3 options:

  1. Learn to ride in the cold and wet
  2. Spend the winter on your stationary trainer or rollers, watching old DVDs of the Tour over and over again
  3. Only ride on the weekends

For the most part this winter has been pretty mild. It didn’t really get cold until November, and the number of sunny days seems to have far outnumbered the rainy days. We’ve even had whole weeks where temps get into the high 60’s in the afternoon. I’ve been meaning to write an entry about riding in the rain for the last two months or so, but the number of times i’ve had to do it have been so few and far between, that it never came to the forefront.

That all changed last Sunday. I went on a ride with my friends Jeremy and Steve. Going on a wet ride where it starts raining once you’re out on the road is one thing, but leaving your house while it’s pouring is a whole ‘nother level of insanity. With none of the three of us will to call the others’ bluff about ‘hardening up’ or being ‘hardcore’, we set out hoping it would break and we’d get some sun.

While we got a few breaks from the rain, it never really happened. It rained for most of our ride. The thermometer on the computer never got above 52 degrees. For the last 45 minutes we reached the point where we were so cold and uncomfortable that conversation mostly ceased. All three of us were thinking the same thing. Just get home. A hot shower awaits.

As we were rolling by the Stanford campus back into Palo Alto, Steve pulled off to make a stop by Trader Joe’s for some brats to consume when he got home. Jeremy and i kept rolling. I heard a hissing sound that seemed to get louder, then quieter with the rotation of my tire. I thought my fender was rubbing. The we stopped at a light and it kept hissing.

Flat front tire.

We pulled over, took the front wheel off the bike and i started trying to take the tire off the rim. I was immediately covered in black road grime that made me look like i had washed  my hands in ink. My hands were too cold to really get the tire off the rim. Then my bike fell over.

Flat rear tire. Double flat.

At that point, about 4 minutes from home, i decided it wasn’t worth trying to change, so i called Rachel to come pick me up.

Contrary to what i will advise later in this blog entry, i didn’t fix my bike, wash it, or lube the chain. I put it away wet and dirty, and proceeded to take the longest, hottest shower i’ve taken in a while.

I was planning on cleaning up, and then going across the bay to race the Early Bird Crit in Fremont a few hours later. At that point it was clear that it wasn’t happening.

The point of this narrative is to say that now, even with the extended forecast looking more like May than January, riding in the rain is back on my mind.  It’s something i didn’t really master until recently. If done correctly, riding in the rain doesn’t have to be miserable (okay, maybe yesterday was a bad example). In fact, i almost universally prefer riding in the rain to riding on the stationary trainer or rollers.

I know we don’t have much of the rainy season left, but here are my tips for making it tolerable:

  • Rain bike – If you have the means, the absolute best thing you can do is have a spare bike that you use to ride in the rain. Even if done properly, riding in the rain puts a ton of stress on your bike’s components, especially the drive-train. By having a dedicated ‘rain’ bike, equipped with cheaper parts that you aren’t too concerned with messing up, you’ll get much longer life out of the more expensive components you have on your race bike. A spare bike can be an old road bike, a touring bike, or even a cyclocross bike with road bike tires on it. It really doesn’t matter, as long as it isn’t your primary road bike.
  • Fenders – Fenders are an absolute must for riding in the rain. Avoid the single ‘beaver tail’ style fender that mounts to your seat post and opt for the full on front and rear fenders. I have a pair of the SKS Race Blade fenders and i love them. The run about $50, easily mount to just about any bike in about 2 minutes, and come off in about 10 seconds. Fenders keep you dry by preventing road spray from your tires from getting kicked up. This prevents the telltale brown stripe you get on the back of your shorts and jersey when you ride in the rain. The front fender keeps your shoes from getting sprayed and also keeps your bike clean. The other advantage of riding with fenders is that when riding in the rain in a group, it prevents you from shooting spray into the face of the person following you. It took me a long time to get fenders, but as soon as i did, i was hooked.
  • Rain Jacket – A proper rain jacket is also essential. A few companies make the standard issue vinyl ‘rain cape’ that can be had for about $15, but those are really terrible. They aren’t comfortable, aren’t form fitting, and they don’t breathe, so they can turn into a sauna. I recommend the Showers Pass ProTech Jacket ($110). Showers Pass is a rain wear company based in Portland, Oregon, so you know they know a thing or two about riding in the rain. The jacket is clear, which is great for racers because they can race in it and officials can see their number through it. It is also lightweight and breathable, which prevents it from getting too hot on days when it isn’t so cold. My favorite feature, however is that it packs into it’s own rear pocket, and ends up being small enough to easily fit into a jersey pocket. It’s a great option, especially on days when you’re worried it might rain. You can just stick it in your pocket and not worry about it. However, if you have the means, i would also recommend having another rain jacket that is thicker and not so packable. Some days you know it’s going to be cold and rain your entire ride. On these days, it might be worth having something more substantial that you don’t worry about taking off and stowing in a pocket.
  • Cap – A cycling cap under the helmet during a rainy ride can make a world of difference. It helps keep your head warm, and the visor keeps water from running down your face. From October to March, when i’m not too worried about my head getting hot on rides, i pretty much always ride with a cap under my helmet.
  • Shoe Covers – Shoe covers don’t keep your shoes dry as much as they keep your feet clean, and keep them warm by covering up the vent holes found in the bottom of most cycling shoes. There are two routes you can go. Aero shoe covers, like the Pearl Izumi Barrier Lite ($25) shoe cover, do a fine job of keeping feet protected, and when paired with a wool sock, are plenty warm for my taste. However, if you get cold feet, you might want to go with something more substantial, like a neoprene boot that (around $60), that will keep your tootsies warm on wet rides down into the 30’s. If you like white cycling shoes, shoe covers on rainy days are a must. And again, if you have the means, having a spare pair of shoes for riding in the rain is advised. Additionally, a pair of Stuffits, a product that you stick into wet shoes to dry them out in a few hours, goes a long way to making riding in the rain tolerable day after day.
  • Glasses – Aside from fenders, glasses may be the most important piece of equipment for making riding in the rain tolerable. With so much road grime getting sprayed around, getting some in your eye is not only annoying, but dangerous. Since it is rarely sunny on rainy days, i normally wear clear lenses instead of the tinted ones i wear on sunny days. You can do this by getting sunglasses with interchangeable lenses, or by going cheap and finding some clear ‘safety glasses’ for a few bucks. I’m partial to Oakley sunglasses. In my experience they make the best sunglasses on the market, and when it comes to cycling, their products are head and shoulders above the competition. I got a pair of Oakley Jawbones for Christmas and have been thoroughly impressed with them. The lenses are vented and the frames shaped such that they never fog up, and the lenses come with a hydrophobic coating that makes water run right off of them, rather that sitting on the lens, blocking your vision. Best of all, the frame opens up, allowing you to switch between a wide array of available lenses. At $200, it’s a significant investment, but one that i have found is well worth it.
  • Legs – In NorCal, rain normally means cold. When it’s wet and cold i can’t stand normal cotton/lycra leg coverings. I find they get soaked through, and then get heavy and cold. Because of this, i prefer to leave my legs bare in the rain, instead keeping them warm with a nice layer of embrocation. This way your legs stay warm and the water just runs right off of them. If this method isn’t up your alley, try some wool knee/leg warmers or tights. Wool does not get cold to the touch when wet. This is why i’m a huge fan of wool socks on rainy days.
  • Tires – There are lots of things you can do with your tires to make riding in the rain easier and safer. The easiest of which is to just ride with lower pressure. I normally fill my tires to about 115psi, but on rainy days, i’ll take it down to 95-100psi. This makes the ride a bit more comfortable (in the rain you’re more concerned with comfort and safety than going fast), but it also increase the contact surface area between your tire and the road, giving you more grip and reducing your chances of sliding out. You can also accomplish this by riding a wider tire. While i normally ride 23mm tires, some choose to ride 25mm or 28mm tires in the winter because they are more comfortable and less likely to slide out. Though i personally don’t do it, a lot of the guys i know will put more durable tires on their bikes (Continental Gatorskins) during the winter. Since you aren’t racing over the winter, flat protection is more important than going fast. If you have an extra set of wheels laying around, you could always have a ‘rain wheelset’ equipped with some 25mm Gatorskins to ride in the wet.
  • Keep the bike upright in turns – This is not a piece of equipment but a skill. You should handle your bike differently in the wet than in the dry. When cornering, come into the turn with les speed than you would when it’s dry, and rather than leaning the bike waaaaay over, try to keep it pretty upright, steering with your bars rather than by leaning the bike over. By keeping your center of gravity directly above your tires, you reduce your chances of sliding out and crashing in a turn.
  • Keep Mouth Closed – Another skill to learn. When riding in the rain, especially with a group, try to keep your mouth closed and breath through your nose. When road grime is getting sprayed everywhere, it’s nice to not get it in your mouth. This is much easier said than done, but try anyway. This is so common that there’s even a word for the road grime you get in your mouth — Belgian toothpaste. Mmmmm!
  • Bike Wash – I can’t overstate how important this is. As tempting as it is after a long, cold ride in the rain to just put your bike up and take a hot shower, you really should wash your bike as soon as you get home. Like i said previously, riding in the rain is hell on your bike. The best thing you can do to reduce the long term damage and extend the life of the parts on your bike is to wash it as soon as you get home. I have a workstand out on our back patio that i put my bike in to wash it. I have some rubber boots outside that i put on. As soon as i walk in the door, i take the bike to the back door, change out of my nasty cycling clothes and put on some athletic shorts and a sweatshirt that i’m not to worried about getting dirty. Take the bike outside and go to work, then put the bike away and hop in the shower. This doesn’t have to be a really thorough cleaning, but at the very least do the following things:
    • Rinse the bike with a hose. Get all the mud off that you can.
    • Use a brush a bucket filled with a water and Dawn mix to get the stubborn stuff off if you have to.
    • Lube your chain. If you’re going to be riding in the rain a lot, use a wet lube during the winter.

So there you go. Now you know as much as i do about riding in the rain. It doesn’t have to be a miserable experience, and as long as you follow these steps, you can do it (relatively) comfortably and without wreaking havoc on your bike.

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