Wet, wet, wet – Cycling in the rain

Professional cyclists riding in the rainSplish, splash, splosh. Do you cycle in the rain or do you just get wet? Cycling in the rain is unpleasant at best, miserable at worst. It’s of little consolation that nobody can see your tears when riding in the rain.

“I enjoy cycling too much to ride in the rain”
Me, 2014

Love it or hate it, one thing is for certain, a wet ride is unavoidable even for the most timid of fair weather cyclists. I’ve ridden for days on end in the rain. Or life times, as they seemed to be in my head. Thank you Peak District. You too Lake District. Fortunately your beauty was just about enough to keep me going, although descending the legendary Hardknott Pass in torrential rain is not something I’d like to repeat. Descending wet roads with 30% gradients is worse than climbing them!

Raining on our parade

Did the sky get darker?

Did the sky get darker?

Here in the UK we have more words for rain than Eskimos* have for snow. Expletives aside, there’s shower, precipitation, drizzle and downpour. More? Oh, all right then. Raining cats and dogs, spitting, torrential, dribble and deluge. Then come the full suite of ‘downs’: bucketing it down, chucking it down, pouring down, tipping it down, pelting it down, lashing it down and my favourite, sheeting it down. In the unlikely event that we forget all of the above, there’s always ‘wet stuff’ as a last resort.

* I know, it’s Inuit, not Eskimo, apologies, my language is constrained by the idiom. Non-cycling digression: Some studies suggest Inuits have 180 snow and ice related words. This is somewhat dwarfed by the 1,000 different words they have for reindeer. I reference the Inuit / Eskimo question because to refer to somebody as an Eskimo is to call them ‘an eater of raw meat’ and is perceived to be pejorative. Many years from now perhaps the label ‘cyclist’ will refer to those ‘who rub chamois cream on their nether regions’.

To ride or not?

Man up, many a cyclist will think when they look through the window at the grey skies and shining roads. Not me. I ride because I want to enjoy it, not suffer it. Cycling is about the journey, not the destination. The opposite is true when the heavens open.

If riding in the rain was fun then we’d all jump in the shower fully clothed before each ride. I don’t want to feel like I’m wearing a giant, freezing cold, soggy nappy each time I climb out of the saddle. There’s enough to avoid on the roads without having to swerve around puddles or worry about slick manhole covers. Head down, eyes narrow, there’s little scenery to enjoy on a wet ride.

You must be mental

Ever get the feeling the rain is stalking you?

Ever get the feeling the rain is stalking you?

Is riding in the rain a case of mind over matter? Getting caught in the rain is never as bad as beginning a ride in the rain. One of my biggest dislikes about cycling is climbing into 99 layers of clothing when it is cold or wet (usually both). Add to that the unpleasant peeling off of the very same layers at the other end and you can see why I try not to commute to work in the rain. The thought of climbing back into wet Lycra for the evening ride is not something I cherish.

“The rain fluctuates between drizzle and torrential. It messes with your mind. It makes you think things will always be like this, never getting better, always letting you down right when you thought the worst was over.”
Susane Colasanti, best selling author of teen novels. Seems cyclists think just like teenage girls when it comes to the rain. No? Just me then.

Summer storms

I enjoy riding in the rain under one circumstance. Summer. There are few better rides than the thrill of a quick dousing when a summer storm strikes. The mercury tops 30 degrees and for once in your cycling life, you welcome the wet. First you smell it. Bright sunny roads soon darken. The sky heaves, ready to belch out rain spots as big as the smile on your face.

The hard slap of the first thunder clap sends shivers down your spine. The sprinkle of rain spots promptly form a deluge when the lake above you empties and soaks you in an instant. Saturated yet warm, you ride slower not faster. The sky flashes all around you, lightning, Mother Nature’s camera capturing this moment for her own amusement. Exhilarated, you don’t want to arrive anywhere for this moment should never end.

What’s the best clothing for cycling in the rain?

Skin - 100 percent waterproof

Skin – 100 percent waterproof

Let’s preface this by saying you will get wet. Water always finds a way. Purchase expensive waterproofs by all means but there will always be that gap, that cold trickle to remind you the weather gods shall not be defied.

More disconcerting is the uncomfortable feeling of getting wet from the inside out, your sweat trapped by your allegedly breathable waterproof cycling jacket. Despite the claims of many a cycle clothing manufacturer there’s no such thing as 100 percent waterproof clothing. This I believe is called skin.

Not that I advocate naked cycling. The more you cycle in the rain, the more you realise the need to invest in some decent gear. When I first began cycling I had little money and so searched for cheap tips on remaining dry on the bike. I cut holes in black bin bags to act as makeshift capes and wrapped my feet in plastic bags. Did such measures work? Sort of. Would I recommend them? No.

Decent wet cycling clothing will make your wet ride more comfortable. It’s not about remaining dry, it’s about making yourself less wet. Focus on the core and contact points. Keeping your body dry is relatively easy but attempting to keep your feet dry when cycling has to be one of mankind’s most futile acts. Others better equipped than I may disagree. I’m certainly not an all weather cyclist and I often prefer to resort to the best trick of all to remaining dry. Staying indoors.

The cyclist skunk stripe, available in any colour so long as it is brown

The cyclist skunk stripe, available in any colour so long as it is brown

If you must venture out, I would recommend a peaked cap. A visor is very helpful in a heavy storm, protecting your eyes or glasses from the rain. Full mudguards are a must too. The biggest source of water when riding is usually the road and not the sky. Consider mudguards as the cycling equivalent of an umbrella, only pointing in the opposite direction. If your waterproof clothing doesn’t get wet then it can’t fail you. Highly recommended, unless you like rocking the skunk stripe of course.

Top tip: the best way to dry wet cycling shoes is to stuff them with newspaper.

Bike maintenance after cycling in the rain

Is cycling in the rain bad for my bike? Yup, but the damage is less than that inflicted upon the cyclist’s soul. Bike maintenance is certainly the last thing you want to do when you arrive home looking like a wet rat. Fortunately there’s not a great deal of maintenance for you to do.

Oiling the chain is the bare minimum, especially if you’ve just cycled through a biblical storm so heavy the paint was almost stripped from your frame. You could wipe your bike down with a towel if you were so inclined. Or clean it thoroughly. Or you could simply have a nice warm shower and a hot pot of coffee.

How to ride in the rain

This is how you ride puddles

This is how you ride puddles

Wet roads can be lethal. Traction between tyre and road is reduced and corners quickly become enemies. So too the dreaded manhole or drain covers that need treating as carefully as ice. You’ll only attempt to turn on a wet drain cover once in your life. Avoid them completely or make sure you hold a straight line.

Braking is also greatly reduced in the wet. Caliper brakes and rain are about as useful a combination as frozen hands and a puncture. Slowing down might be the last thing you want to do in the rain but it’s better to return home extra wet than extra sore. Avoid puddles and standing water as you never know how deep the water is or what lies beneath.

Watch out too for the painted lines on the roads, which can steal a wheel from beneath you quicker than a bike thief at a sportive. Heavy rain helps clean city roads but be vigilant with light rain, especially in the summer. Cycling on damp dusty roads can be akin to someone dousing your tyres in baby oil. Confidence is important too. As anyone who saw Bradley Wiggins trying to descend a mountain in the wet after a fall in last year’s Giro will understand.

Visibility is also important. Get your lights on and avoid dark clothing. The best bike handler in the world is powerless if sideswiped by a driver who hasn’t seen them in dreadful conditions.

The importance of the right tyres in the rain

This isn't quite the aero position my coach was talking about

This isn’t quite the aero position my coach was talking about

Most cyclists advocate upgrading your tyres as one of the best investments or upgrades. I concur. This is especially true when riding in the rain. I’m a fan of Continental tyres, either Four Seasons or GP4000S. No matter what tyre you ride, be sure to inflate it to the correct pressure, by which I mean do not follow the max PSI as recommended by the manufacturer on the side of the tyre. Follow the rules of ‘tyre drop’, which uses your weight to calculate the optimum tyre pressure.

You may even want to go to a lower pressure when it rains or switch to some wider tyres. The current vogue for road bikes is moving from 23mm to 25mm tyres. In the dry you probably won’t even notice the difference (I don’t) but these two vital millimetres might just save you a slip in the wet, which can be bad for your bones, your bike and ultimately, your dignity.

Images courtesy of 1) Gruber images 2) Brian Rolfe 3) Unknown 4) Carters News Agency 5) Unknown 6) Unknown 7) Bettini

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8 thoughts on “Wet, wet, wet – Cycling in the rain

  1. I certainly agree that it’s almost impossible to stay dry and mitigating heat loss is the best you can hope for. But whilst it can be miserable there can also be a certain exhileration from riding in the rain, if you are in the right frame of mind, and on this windblown island there is always the likelihood that what is happening outside your front door now won’t be happening in an hour’s time or a few miles up the road. It might be worse there of course but the sun emerging as the clouds clear is a heart warming sight and I’ve heard hard men wax lyrical about the sun coming out over a valley after a storm. Also I haven’t got an indoor trainer so I don’t have a choice :-(

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    • I think relief is the key emotion for me rather than exhilaration when I see the sun coming out! No indoor trainer here either – I keep thinking about it but just know it would be bore the life out of me. Better to be either damp or forgo cycling altogether rather than punish yourself!

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  2. Buffalo P system top, cyclocross bike with disc brakes and mudguards and a positive attitude makes a big difference. Forget about trying to keep dry and just stay warm. Voila!

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  3. Pingback: I will not harden the f*ck up (HTFU) | The Human Cyclist

  4. A most enjoyable post that had me laughing too ‘You must be mental’ – how many times have I said that to myself when caught cycling in the rain? Countless, though I, like you, avoid the stuff whenever possible. I find a baseball cap under my cycling helmet works best for me. Thank the gods for peaked caps.

    - sonmicloud.

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  5. Pingback: RideLondon 100 (86!) – training, the remains of a hurricane and a shortcut | The Human Cyclist

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