El Nino Cycling

19 ride in the rain

We’re finally getting some storms out of Alaska. If the weather forecasts come to fruition, we should have a very wet winter here in Northern California. El Nino continues to strengthen, and the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge and the “Blob” are fading away. Alaskan fronts coupled with tropical moisture mean rain and very likely lots of it. The drought over the past three years has gifted us with exceptional winter riding weather to which we’ve probably gotten too used. When it started to rain, it was easy to retreat indoors and just wait for another clear day. But now we may face lots of indoor days and a lot less cycling this winter! Well, you can break out the indoor trainer or take a spin class at the gym. If you’re the kind of rider that loves or tolerates lots of hours on a stationary bike, more power to you. But that’s something I—and I think most other cyclists—cannot abide without going crazy.

You don’t need to stop riding outdoors—you just need to be prepared. You need to prepare your bike and get the right clothes. Here’s how to get ready for riding in the wet.

Fenders. Fitting fenders to your bike will make the experience of rain riding a lot more comfortable. You will have less spray and gunk thrown onto you and soaking your clothes. You’ll get less wet and significantly less dirty. I made the mistake once of riding without fenders and a white rain jacket. I could never get the black stains out of the jacket! Your bike will also get less filthed up and reduce slightly the amount of cleaning or hosing off you’ll have to give it post-ride. Of course you’ve got to have a bike that can accept fenders. These days the critical barrier is frame clearance because most road bikes don’t accept tires greater than 25 mm. Trying to cram in a fender is either impossible or the clearance is so tight that any debris from the road will get stuck between your tire and fender. You’ll be forced to downsize your tires to 23 mm or less in order to squeeze in fenders but that’s exactly the opposite of what you should be doing—going to a slightly fatter tire. There are some thin but pricy carbon fenders out there or you opt for cheaper solutions like the Crud road fender.

Tires. Your next adaptation should be to mount a more durable tire and that usually means a fatter one. If you’re normally riding 23 mm tires, then size up to 25 (or larger if your frame and brakes will clear them). Tires with anti-flat protection may not be as comfortable to ride but they are worth it (well, except the Specialized Armadillo—it’s not only effing heavy but it rides like wood). Changing a flat in the rain—and unfortunately I’ve done it a lot—is not only inconvenient and sad to witness but it’s a dirty, grimy affair. At the same time lower your tire pressure, not just because you can with a wider tire—it will feel more comfortable, which is a big plus—but because you want the tire contact patch to be bigger and hence grippier on wet asphalt.

Lights. Having a good taillight and headlight isn’t just because the days are short. It’s because visibility in inclement weather is reduced. Bright flashing lights even in daytime increase the likelihood that drivers (or other cyclists) will notice you, the brighter the better. You can get some damn bright lights for daytime use that are not too expensive. For a taillight, consider the Bontrager Flare R. There are plenty of good flashing headlights from NiteRider, Light & Motion, Cat-Eye, etc.

Rain riding

Maintenance. Well, this has been the deal breaker for me. I used to enjoy working on my bike; now I do it only if absolutely necessary because I’ve become a lazy bastard and I’m too cheap to have a pro shop do it for me. If I avoid riding in the rain it’s because maintenance has to happen more often unless I don’t mind stuff “inexplicably” failing on a ride. Dirt, road slop, and random shit are going to get everywhere especially on and in your drivetrain. At the very least get into the habit of hosing off your bike, toweling it off quickly, and applying oil to the chain after your wet rides. Getting grime off your exposed cables and lubing will keep your shifting and braking more reliable. Watch those rear derailleur pulleys too: extra oil plus grime means they’re going to get caked fast, so clean them up. Even if you clean just the drivetrain and your bike still looks like shit from all the road crap at least it will function.

Clothes. Get good raingear, end of discussion. “Good” depends on how you ride and the conditions you ride in. If you plan to be out for hours in the rain, then you’re probably going to appreciate an expensive rain jacket. On the other hand, if you only are going out in light drizzle for that short hop into the Headlands and back, then you can get away with something less waterproof/water-resistant. If you tend to sweat copiously, then jackets with ample vents and pit zips will help. Or else get something less waterproof and more breathable and get used to being somewhat wet or doing shorter rides when it’s raining. Unfortunately it’s hard to know what you’ll like tolerate best without trying out a lot of jackets. A reliable vendor is Showers Pass in Oregon, but there are several others including Gore and Endura. Rain and cold weather mean long-fingered gloves and booties. In my experience there aren’t any waterproof gloves, so don’t pay any attention to advertising—they all leak. So-called waterproof gloves tend to be thicker and harder to brake and shift with. Get used to having wet hands but keep them warm with layers (e.g. glove liner with overglove) and use Grabber Hand Warmers. Overshoes are like gloves: there are only water resistant overshoes, so if you’re out riding long enough, your shoes and feet are going to get damp, sometimes even soaked. So wear wool socks and even use Grabber Toe Warmers! Neoprene shoe covers only slow down becoming wet but they are warm; I’d say they’re even too warm for most Bay Area riding. What about your lower body? Well, there are rain pants but I find coupled with a good rain jacket, it’s just too much heat unless it’s getting into the low 40s. If you’re commuting at a slower pace, then rain pants work fine (I used them for years commuting to work). But for recreational riding you’re better off just letting your ass and legs get wet. Having fenders helps because you don’t get water thrown up on your legs and back dripping down into your shorts. There are some water resistant cycling shorts and tights out there made by Castelli under their Nanoflex moniker. This fabric has a water shedding treatment that delays absorption of water. It works but if you’re out long enough, you’ll still get wet. The best solution I’ve found is unfortunately not available in this country. Years ago I was in London and stumbled across some Gore-Tex overshorts at Condor Cycles. They are like a rain jacket for your shorts and they work perfectly, being made of Gore-Tex. But they aren’t sold in this county, alas. What Gore shows on its website doesn’t seem to be available anymore. But Gore makes similar shorts for mountain biking that might work. Lastly, put a helmet cover on your helmet unless you enjoy the sensation of cold water sliding down your neck into your jersey!

Behavior. The final element of wet weather cycling is modifying your behavior. Visibility is compromised and traction is less predictable, so avoiding accidents means riding less at the limit. Braking distance is increased with wet roads and wet rims. You’ll have less tire adhesion and the point at which the tire breaks free from the road is not only earlier but less predictable, so carry less speed into your turns. Of course manhole covers, Muni tracks, and steel plates are all treacherous when wet. Rain leads to a lot more debris on the road, so keep an eye out, especially for stray branches and sticks that might get thrown up into your wheels or fender struts and bring you to an abrupt stop. Fenders with break-away struts can prevent you from doing an endo if you happen to catch a stick in your wheel.

If we’re prepared for the wet, maybe that next Different Spokes ride listing won’t say “rain cancels”!