Raven Rock Ramble Article

Riding in the Rain

or, "Finding peace in the rain and stomping in mud puddles"

by David Cole

Most folks probably don’t attach too much philosophical significance to getting caught in the rain while they’re on their bike. I’ve come to believe, though, that how you respond to such seemingly adverse conditions says worlds about who you are. I had a chance to reflect on this at the Raven Rock Ramble on May 2. That day was – what can I say – somewhat more moist that anyone would have liked. The ride started promptly at 8:30, and the rain started promptly at 8:32. Some folks turned back immediately, some rode shorter routes than they had initially planned, and 21 brave souls rode the full 100 miles. What was interesting was watching folks return to the park. Most had smiles on their face, and many were downright slap-happy. I’ve experienced this on rides myself. Let’s face it, you can only get so wet, and after that further rain doesn’t matter than much (provided it’s warm enough – more on that later). At that point the rain can be liberating. If you’re with a group, the whole dynamic changes from one of competitive effort to one of community effort. If you’re solo, a steady rain can become almost hypnotically peaceful.

I’ll be the first to admit that I won’t start a ride in the rain. But once you’re out there, you have a lot of control over whether you decide rain is to be a good or bad experience. That’s why I think there are philosophical elements at play. I’m not trying to preach here, but I do think that folks to a large degree create their own realty. If being in the rain is more like playing in the rain to you, that’s how you’ll experience it. Someone else may experience the exact same conditions as being miserable. What you believe directly affects what you experience. Which response strikes you as more healthy? Which is more creative? Which person would you rather ride with?

In early March I led a metric century ride, the final 20 miles of which were in a steady downpour. There were about six of us heading into Cary together, and it was amusing to gauge the reaction of folks as we rode by. One driver tapped his horn as if to say, “Hey guys – it’s raining!” We’d smile and wave, and keep on riding. Some of my most memorable rides were dominated by rain – some of the peaceful variety, and some of the threatening type. While you can’t control the weather, you can prepare for it and respond to it.

You need to respect rain because it so dramatically changes cycling conditions. Being wet robs you of heat, makes things slippery, and reduces visibility. There are things you can do to counter all of these. Before you start out, pay careful attention to the temperature forecast. A ride at 58 degrees can be delightful when dry and very cold when wet. Pack arm and leg warmers with you if you’ll be in cool weather with the potential for rain. (I do not pack a rain jacket in the summer. I find I get so warm underneath that I’m not any less wet.) I highly recommend wool socks (such as SmartWool), and if you get black socks they won’t show the inevitable road grime that comes with rain. Shoe covers can help keep your feet warm and dry, also. If you’re not starting from home, I recommend having a dry set of clothes to change into after a ride, and a large plastic bag in which to stash your wet ones. This is especially true for rides such as the Assault on Mt. Mitchell and Bridge-to-Bridge, where you may have a long wait after the ride. Other preparations include having plastic bags to store electronics in such as your cell phone.

Once on wet roads you need to be very careful of slippery surfaces. The two big things to watch out for are painted surfaces (think road markings and lines) and metal surfaces (such as railroad tracks). When you can’t avoid these hazards, ride carefully and keep your bike straight and upright (i.e., don’t be leaning into turns). Another slippery surface to consider is your rims. It takes a full tire rotation (about 7 feet) for your brakes to disperse the water, so you’ll braking distance is somewhat longer. You should brake occasionally (lightly and smoothly) to keep the braking surfaces clean, and try to anticipate the need to slow show that you don’t have to make emergency stops.

Rain reduces visibility – both for you and motorists. It’s a good idea to wear clear or yellow lenses so you can see better (and perhaps have water in a water bottle if you need to rinse off road grime). Wear a very conspicuous jersey or jacket, preferably with some reflective material. Have a flashing red LED light on your seatpost so motorists behind you can see you.

No matter how well you’ve prepared, you also need to have enough sense to get out of the rain if things get threatening. Riding in thunder storms, for example, isn’t a good idea (but then neither is seeking shelter under a tree). When I see ominous clouds I start making mental notes of churches, schools, and other potential shelters I pass so I’ll know where potential places of refuge may be.

My biggest complaint about riding in the rain? Cleaning the bike afterwards. I spent more time cleaning my bike after Cycling Spoken Here’s ride last Memorial Day than I did riding the metric century. What to do is this: as soon as you can, rinse your bike off with clean water, and dry and lube the chain. Before I ride the bike again I like to clean the wheels and brake pads, so you’re not grinding road grime into the rims. Once dry, you can use a brush to knock off dirt from your shoes, seat bag, etc. If you’ve been riding long enough to accumulate more than one bike, you can reserve the older bike for rain duty (a tip I learned from Tom Fissel).

Rain need not deter you from riding. If you’re properly prepared, you may find it’s a much better experience than you expected. I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy the rain, in much the same way that a 4-year old might enjoy stomping in mud puddles. Play is where you find it.