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How Cycling in the Rain Works

Getting caught out in the rain while cycling can be exhilarating -- but you need to be even more careful on your bike.
Getting caught out in the rain while cycling can be exhilarating -- but you need to be even more careful on your bike.
Poncho/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

Given the choice, few of us would choose to go bicycling in the rain -- but it does happen. Some people commute by bike regardless if the weather is fair or foul, and some people live in Seattle. If you're a regular rider and haven't coped with rain yet, you probably will; the weather catches us all by surprise sometimes. If you're caught in the rain and have no choice but to keep on riding, it's reasonably easy to cope as long as you've stashed away some basic gear. If all you've got in your pocket is a garbage bag, you can make an impromptu poncho and keep going, but it's easy to have more reliable gear ready for any type of weather. Better preparation will ensure you have a more comfortable trip.

Believe it or not, there are people who actually enjoy the peacefulness, solitude and extra challenges of biking in the rain. Their experiences yield worthwhile advice (even if their cycling preferences are hard to believe). Riding in the rain presents many of the same hazards as riding at night, but with a little practice, experience and awareness, you'll be all right. Read on to learn how to tackle a rain ride, whether you've planned it or you're caught in a surprise downpour.

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When you get caught in the rain, getting out safely is your first priority. The most important thing to remember is that water will get everywhere, and thus, it'll reduce traction everywhere. When your tires get wet, they're less able to grip the road. Sopping wet brakes have almost no friction and take much longer to stop you. Even your seat and handlebars will be dangerously slippery. When you understand why a bike is much harder to control in the rain, it'll be easier to remember why you need to slow down.

Put simply, keep in mind that everything takes longer. It might be tempting to pedal as fast as possible to get home more quickly, but resist the urge. Keep a comfortable pace so you have adequate time to see and cope with hazards (remember, your visibility is also impaired), and anticipate when you'll need to slow down. Squeeze the brakes gently long before you actually need to slow or stop; this will purge excess water from your brake pads and rims to provide you with some grip. Decreasing your tire pressure will also help provide traction -- check your tire specs or ask a bike shop for advice on your specific tires.

Cornering in the rain is particularly challenging. The League of American Bicyclists suggests taking turns slowly and deliberately, shifting your body weight to the bottom of the outside pedal. Braking should be avoided, but if necessary, brake slowly and allow even more extra stopping distance.

Be extra cautious when the rain first starts to fall -- even if it seems like it won't last long, it's already started to create hazardous conditions. The first few minutes of rain riding are often the worst, because oil that accumulates on the road (from cars and trucks, spills, and runoff) rises to the surface and forms a slick coat that's very difficult to see. Crossings, sidewalks and metal fixtures (such as bridges, grates and rail tracks) will be especially slippery.

Your bike, of course, is another key part of the equation. On the next page, we'll discuss how to ensure that you've adequately prepared your bike for bad weather riding.

In a lot of states, motorists are required to turn on their headlights in the rain, even if there's enough daylight. They might wonder why, if they can see just fine, they need additional light. It's not for their benefit, though -- they're to make the car more visible to other drivers. The same principle applies when you're biking. You should ideally have appropriate lights with you at all times, but you really need them when you're riding in the rain. Think of all the extra things you're concentrating on -- speed, traction, the nice change of dry clothes that awaits you -- and chances are, most of the drivers on the road are coping with the same distractions. Your problem is, though, that you're smaller and less visible. Safe rain riding is similar to night riding -- if you make sure you're visible, you'll be in pretty good shape. Make sure that you're wearing reflective clothing and have lights on your bike and helmet, and don't assume that drivers and other bikers see you.

You can ride in the rain on any bicycle; your technique and the bike's overall condition are more important than the type of bike. That said, some types of equipment will make a smoother ride. Average tires are fine as long as they're inflated properly and have good tread -- this isn't the time to run racing tires. Using fenders, though cumbersome, will help keep you and your bike cleaner. Full-size fenders keep splashing to a minimum, and there are versions that can be quickly attached and detached.

Post-ride cleanup will keep your bike in safe condition. Rinse off your bike with clean water and rub it down with a towel to discourage rust from forming; there's no need to hang it upside down if it's toweled off. Lubricate your chain, brake and shifter cables after they've dried off. Wax or lube will also prevent your bike's bolts and seat post from rusting or seizing, but you'll still be able to wrench on them. Cleaning your brakes after a wet ride will prevent grit from embedding in the pads, which will prolong your pads' life and reduce scratches on your wheels. UltraCycling Magazine recommends a more thorough checkup every 2 weeks to ensure bad weather isn't causing your bike to deteriorate.

Considering the perils your bike might suffer, it seems inevitable that cycling in the rain will have a messy, uncomfortable outcome for the cyclist. On the next page, we'll discuss how your options for rain gear to help you stay as dry and comfortable as possible.

What you'll wear in a deliberate rain ride is probably a lot different than what you'll be wearing when you're caught by surprise -- be prepared for both scenarios. Options range from full rain biking suits, a solid investment for a racer or hard-core bike commuter, to simple ponchos to stuff in a pocket or bike bag for emergencies.

Most rain gear is water resistant -- the fabric incorporates an impenetrable, water-repellent coating -- which many bikers find sufficient but won't stand up to a long ride in a deluge. A real waterproof garment features taped or coated seams that prevent water from penetrating tiny gaps and holes in the fabric.

Rain gear generally falls into the following categories:

  • Plastic (including PVC, poly, vinyl and blends) is used for basic jackets and cover-ups. They're totally waterproof but don't breathe at all, and often aren't durable enough to incorporate vents. In general, these are the least expensive options.
  • Coated fabrics are considered mid-grade -- they're a little more expensive and reliable. They're fairly flexible and comfortable (they fit more like actual clothes than their plastic counterparts).
  • Laminated fabrics consist of multiple synthetic layers bonded together, and sometimes a moisture-wicking inner layer is added for comfort. These are the most reliable, but all those layers add up to drawbacks: cost, weight and stiffness.

Consider fit and features, too. The back of the jacket should be longer than the front for extra protection. Fleece-lined collars wick moisture and protect your face from abrasion; high collars stop rain from dripping down your neck. Make sure the hood fits over your helmet.

If rain pants are too hot or restrictive, try wool or ventilated tights to cover your full legs or mountaineering gaiters for just the lower legs. Your pants should have a zipper or Velcro closure to slip over shoes, and they should be cinched or strapped so they won't snag on your bike's chain. Waterproof socks are available, but you can also put plastic bags over your regular socks to provide an extra layer of protection in your shoes. Consider investing in slip-on booties to shield your shoes from water and mud.

Wear glasses or goggles with clear or yellow lenses to shield your eyes and improve visibility. Even though you'll be wearing a helmet and possibly a hood, add a hat on cold or windy days; protecting your ears will spare you a lot of discomfort. Gloves can be waterproof material, fleece, wool or neoprene. Neoprene (wetsuit material) won't keep your hands dry, but it'll keep them warm. Gloves should provide good protection from wind, but shouldn't impair your ability to shift and steer. Another option is lobster-claw-shaped mittens that can be layered over thinner gloves.

You might not be eager to hit the roads in the next rainstorm -- but at least you know it doesn't have to be unbearable. In the meantime, see the next page to learn more about cycling.

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Sources

  • CoachLevi.com. "Safety Tips For Riding a Bicycle in the Rain." Feb. 28, 2009. (Aug. 24, 2010)http://coachlevi.com/cycling/safety-tips-riding-in-rain/
  • CoachLevi.com. "Tips to Ride in the Rain Without Ruining Your Bike." Feb. 26, 2009. (Aug. 24, 2010)http://coachlevi.com/cycling/ride-in-rain-without-ruining-your-bike/
  • League of American Bicyclists. "Tips for Commuters." (Aug. 24, 2010)http://www.bikeleague.org/resources/better/commuters.php
  • Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. "Bicycle Safety: Riding in Rain and Darkness." 2002. (Aug. 24, 2010)http://www.dot.state.pa.us/BIKE/WEB/safety_darkness.htm
  • Wheel and Sprocket. "All About Bicycle Rain Gear and Clothing." (Aug. 24, 2010)http://wheelandsprocket.com/buyers-guides/all-about-bicycle-rain-gear-and-clothing-pg104.htm
  • Zmrhal, Terry. "Riding in the Rain." Ultra Cycling. (Aug. 24, 2010)http://www.ultracycling.com/equipment/ridinginrain.html

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