Regardless of where you live (except for the Sahara, perhaps), if you put in hours on your bike, sooner or later you will have to ride in the rain.
Even though I’ve lived most of my life in Southern California-where the rainy season isn’t exactly legendary-I’ve had my fill of rain-riding experience.
I’ve raced and trained in many different states and countries, such as Colorado, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where a sunny day can turn into a torrential downpour without a moment’s notice. No matter what the conditions, the most important thing is to be prepared.
Must-Have Gear for Riding in the Rain
The following is a list of rain-specific items (general items such as long-sleeve jerseys and tights I’m assuming you already have). I’ll start at the head and work my way down.
Let’s start with clothes. You are going to get wet riding in the rain. Either you can forget about the rain jacket and let the rain soak your clothes or you can don the latest wonder-fabric creating your own personal sauna. While wet clothes are never enjoyable, being warm and damp is certainly better than being cold and soaked. There are three primary areas to consider: the upper body, lower body, and the extremities (hands, feet, and head).
1. Upper Body
Most people wear some type of rain jacket on the upper body. There are many claims of fabrics being breathable and waterproof (I have yet to find anything to breathe for me). The best alternative is to find a jacket that allows you to adjust ventilation and thus the amount of air that reaches your body. Here’s my list of key features a jacket should have:
- Pit zips: zippers under the arms, which allow you to adjust the ventilation.
- Velcro or double zipper for the front: this is where most of the air comes through, make sure it’s very adjustable.
- Open wrists, which can be cinched down: most jackets have elastic at the wrists, but it’s surprising how much air can circulate from here.
- Protective collar: you want a comfortable collar that’s high enough not to let water drip down inside the jacket.
2. Cycling caps
Minimum of two. Cycling caps are probably the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to keep the rain out of your eyes. They help stop any downward falling rain or spray from hitting you in the eyes or getting inside your glasses.
I always have two: one unaltered and one with the top cut off, leaving about a 11†2-inch border at the bottom. Use the altered one if a full hat makes your head too hot or if your helmet won’t fit with a cap underneath (if the latter is your problem, you can also take some or all of the pads out of your helmet for extra room).
You can probably just get an extra lens for your existing pair. Try to get a large lens for added coverage in either a clear or highlighted (yellow or amber) color. Some people don’t like to wear glasses because they can get dirty.
However, I prefer to have my eyes wide open, and looking through a slightly dirty lens is better than squinting and having grit fly into them. (If your lenses get really dirty, spray them off with some water from your bottle. Make sure it’s water, not your energy drink!)
4. A good undershirt
You want a polypropylene, wool/polyester blend or anything that won’t retain much moisture. Do not wear a cotton T-shirt. You want to keep the chill off your torso-cotton becomes cold, soggy and keeps the water right against your skin.
5. Rain cape and/or vest
Gore-Tex is nice, but costly. I prefer the clear PVC plastic kind. It doesn’t breathe but it’s inexpensive and totally waterproof. I have one long sleeve and one vest because a lot of the time, only your torso gets cold and a vest fits into your pocket more easily.
6. Neoprene gloves
They are the only gloves I’ve found that can keep my hands warm and dry in 45-degree rainy weather. I use Glacier gloves which can be found in outdoor stores and catalogs.
7. Shoe covers
I prefer neoprene because they keep my feet warm-wet or dry-and feet almost always get wet. They don’t absorb water either, which means you won’t be pedaling with a soaked shoe cover. You can also wear an old pair of cycling socks over your shoes for times when the roads might be a little wet and you want to keep your shoes clean.
8. Rain socks
If you have a pair of socks that you’ve used in the rain before, keep using them. No sense in staining a new pair each time you ride.
9. Rain bag
Take all of these items and put them in a single bag or stuff sack and get in the habit of tossing this in your travel bag whenever you drive to a ride or race. It’s a no-brainer to throw the sack in your travel bag rather than having to run through a checklist every time you pack, and you’ll always be prepared.
Now that the body is protected, it’s time to work on the bike. Fenders are a must if you’re going to ride in the rain a lot. If you’re going to ride with a group you need to have full fenders including a rear mudflap. If you just ride alone, you can get away with fenders that come on and off quickly. For full fenders, I recommend the SKS brand.
There is no doubt that fenders can be a nuisance to put on and keep from rubbing the wheel, particularly when trying to use them with side-pull brakes. Nevertheless, once they are on, they do a great job at keeping water from splashing on your feet and sending a spray of water up your back and on your shorts. They also help keep the bike from getting really dirty.
I also recommend some tougher, wider tires. I use Specialized Armadillos in the winter and rarely get flats – they are very tough, but also heavy, slow tires. You can also use thicker tubes or Mr. Tuffys.
Finally, use a heavier chain lube – something like Phil Wood. It’s better to have lots of gunk on your chain than to be in the middle of a ride and hear the annoying squeaks of a dry chain.
Now that the bike is prepared there are a few maintenance items you’ll need to do every other week. Checking the tires can help reduce flats. I turn the bike upside down and check for bits of glass or other debris that have been lodged in the tire. I usually find several pieces to pull out. Every other week clean off the rim as well. Even a heavier chain lube can wash off in a heavy rain, so check the chain to see if it needs re-lubing every so often. The rest of the bike you can leave dirty until spring – cleaning it only provokes the rain gods into providing some liquid sunshine the next time you ride.
Once you’re out on the road:
- Don’t ride through puddles – you never know if there’s a pothole lurking there or not.
- Take the descents a little easier.
- Give yourself extra space and time to stop – those brake pads aren’t going to grip as well.
- Ride a little slower so you don’t sweat as much.
- Take an extra jersey or under layer to change into during the ride.
One last word of warning – cold and wet can quickly seep through all those clothes and into your bones. Be aware of how cold you really are and find some place warm or some hot chocolate if you’re reaching your limits. Riding in the rain isn’t so bad if you and your bike are prepared!
How to Safely Ride a Bike in the Rain
Temperature is the most important consideration when riding in the rain. If it’s warm, I’ll only wear a cap with the top cut off and glasses. With no threat of being cold, all I want to do is keep the rain out of my eyes. If it’s pouring and cold, dressing in layers is key.
I’ll wear a full cap, glasses, a long-sleeve undershirt, a long-sleeve jersey, a rain cape, neoprene gloves, and shoe covers. If conditions change, you can unzip or take off layers as needed.
If it’s really cold, I’ll rub some heat balm on my chest, back, and toes. In a race situation where I know I’ll be going hard from start to finish, I almost never wear anything on my legs.
When wet, a pair of tights or leg warmers can hold moisture next to your skin and chill your legs. Instead, I’ll rub a coat of oil (you can use safflower or almond oil) on my legs which repels the water and retains warmth. If I’m training and I might stop or have a warm-up period, I’ll probably wear leg warmers so that I have the option of wearing them or not. If it’s cold, eat more than normal–your body is burning extra calories to keep warm.
When riding in the rain, be wary of metal objects such as grated bridges, train tracks and manhole covers–they become very slick. Also, painted stripes or large road markings can put you on the ground before you know what happened. If you do ride over any of these, try to lean, turn and use your brakes as little as possible.
If something runs completely through a turn, such as a crosswalk, turn before it, straighten up as you roll over it and then resume turning afterward. Riding your brakes slightly for a few seconds right before you use them clears water from the rims and eliminates lag time from the moment you apply the brakes to when they start working.
Letting a small amount of pressure out of your tires (about 10 to 15 psi) increases their contact area with the road and improves traction for turning. Make sure your chain is well lubricated, but don’t overdo it.
A good coating of your normal lube will work fine. Some people swear by all sorts of rain lube concoctions, from motor oil to hot paraffin wax. I once had a mechanic in Europe lube my chain with lithium grease. It didn’t last any longer and it turned the chain into something that resembled a gooey Almond Roca!
If it’s raining hard, your chain will usually go dry no matter what lube you use, and over-oiling it will only make a big mess. A rear fender helps deflect spray off your rear wheel and keep it from going up your back. There are various plastic models that snap onto the seat tube or seat post and offer adequate coverage. Nothing sends a chill up your spine like a cold skunk stripe on your backside!
Although rain may not be your favorite riding weather, it’s really no big deal. If you always waited for a dry day to ride, you could end up waiting a long time (depending on where you live, of course). If you’re well prepared, riding in the rain should become second nature, and a lot of times it can even be fun.