It’s been raining on and off in Colorado Springs for the past few weeks, so I guess it’s not too surprising that wet-weather riding is on my mind. Here’s the first part of a two-part discussion of cycling in the rain. If you have questions put them into the comments section and I’ll try to answer them in Part II.
One of the wonderful parts of endurance sports is that races rarely get called for rain. Auto racing, golf, and baseball have their rain delays, but a downpour won’t stop cyclists, runners, and triathletes from pushing on. Sure, some races get delayed and some have to be canceled or altered due to lightning, but if you’re going to be an endurance athlete you’re eventually going to ride or run through a soak-you-to-the-bone event. On the bike, rain doesn’t have to be the end of a beautiful day if you know how to ride fast and stay safe on wet roads.
The Upside of a Downpour
Heat is an endurance athlete’s primary enemy, and the harder you work the more heat your body produces. Racing or training in the middle of a sunny mid-summer’s day just makes it more difficult to keep your core temperature from rising out of control. In these conditions, rain can really help keep you cool. This means it will be easier for you stay on top of your hydration… and better hydration means you’ll stay stronger longer and have more energy left in the tank for the later portions of your workout or competition.
Of course, the same rain that keeps you from overheating can also cause your body temperature to drop too much, and hypothermia is not out of the question even in the summer. Sudden rainstorms can drop air temperatures 20 degrees in less than an hour and the rain itself can be quite cold. This is especially true when you are at higher altitudes. If rain is threatening, carry a rain jacket. In Colorado the rain is always so cold (because of the altitude) that we carry jackets even when the sky is blue… just in case. For triathletes, especially those competing in a longer race like an Ironman 70.3 or full Ironman, leave T1 with a rain jacket if rain is threatening. If the rain is warm and you don’t use it, no harm done. But if the temperature drops significantly and you can’t stay warm through exertion alone, then that jacket may be the only thing standing between you and a DNF.
Staying warm is part of staying safe when you’re riding in the rain. As you get cold you lose focus, or you focus more on being cold than on controlling your bike. Either way, you’re not concentrating on going fast or keeping the rubber side down. But if you can ride safely and manage your core temperature, you can have a great performance in the rain. Here’s what you really need to remember about staying upright on wet roads:
Avoid road paint, grates, and manhole covers:
Wet steel and paint are among the slipperiest materials you’re going to encounter on the roads. Ironically, a lot of athletes will ride on top of white lane lines because they’re sometimes smoother than the road surface, but they’re really slick when you go to turn. Also watch out for painted crosswalks, directional arrows in intersections, and railroad crossings. When you can’t avoid these hazards, do your best to cross them while riding straight rather than while turning.
Brake early and in a straight line:
Some brake/wheel combinations work better in the rain than others, but none work as well as when they’re dry. It will take you longer than usual to slow down, and you want the vast majority of your braking done before initiating a turn, so really think ahead. Grabbing a handful of brakes in the middle of a wet corner is likely to be the start of a wild ride.
Test your equipment:
This tip comes directly from the preceding one, but you’d be surprised by the number of athletes who don’t take their race-only gear out for a rainy-day test ride. Do yourself a favor and get out there with the carbon wheels and your full race setup and make sure you know how your bike’s going to handle in wet weather. If you have to find out your rim brake pads are next-to-useless in the rain, or that you need to switch to a different brake pad for rainy days, it’s better to realize that on a training ride. You should also experiment with tire pressure. Generally speaking, reducing your tire pressure slightly is a good starting point. Start by experimenting with 10 psi below your normal tire pressure.
Test your apparel:
Cycling and running in the rain can be a challenge for your apparel as well. Test your eyewear to see if the lens shape provides protection from spray when you’re in an aero position (tri or TT) or riding in the draft (cycling, some triathlons). Wet apparel is more likely to cause chafing as well, particularly if the fit of the clothing changes when it’s soaked (some apparel clings or hangs differently when wet). You’ll also find that some fabrics hold more water and take longer to dry. It’s not just cotton and wool; high-tech fabrics don’t all respond to soaking the same way. Also, if you don’t use chamois cream in dry conditions you may want to consider it when you know you’re going to ride in the rain. Triathletes should also remember that road grit filters into cycling shoes and can become quite abrasive during the run. Having dry socks to change into in T2 will be warmer (until they get soaked, too), and you’ll have a chance to clean your feet of road grit and put a skin protectant/lubricant on your feet to help prevent blisters.
Keep the bike more upright through corners:
All right, so you have the right brake pads, controlled your speed, and avoided the painted crosswalk; now you just have to turn. Since your tires have less traction on wet pavement, you can’t lean your bike into corners the way you can when it’s dry. Instead, keep the bike more upright, focus your eyes on where you want to exit the turn, put your outside pedal down and plant your weight on it. Maintain light and steady pressure on both brakes if you need to, and be patient. A lot of crashes occur when a person gets overzealous about accelerating out of a corner. They shift their weight and jump on the pedals too early, just after the apex of the turn, and it’s enough to break what little traction they had. Get through the corner and then start accelerating. It may seem to take forever, but it’s only a few seconds and it’s a lot faster than picking yourself up off the ground.
A lot of athletes associate rain with misery and automatically assume their performance is going to suffer when the skies open up. In truth, as long as you can manage your core temperature you can perform just as well – and in some cases better – in the rain. Learn to be comfortable and confident riding in wet conditions and the only thing your competitors will see is the spray coming off your rear wheel.
Get our there and be safe!
CEO/Head Coach of CTS