Here in the Northern California RoadBikeRider headquarters, we’re finally having another rainy winter after years of drought. It’s referred to as El Niño – in case you aren’t here where that’s all the weather people talk about.
It’s been years since I’ve ridden in the wet so much, and it reminded me of some technical tips I want to share. If it’s raining where you are, they’ll come in handy. Or save them for those spring showers on the way. Disclaimer: these tips are mostly for rainy riding on pavement rather than dirt or gravel, where wear and tear is worse.
To start with, a very simple rainy day tip that I learned from riders a lot smarter than I am: Keep in mind that there’s no rule that you have to ride – or keep riding – when it’s raining. For example, I was surprised on a group ride in England once: When it started to pour, the whole paceline suddenly turned up a driveway to stop and wait out the deluge under an overhang. What a concept!
Sometimes the rain’s not going to stop, though, and you’ll have to ride in it to get home. But if you can at least avoid the worst of it, you can reduce your exposure and how much you trash your components, too.
Tips for before rainy rides
Make sure your tires are ready. Roads get much worse when it’s raining, both from debris being washed into the lanes and from damage like potholes and ruts appearing. These hazards increase the chance of puncturing. For these reasons, it’s smart to check and make sure your tires are in good shape. If you’re riding all season on bad roads, you may want to install a set of heavier, more durable tires. Keep in mind that you’ll have better traction with slightly lower pressures, too.
Carry more for flat tire repair. For the same reasons you want to have good tires for rainy rides, you should be more ready for flats. I carry 2 spare tubes, a tire “boot” (a square cut from an old tire to use as a tire patch should I need to fix a cut tire), and a mechanical pump that inflates quickly. If it’s wet, you can get cold, so I want a reliable and quick pump.
Check your brake shoes and cables. With rim braking the rain significantly increases your stopping distance and how hard you need to squeeze the levers to stop. It’s best to learn to pump your levers, which allows the brake pads to wipe off the moisture and then they’ll start gripping more. To be sure you have reliable stopping power, your pads should be relatively new and your cables should be in perfect condition. Note that you may wish to install pads made for rainy conditions, too, such as Kool Stop’s Salmon model. Most disc brakes are more powerful and durable and it takes many long rainy rides before the brake shoes wear or there are other issues.
Keep components well-lubricated. Riding in the rain blasts your components with water and with enough time and spray, the lubricants can be washed right off. To prevent this, be sure to apply lube before and after rainy rides. Remember that it takes hours for lubes to penetrate and dry. If your lube is washing right off, you could be using one made for dry conditions. Upgrade to a “wet” lube for better results.
Protect components and accessories. Give your rain rig the once over and make sure nothing’s at risk. For example, a single rain ride can ruin some vintage style leather seats (waterproof it!). Likewise, some accessories may get damaged from the rain, like my pricey PowerTap watt meter. I leave it home when it’s raining.
Don’t forget the stuff in your seatbag! Water can shoot off the rear wheel and soak the seat bag. If you’ve got metal tools in there, they can rust and not work when you need them. Anything at risk you’ll want to put in a waterproof baggie or container.
Consider fenders. I have a portable rear fender I simply snap on over the rear wheel. It protects me, my bike and keeps spray from my rear wheel from bothering followers (the dreaded "roostertail"). There are plenty of options in easy on/off fenders like this. Or go with a full fender set for superior protection. Keep in mind that full coverage keeps the water out of your greased components, the headset and bottom bracket, too.
Tips for during rainy rides
Bring the right gear. If you’re prepared for rain, your rides will be more enjoyable and safer, too. A cyclist’s cap (like RBR's logoed Waltz cap) can be stuffed in a pocket and put on beneath a helmet to help keep water out of your eyes. Clear or lighter lenses in glasses will improve visibility. Long-finger gloves keep you warm and ensure your hands don’t slip on handlebars or brake/shift levers.
Protect your cellphone. I’ve gotten in the habit of carrying my cellphone in my pocket for emergencies. It’s got a case, but I double up to be prepared for rain with an RBR Jersey Bin waterproof storage pouch, which is also great for carrying ID and a little bit of cash for emergencies.
Be more aware. As I already covered, rain can mean bad traction and increased stopping distance, additional road debris and potholes opening up. It’s smart to leave more room between the rider in front so that you can see hazards and react in time.
Slow down on descents. Even familiar roads can hold dangerous surprises when it’s been raining. And the longer stopping time means braking even earlier before downhill curves. Give yourself time to safely navigate the route and to take evasive action by slowing down.
Consider different routes. Since rain holds similar challenges for drivers as it does for cyclists, it makes good sense to think whether the route you’re riding is smart. If there’s another with less traffic, it might be a better choice.
Tips for after rainy rides
Care for your expensive gear. Remove any shoe inserts and stuff newspaper inside your shoes to dry them. If they were waterlogged, you may need to repeat this a few times with fresh newspaper. Don’t put the shoes over a heating vent or they may shrink or even come apart with enough heat. You may want to rinse off your helmet and your clothing before laundering if it got sprayed with a lot of dirt while you were riding.
Clean your bike ASAP to remove grit and grime. You might be able to simply hose it off with gentle water pressure. But if it’s picked up grime, you’ll want to use warm, soapy water and a sponge to clean that off, paying attention to all the nooks and crannies in the components. Be sure to dry everything after washing.
Pay special attention to rim brake pads. The dirt and debris washed onto the road will get picked up by the pads when braking. If enough dirt gets into the pads, they can begin to act like sandpaper and actually damage your rims every time you brake. To avoid this, take off the wheels and look closely at the surface of all 4 pads for anything hard embedded in the pads, and pick it all out with a pick or awl.
Lubricate components. Since the rain likely washed it off, add lube to the chain and components and let it penetrate and dry. Don’t forget the pivot points on the brakes, derailleurs and levers, which will retain moisture if you don’t replace it with lube.
If you’re a rain warrior with more tips and tricks, please help your fellow roadies by sharing them in the comments below this article.
Jim Langley is RBR's Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim's full bio.