When we wrote about cycling in wet weather–wet and cold, in fact–on the Hidden Eel Lost Coast tour, a pretty common response was a sarcastic “That sounds like fun!” And when we wrote in Tips and Tricks for Smart Bike Tour Packing how perseverance is a state of mind in which you acknowledge a temporary discomfort and trust that you will be able to endure it? Some people might simply call that masochism.
But cycling in wet weather is all about preparation and experience which, when combined, result in the ability to ride safely on wet surfaces. This is far from seeking out discomfort. For Comova, “Wander far and wise” means being prepared for the uncertainties a cycling adventure can throw at you. It is a matter of anticipating challenges in order to minimize them if and when they arise. Having the confidence that the adversity of wet weather can be managed opens up a range of seasons and destinations for cycling adventures.
Know how your contact points react when cycling in wet weather
As important as what to wear and how to manage layers when cycling in wet weather are the knowledge and skills of how to safely handle a bike when wet terrain begins affecting traction and braking. A great and often overlooked place to start is with our contact points with the bike: hands, feet and bum. If things get slippery when wet, then making sure we can maintain good contact with our handlebars, pedals and saddle is essential.
Test out your gloves when both wet and dry to make sure you can still grab the brakes and shift without your hands slipping. Most gloves have at least a bit of rubber or other material intended to create friction on a smooth brake lever. But you won’t know how these work until you’ve tested them out. Some cyclists go as far as applying adhesive backed sandpaper to make smooth brake levers grippier.
Knowing how to prepare for wet weather, and how to ride safely on wet surfaces, is not the same as seeking out discomfort.
While you’re at it, you might as well learn how your bum slides around on your saddle when wet. Some combinations of shorts or pants and saddle are treacherously slippery. Finally, for those riding flat pedals it is important to test our how your shoes grip the pedals when wet and find another shoe/pedal combo if you find your feet slipping. And for those on clipless pedals you’ll want to test out those booties you might plan to wear when it starts raining. If the cutout doesn’t align well with your cleat they can bind up in the pedal when you go to clip in.
Know how your traction changes when cycling in wet weather
Now that you’ve considered your body’s contact points, let’s move to where
the bike makes contact with the ground: tires. If you come to ride with Comova you’ll learn about our preference for wide tires. The wider the better. Narrow tires are a vestige of professional racing’s influence on the bike industry. If you’re not familiar with the myth that wider tires are slower, be sure to check out Jan Heine’s busting of the myth: Why narrow tires FEEL faster
And even if narrower tires were faster, we’re not necessarily racing anyway. So why not take the advantage of the increased traction provided when there is more rubber in contact with the ground? For now, let’s leave tire tread for a future article in favor of a focus on tire width. Whether riding dry or wet or paved or gravel roads, on a wider tire you will quickly notice the feeling of being more connected to the road.
But wet is wet and even with wider tires there are plenty of ways to lose traction on wet surfaces: wet leaves, railroad tracks, manhole covers, sticks and other storm debris, even the painted traffic lines and other markings. Rolling over any of these while heading straight ahead is seldom hazardous. It’s the ability to avoid these hazards while navigating a turn or cornering that is essential. For starters, reducing your speed before entering a turn is always a good idea. Reduce it even further when on wet surfaces. Look ahead to identify the hazards and avoid quick movements. Finally, flats tend to be more common when the pavement is wet. Do your best to anticipate and safely steer clear of gravel in intersections or other places where grit gets deposited by vehicles or by water runoff.
Know how braking changes when cycling in wet weather
Braking is your final consideration. While disc brakes might be less susceptible to loss of braking power when wet, whether you’re on rim or disc brakes you need to allow more time to slow your bike down. Rim walls pick up a lot of water, dirt and grit and it can take many revolutions of the wheel before the brakes clean off the rim and establish enough friction to slow or stop you. Disc brakes suffer from the same problem but tend to get less water and grime on the rotors since they are further from the road surface. Either way, ride at slower speeds or look further ahead in order to allow yourself plenty of time to slow down. And remember the advice above about turning? Braking while turning on wet surfaces can be particularly treacherous.
Just as a cycling adventure spanning a day or more requires advance planning and attention to detail, in any given moment on wet surfaces a rider who can plan for the need to stop and pay attention to the particular hazards making stopping or turning precarious will fare better in wet conditions. Whether contact points, tire selection, or turning and stopping, the idea is to equip yourself with the equipment and skills needed so that if you wind up with no choice but to ride in wet conditions you’ll have the confidence to take on the challenge.
Editor’s note: We did not discuss fenders here because, well, fenders are a can of worms. They don’t necessarily make riding in wet conditions safer. Unquestionably, however, they do serve the following two important functions: (1) they keep your feet and legs drier longer; (2) they prevent wear and tear on your drive train by containing tire spray. The can of worms has to do with questions of which type of fenders, whether your bike can accept fenders, whether they slow you down, and so on. Jan Heine covers all of these questions. If you want to dive deep into the topic of fenders, start here: Myths Debunked: Fenders DON’T Slow You Down