How to Successfully and Safely Cycle on Wet Roads
Given the choice, any cyclist would prefer to ride on dry pavement. When two skinny tires are all that’s holding you up, you’ll take all the traction you can get.
Unfortunately, riders don’t always have that choice. You can watch the sky and tune in to The Weather Channel all you want, but sometimes, you’re just going to get caught in the rain. If you’re not prepared for how to ride safely in the rain, it can be disastrous.
When a steady rain starts falling, it changes everything about your ride. The roads become startlingly slick — especially early in the rainfall if there hasn't been precipitation in a while — and you suddenly can’t see clearly. Everything looks grayed out, and your sunglasses quickly get covered in water and grime from the road, making it difficult to see. Your brakes are less responsive. The cars around you are all dealing with the same issues. Every action requires a little more thought and care.
As usual, though, our good friend Coach Darryl MacKenzie has been there. And he knows a thing or two about how to successfully ride safely in the rain. Here’s how you can make sure you cycle safely on wet roads.
“Water flows downhill,” Darryl reminds us. It may seem obvious, but for the cyclist, it’s a good reminder about what’s going to happen to your clothes in the rain.
All that water that’s hitting you — both the clean water from the sky and the grimy water from the road — is going to run down your arms and legs and pool in two places: your gloves and your shoes. If you see any chance of rain in the forecast for your ride, you should come prepared.
“If there is a chance of rain, I wear socks that I wouldn’t mind if this is the last day I ever wear them,” Darryl says. Your socks will get soaked, not only with rain and road grime but possibly with the dye from your shoes. For that matter, wearing older shoes you don’t care about and having a backup pair of gloves on hand are smart moves, as well.
Besides your clothes, you need to make sure your saddle is well protected, especially if you’re using a leather one. Saddle sauce is essential for protecting your leather, and a rain cover will protect even the underside of your saddle to prevent the bare leather from getting soaked.
Adjust Your Tire Pressure
When you’re racing along the pavement on two wheels, friction is your friend. And, unfortunately, water and friction don’t get along so well. This is especially true if there’s not much rubber to grab the road in the first place. A typical road bike tire, when fully inflated, has a road contact width of maybe 1 centimeter.
There’s a way to make this less of an issue, though. Being ready to take a quick break on the side of the road is a key part of knowing how to safely and successfully ride in the rain.
When the rain starts to fall, pull off the road and let some air out of your tires. This will widen your contact surface with the road. This wider contact surface will lower your chances of hydroplaning or skidding out of control on a turn. Coach Darryl usually drops his pressure from 105 psi to 90 psi when it’s raining.
Don’t Lean Your Bike
Again, think about the contact surface. On slick roads, the best thing you can do is maximize the amount of rubber that’s meeting the road. To do this, you want your bike as upright as possible.
This makes turning a bit more awkward in the rain. When you approach a turn, keep your bike upright. If you need to lean at all, you can lean at your hips, angling your upper body into the turn while holding your bike perpendicular to the road. This will slow you down but keep you safe.
Downshift in Deep Water
“To a large extent, you can only see the top of the water that’s on the road,” says Darryl. “So, if it has been raining hard, you can’t necessarily see how deep the water is.”
What does this mean for the cyclist? You can easily be surprised to find your wheel in a deep puddle — even a hole 4 inches deep or more — making it very difficult to pedal and keep your momentum going. If this happens, the trick is to downshift into a bigger gear so that you can push harder without spinning your legs as much.
Change How You Brake
Braking is, of course, one of the most critical aspects of how to ride safely in the rain. And it starts with your choice of brakes. For the cyclist, there are two main brake types: disc and rim.
Although disc brakes do get wet with water and road grime, they tend to be more reliable in the rain. Coach Darryl recommends that cyclists who live in wet climates opt for disc brakes for this reason.
Rim brakes tend to perform much worse in wet conditions, but they can do the job in the rain if you know how to use them. When your rim has some water, you should give your brakes a pre-pump before you hit them too hard. This light squeeze will help you clear the water from all the way around your rim so that your braking is more effective.
Clean Up After a Wet Ride
Knowing how to ride safely in the rain should not only include the ride itself but what happens after. One final — and easily forgotten — pointer deals with what happens after your ride. Those wet rides are brutal on your bike, and it’s going to need a little extra TLC afterward.
Three areas are particularly vulnerable to grimy buildup, which leads to corrosion. One is your chain, which needs a good cleaning and fresh lube after a heavy rain. The other two are your seat post and headset.
Water tends to gather on your seat post and drip down inside it. Darryl often finds inches of buildup inside seat posts when he looks inside them. This gunk can work its way down into your bottom bracket and eventually cause problems. Similar issues can occur with your headset, causing friction, premature wear and eventual breakdown.
Darryl recommends opening your seat tube and steering tube to wipe them out and let them air dry after an extended ride on wet roads. You can also use a fan to speed up the process. If it was a very wet, long ride, though, it may be best to take your bike to the mechanic for a thorough internal cleaning.
Now, get riding. And stay safe out there, even if you can’t stay dry.
You can find more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.