Re-Learning How to Ride in the Rain

The club ride was heading south to Kyle this morning. It’s a ride I enjoy, and I was looking forward to riding it on the Airborne. We had a brush with rain the previous evening, but it petered out before it got to our neighborhood. Still, things have cooled off quite a bit, and we headed out into an overcast morning with threatening clouds and temperatures in the 70s. The hour-by-hour forecast indicated we might get rain this afternoon, but our ride would be long over by then.

Our regular ride leader is out of town, and the volunteer who took over led us down Slaughter Lane. It’s a main east-west corridor through South Austin, and the heavy traffic we usually find on that road keeps me away from it. Today, though, we kept going — past the high school where we usually turn off, past a couple of north-south arterials where we could have turned. At least Slaughter has a bike lane for much of its length. But it’s only wide enough for one bike.¬†Finally, we reached a cross street and turned south.

Riding this stretch, I chatted with Rick about the Airborne. It’s his bike, and he’s letting me use it for a few days while mine gets some TLC from the club bike mechanic. It turns out the bike size is 62 cm. No wonder I had trouble fitting it to my body. My own bike is 56 cm. But as we talked, I felt small raindrops hit my face. We pulled into the parking lot at the Walgreens in Buda in a light drizzle. Some riders debated whether to keep going or turn back now.

They were uncertain about riding in the rain, and I don’t blame them. After last summer’s drought, we’re all out of practice with our wet weather riding. We had some rain earlier this spring, but lately, it’s been dry as ¬†a bone once again. The upside is, we get to ride all the time. The downside is, we don’t get much chance to hone our rain riding skills. But most of us gamely got back on the road — and then the skies really opened up. A few more riders turned back. “I don’t like riding in the rain,”one said, as she passed me going the other way. Our peloton split into two groups, and the leaders quickly left us behind.

As I slogged on, I mentally recalled some of the rain techniques I once knew. Ride slower — not a problem for me; remember that your brakes won’t stop you as quickly as when dry — that was very much the case with me today; and when turning, lean your body, but keep the bike upright.

Just past downtown Buda, it was hard to even see in the downpour. A rider at the head of our small group turned into an elementary school, and parked his bike under a covered walkway. We all joined him, making a compact pack of six in the narrow space.

Laura was on her brand new bike for only the second time — and the first time on a ride of any length. “I can’t believe it,” she wailed. “Riding my brand new bike and this happens.” It’s a custom carbon fiber Seven, white with teal trim. It even had her name on the top tube.

I realized that five of our six bikes were carbon fiber. I was on titanium. “It wouldn’t be good to wipe out on a plastic bike,” noted Rick.

“The last bad crash I had was during the rain,” said Pippa. Mine, too.

“It could be worse,” said Brian, the club Canadian. “It could be snow.”

But the rain subsided within ten minutes, and although it was still coming down lightly, we decided we’d risk it. We would ride west on FM 967 until it met FM 1626, and then head north back to our starting point. We would have an abbreviated ride today, but that was okay.

The problem is, both those roads are two-lane with no shoulder. Traffic was heavy in both directions, so cars coming up behind us had to wait for oncoming traffic to pass before they could swing out and pass us. To complicate matters, the edge of 967 was pock marked with cracks, patches of gravel, and small potholes. “As far to the right as practicable” turned out to be in the center of the lane sometimes.

The worst part came when we had to make a left turn off 1626 onto Brodie. It has a left-turn lane, but we had to “take the lane” to get to it, slowing down a line of cars behind us even more. I must say, most drivers were patient with us. I heard one honk, and Rick said someone shouted at him, but that was it. We rode several miles up Brodie, made a dangerous left across oncoming traffic into a residential neighborhood, and took a shortcut through Bowie High School’s parking lot. It emptied us out onto Slaughter again.

“What do we think about Slaughter?” asked Steve T., an A rider who wound up with us today.

“After getting through 1626, we can handle Slaughter,” I remarked.

We turned onto Slaughter, and the first thing to catch our eyes was a warning sign: “Loose Gravel.” Laura let out a yelp. Pippa laughed. The road on this side had been resurfaced, so loose gravel covered both lanes for another mile. Not only were we all soaked to the bone, but now a layer of grit covered us from head to foot. The neighborhood Starbuck’s couldn’t come fast enough.

“I think I broke about five of my riding rules,” observed Rick. “Don’t ride in the rain. I did. Don’t ride on wet roads. I did. Don’t ride carbon in the rain. I did. Don’t ride on Slaughter Lane. We did that both going out and coming back.”

But we were back. No one was the worse for wear. The barista at Starbuck’s even gave Laura a free coffee, because she looked so miserable.

“I don’t want to ride in those conditions again anytime soon,” I told Rick. “But when you do, it makes you a better biker.”


  1. says

    Good thing about a Catrike is the rain does not cause the machine to get on top of the rider. Bad thing is that you are so low that you get all the spray and road grime right in the face. But it is rain and no native Texan complains about rain, even when it is somewhat immoderate.

  2. says

    The liquid sunshine you wrote so well about is an almost daily occurrence in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Remembering how to be safe on wet roads is important. Yesterday it was overcast with occasional sunbreaks and wonderfully dry.

    • says

      Yep,I know readers in the Pacific Northwest will think we Texans are a bunch of wusses when it comes to rain. I suppose if it happened here more often it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

  3. says

    We don’t get a lot of rain here lately either, as seen by the 18 wildfires burning in my poor state! We usually get the “Mansoon” rains from the mid of July to 1st. of Sept. and we NEED them this year! I’ll be “re-learning my rain riding skills very soon, thanks for the reminder! :)

  4. Ronan says

    I am quite confused by this post.
    Why leaning the body and not the bike in turns?
    Why not riding carbon bikes in the rain? Carbon-rimmed wheels, okay, but I do not see what change would a carbon frame make vs an alu or ti one.

    • says

      Ronan, both have to do with falling on wet roads. By keeping the bike upright, you theoretically reduce the chances of your wheels sliding out from under you. Carbon bikes can crack when crashed, and since it’s easier to crash in wet conditions, Rick prefers to leave his carbon bike home when it rains.

      • Ronan says

        I would love to hear the rationale for why leaning only the body will reduce the chances of slipping. It sounds like bullshit to my hear. The forces that the tires apply to the ground (or vice-versa), for a given weight balance and wheelbase, depends only on the speed and on the turn radius. If you have some physic notions, you can do the calculation with pen and paper for a stabilized turn (with a simplification: no braking nor pedaling and negligible rolling resistance).
        Moreover on high end tires the manufacturers’ marketing often claim to use two compunds: one wear-resistant and with a low rolling resistance in the center, and one grippier on the side of the tread (for example, schwalbe’s triple compound of the ultremo tires is supposed to produce this effect, as is the tread of the michelin pro 4). So doing the opposite of what you advise might actually be a better idea.

        I have witnessed a few crashes of carbon bikes and I talked with a guy who is working half time to repair broken carbon bike parts (wheels and frames mainly; he spends the other half of his working time to make carbon frame kits, including mine). The bikes were damaged in pile-ups, or when a rear derailer goes in the spokes and f-up everything, or when drop handlebars hit the top tube. “normal” crashes mainly break handlebars, stems, and rear derailer.
        Obviously crashing on a cheaper bike is not as bad as damaging the bike used to make friends sweat.

        The riding advise I try to follow are:
        – ride over painted strips on the road in as close to a straight line as possible
        – same goes for rails and manholes.
        – brake before turning, never during the turn, even if you are starting the turn with a speed too high: if you brake you are dead sure to crash, if you don’t brake, you still have a chance to get throught. This mistake caused my last crash.
        – close your mouth during turns. That will save your teeth and tongue if you crash.
        – wear good glasses to be able to see and to protect the eyes in a crash.
        – wear good gloves to avoid slipping on brakes lever and protects the hands in a crash.

        I think that the worst time for a ride under the rain is at the end of a dry summer: when it rains, all the oil and crap that stayed in the road goes to the surface and make for super-slippery roads. It will needs a few days of sustained rain to wash out.

      • Ronan says

        i just wanted to add to my “too long to read” comment that the plural of anecdotes is not data. So take what I wrote about crashed carbon bikes with a grain of salt.

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