In praise of the “rain bike”

I tried to time it just right, missing that period of time in the morning when it was threatening but not really raining, maybe just a light mist, the type you don’t get much credit for riding in but really messes up your bike. Besides, I was working at trying to get my blog feed integrated with my twitter account (without much success, but thanks to a note from Ueyn it’s probably fixed now).

By the time I finally got going it was much more than a drizzle, but much less than a downpour. A moderate amount of wind, but with the promise of heavier rain in the hills, so that’s where I headed. I’m stupid like that, and anyway, I needed a dry run for the cold, wet & windy days that will surely come this winter. Which brings up something interesting… if it’s a ride in the rain, how can it be a “dry” run?

Rain bikes don't get the respect they deserve. Their utility goes far beyond being a rack to drip-dry your clothing on.

I thought (briefly) about avoiding Skyline entirely, but why? So I pointed my bike in the appropriate direction and rode. Slowly. Not really that slowly, but the legs really didn’t seem to have it, and the rest of the body seemed content to go along with the legs. As a result it was one of my slower rides up Old LaHonda, and at times I felt like I was just riding a bike, without any of that magical transformative feeling I usually get. The rain made it interesting, but it wasn’t until I got over the other side and was riding back up 84 towards Skyline that I began to feel alive, and started to appreciate a bike that doesn’t care about finesse, it just works. The rain was getting harder, the winds kicking up, but the gears worked, the brakes worked, the fenders kept most of the spray off me, and I was able to keep up enough steam to stay comfortable. I was, finally, in the zone.

Heading back into Woodside I realized that it was far too soon to head home, as the purpose of riding wasn’t just to say I got on a bike in the rain (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but to actually go on a ride, so I added “the loop” including the little extra section on Arastradero before turning back up Sand Hill and heading for home. It was only 38 miles in the end, but it felt good, I got plenty of rain & wind (but only marginal bragging rights because it wasn’t very cold) and I know my rain bike is ready.

Oh, almost forgot, as I was passing through Woodside on the way home I took a short detour to avoid some of Canada Road, and came across a guy jogging who asked “I don’t know who’s more stupid, you or me” (for being out there in the rain). I told him it was me, because I’d just returned from Skyline. Thinking about it shortly after, I almost turned around to find him and say that we’re not the stupid ones, it’s those who think they have an excuse to sit on the couch and watch TV when they could be out having fun with us!

10 thoughts on “In praise of the “rain bike”

  1. I love your blog and you keep me motivated. I live in the east bay and found your blog on the internet. I have been reading it for the past two months and paid a visit to your store in redwood city last week. Great store, amazing selection, a true bike shop. Your staff was very knowledgeable and i will be returning. My next bike purchase will be at your shop for sure. Keep up the great work.

    1. Good to hear you enjoy the blog; sometimes I wonder if the type of stuff I do might be too far over-the-top so people write it off, rather than see the challenges as being fun. Selling people on cycling being fun has always been my #1 priority for the website and blog, rather than pushing product, figuring that more people having more fun on bikes is good for business. So far, so good!

  2. Hi Mike,

    Any suggestions on improving braking in the wet weather? I’m already using the Kool Stop Salmon pads, but still when it’s wet I find that sometimes braking is much less than ideal. I’d love to have disc brakes on my road bike someday…


    1. John: There’s no great solution for wet weather braking, or at least none that I’ve found. A single ride to the coast on a bad day will destroy even the koolstop salmon pads. Descending creates essentially wet sanding conditions. Ironically you’re better off in a pouring rain than drizzle because the muck will be cleaner.

      I used to think disc brakes on a road bike were silly but I’m changing my tune. If I were to buy a rain bike, it would be one of our Portland models. Trouble is, our rain bikes are typically repurposed (our former “nice” road bikes) and can’t be retrofit with disc brakes.

  3. Hi Mike,

    Great blog! Keeps me motivated, and I think your exploits are a great intro to what is possible riding from a Bay Area home base. (I found the entry about hitting the rides off of the West side of Skyline really compelling).

    As the weather turns wet, any tips on drivetrain maintenance after a wet ride? I find that more daunting than hopping on the bike for a quick ride in the rain.


    1. Paul: The unfortunate truth is that a mile in the rain is likely equivalent to 100 miles in the dry, in terms of wear & tear to your drivetrain & bearings. Actually it’s just the first mile or two in the rain that does the damage, which means if you’re out there, you might as well stay out there for a while! Best bet is to make sure the chain is lubed ahead of time and, if you’re not already doing so, get some fenders! They do help keep a lot of the spray off your drivetrain, as well as your legs and back. Whatever bike you use for riding in the rain, the normal rules for what constitutes proper care & feeding go out the window. You’re going to end up overhauling your bearings at least once a season, maybe twice if you get much rain. Bottom bracket & hubs especially; sometimes the headset survives (particularly on threadless systems). Your chain is going to last as few as 700 miles (vs 2000 or more under good conditions). Tires? Go wide and sturdy. You get a lot more flats in the rain, so more tread is more better. Thicker sidewalls and sturdier casings help; the Bontrager Hardcase tires are awesome for bad conditions, but keep in mind thicker sidewalls and casings create a bumpier ride. The reason you get more flats in the rain is not what most people think (more crud on the road)… it’s primarily because water is an exceptional lubricant for rocks and glass to cut through tires. Think of it as cutting fluid for a hacksaw blade.

      Obviously, I need a complete page on this, something I’ll get to work on one of these days!

      1. Road up to and over Skyline on Saturday when the roads were still wet from Friday’s rain. And just as you warned above, I had my first flat tire in thousands of miles of riding when I was climbing back up the still wet shaded stretches of west Alpine road. I patched, pumped, and continued. However the added time meant I watched the sunset over the ocean during the rest of the Alpine climb, and then had a fairly nerve racking descent down Page Mill in the gathering dark. A memorable ride, but watch the flats!

        1. When it’s wet, I use very different tires from when dry. Two things change; first, I go to a 25c width (I normally use 23c), which puts more rubber on the road and helps prevent slippage in corners. Second, I go to a sturdier tire casing. In the past, my favorite wet-weather tire has been the Continental 4-Seasons, because it’s not only significantly more durable than my “dry” tires, but it also rides much better than any other “sturdy” tire I’ve ridden. If I wanted to go all-out for flat prevention, I’d use the Bontrager Hardcase, but those give a stiffer ride than I like. There’s a new tire coming into the shop shortly, the Race X-Lite All-Weather Plus, that may be the ultimate. I’ve spoken with Al Clark, Trek’s tire guy, and he’s convinced me that he’s actually got a treat pattern that makes sense for wet roads. I’ll be trying some shortly and reporting back on them. –Mike–

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