Knowing how to cycle in the rain and wet, slippery conditions is part of the job if you enjoy cycling, particularly if you live in the UK.
Learning to cope with wet conditions could not only lead to more effective training sessions but also save precious time in races – this can be huge if your technique and confidence are high. We’ll also reveal how to bike safer and lessen the chances of falling off.
Before we deal with the technical aspects of riding in the wet, let’s consider your bike and how it should be set up for riding in the wet because this will have considerable influence on your performance…
How to prepare your bike for cycling in the rain
When you pump up your tires, use around six atmospheres rather than the seven or eight that would more normally be used (or drop your pressure by 15-20psi). Lower tire pressure will increase the surface area of your tire on the road and will increase grip on corners.
Alternatively, you could also consider riding on wider tires, such as 28mm, to increase the area in contact with the road.
Make sure your tires grip well in the wet – most do, but some models (particularly the hard-wearing ones) can be more slippery. Whether or not the tires have tread on seems to make little difference.
Don’t race on brand new tires in the wet. The process of manufacturing rubber can lead to a surface ‘bloom’ (thin surface layer) containing slippery elements like silicone that’ll reduce grip.
Wear the tires in a bit first by training on them. Also, make sure that your tires are relatively cut-free and that there are no sharp stones or other objects in the tread before you start.
Caliper brakes take longer to work in the wet, so go for an aluminum wheel, where grip between brake and wheel is relatively high. Or upgrade to a disc-brake bike for better stopping power.
If you stick to caliper brakes, adjust them so that they’re pretty close to the rim. This is because you’ll need to pull harder on the brake levers when braking in wet conditions. Also, if you need to brake a lot, your brake blocks will wear down quicker in the wet.
Just make sure that you’re accurate with the adjustment, as you don’t want to adjust them so much that they rub on the rim, particularly at the back where you’ll distort the rim every time you pedal.
Take your wheels out and inspect your brake blocks before you start. Prise out any stones or pieces of metal that may be lodged in them. Make sure that they’re not too worn and that they still have the grooves in them that displace water when braking.
Keep your drivechain – front chainrings, chain, rear sprockets – clean and apply a light coating of water-repelling lubricant before you ride. Ensure that you avoid spraying or dripping any lubricant onto your tires or wheel rims, though.
It’s important to judge the amount of kit you wear so that it’s just right to avoid getting cold or too hot (both of which reduce performance). When training, wear enough to keep you as dry as possible and warm.
Modern cycling kit is often designed to achieve this. Windproof-fronted, breathable jerseys and good quality tights are readily available.
Don’t forget to protect your hands, feet and head, though – a lot of heat can be lost through these parts, even though they’re small relative to the rest of you. Use overboots, gloves and hats as required.
Think about this when you’re racing as well. Clearly, you want to spend as little time as possible during transition, but it’s far better to lose a few seconds putting on another jersey and a pair of gloves than it is to lose minutes by freezing out on the bike.
A racing cape stuffed in your back pocket is always a good idea when training – an essential on longer rides – and racing. Capes are low weight and pack up small, but offer good protection against the wind and rain.
How to cycle in the rain
Your bike technique will make an enormous difference both to your speed and to your safety when riding in wet conditions. Let’s deal with the critical aspects of technique in turn…
Cornering technique is important to get right all the time but is especially important when wet. Ensure your center of gravity is as low as possible by keeping your hands on the drops, lowering your shoulders, keeping your inside knee low and pushing down on the outer pedal.
Keep your body, head and bike in line as you lean into the corner. You’ll not be able to lean as much as you can in the dry.
Keep the balance of weight equal between your front and back wheels – go too light on the front and it’ll slide from under you. Concentrate on maximizing the degree of curvature of the corner by approaching the corner wide, cutting in at the apex and exiting wide.
Brake before you enter the corner and not in it. There’s much less tolerance on doing things wrong in the wet and much more likelihood of falling off. So make sure your technique is right on every corner – unless traffic prevents it.
Out of the saddle
You may also need to be careful when accelerating out of the saddle. Avoid wheel spin by keeping your weight back, particularly on steep hills.
When accelerating out of a corner, apply the power smoothly and keep an even weight distribution between front and back wheels. This will reduce the chances of your back wheel sliding out.
Descending and braking
It’s critical to have good anticipation when descending fast in the wet. This is because your brakes will be less effective so it’ll take longer to slow down, and also because if you do brake too hard you may skid and fall off. So keep looking forward, and brake early and gradually.
When braking, mainly use the front brake and be careful about the amount of back brake you use so that you avoid skidding.
Don’t pump the brakes. If your brake blocks are in good condition, they’ll disperse the water on the rim quickly and avoid the film of water building up between the rim and brake block that cause brakes not to work well.
How to gain confidence in wet conditions
Feeling confident and being relaxed on your bike is important when riding at speed in the wet, especially on corners and descents. You’ll be much safer and faster if you’re feeling cool.
Build confidence by practising – you’ll be surprised by how fast you can corner. If you’re unsure, find someone who knows what they’re doing and get them to help you.
They’ll help you to realise the limits of you and your bike, and to optimize your speed. But it’s better to be safe than to fall off.
Finally, be aware of the road under and approaching you. Wet drain covers, white lines, those shiny bitumen strips at the edges of road repairs… they’re all slippery when wet. Avoid them!
Different road surfaces have different grip characteristics. Coarser surfaced roads are usually more grippy, while smooth surfaces are often more slippery. Avoid patches of diesel and oil on the road.
Don’t be tempted to ride through large puddles – however fun this may be – as there may be a big pothole in the middle. So practice hard and improve your technique. You’ll be safer and much quicker.
Finally, revel on the rules of the Velominati (website who devise the rules of riding): “Fair-weather riding is a luxury reserved for Sunday afternoons and wide boulevards.
“Those who ride in foul weather are members of a special club of riders who, on the morning of a big ride, pull back the curtain to check the weather and, upon seeing rain falling from the skies, allow a wry smile to spread across their face. This is a rider who loves the work!”