We’re a nation obsessed with the weather forecast, and as cyclists, we generally avoid riding in the rain if we can. That said, some people actually enjoy riding in the rain, but for most, it’s a necessary evil. If it’s the choice of riding in the rain or not riding at all or using public transport, we’ll take getting wet every single time. But if you’re new to cycling, there are a few aspects of riding in the rain you may not be aware of.
Sorry, but there's no way to sugar coat this, you’re going to get wet. You can wear the most advanced waterproof fabrics in the world, fit mudguards, but rain will always find a way in somewhere. Hands and feet are particularly tricky to keep dry, the latter more so if you choose to ride without mudguards. The good news is that while getting wet is pretty horrible, once you're wet riding in the rain isn't all that bad. And there's a limit to how wet you can get.
Leaving the house to start a ride when the rain is pelting down is tough for even the hardiest cyclists. It's all too easy to stand at the window watching the rainfall and pondering delaying or even cancelling the ride until some point when it's not as soggy. Starting a ride in the rain takes real commitment, you just have to hope it gets better.
You got cold more quickly riding in the rain. If your clothing is wet you’ll lose body heat through evaporation and conduction, sodden gloves can quickly turn your hands to blocks of ice and once you lose the feeling in your extremities, it's very hard to warm up again. That's when it's time to hit up the nearest cafe for a mocha and wait for the rain to pass before venturing outside again.
Riding in the rain increases the risk of punctures. Why? Rain washes out debris from the side of the road into your path, and this combined with the fact that water acts as a lubricant, helping small pieces of flint or glass to penetrate the tyre, is why you’re more likely to puncture when riding in the rain.
You can reduce the risk of punctures either by investing in latex inner tubes, since latex is better able to deform around sharp objects compared to butyl, or going down the tubeless route. Tubeless can be a faff to install but the sealant is very good at sealing small holes caused by glass, flint or thorns. I know from personal experience - flatting on a wet ride and the tubeless plugging the hole so I didn't even have to stop pedalling.
I'll put up with the tubeless faff if it avoids changing an inner tube by the side of the road in the pouring rain.
When the roads are wet, there’s less friction between the tyre and road surface. So you need to be very careful when negotiating junctions, roundabouts, steep descents and climbs. Some tyre manufacturers produce winter-specific compounds, with softer rubber than regular tyres, to increase grip on wet roads. You can also consider increasing the tyre width and lowering the pressure.
There’s also a higher risk of petrol or diesel spilt onto roads by motor vehicles mixing with the rain and being a hazard. Talking of slippery, wet leaves are another hazard at this time of year too, as are drain covers and even painted stripes and markings on the road can be as slippery as ice. So proceed with caution and choose your line carefully.
It’s tempting to think that a tyre with a tread pattern will provide more grip on wet roads, as is the case with car tyres, but the opposite is true. Due to the low speeds and round profile of a bicycle tyre, you'll never aquaplane - you’re simply not riding fast enough to need a grooved tyre to clear water. The only reason slick tyres have grooves and sipes is that the common perception is tread equals grip, so it's really down to marketing.
Ride in the rain and your bike will hate you. Wet roads throw up lots of mud, grit and other debris which can cover all the expensive mechanical parts of your expensive bicycle and increase the wear rate. So you’ll be spending more time cleaning your bike after rides than you do after a dry ride to ensure it's going to be in tip-top condition for your next ride. There are lots of products on the market but a bucket of warm water, a splash of washing detergent and a sponge will make light work of a dirty bike.
Stopping safely is trickier in the rain. The roads are generally more slippery so braking distance shoots up, and your brakes won’t work as well. Rim brakes can deteriorate rapidly in the rain, and if you’re using carbon rims you can forget about being able to stop. Hydraulic disc brakes are a bonus in the rain as they continue to work, the only downside is occasionally it can sound like you’re strangling a fox.
Mudguards might ruin the clean lines of your bicycle and add weight, but they are a very practical consideration and go a long way to keeping you dry when it's raining. But you’ll find that fitting mudguards is often fraught with difficulty and even when fitted correctly, they can rattle and squeak. Very annoying. Plastic clip-on mudguards don’t provide as much coverage from road spray but are easy to fit, and more importantly, remove, so are a good option. Many bikes have eyelets for fitting proper full-length mudguards, which you can even extend with homemade flaps, to provide maximum protection not just for you, but your fellow cyclists. Which brings us onto...
Riding behind another bicycle without mudguards will guarantee a face full of water and grit. Belgium toothpaste as it's known. You won’t be able to see where you’re going, nobody will recognise you when you get home, and it’ll put you off riding in a group when it’s raining forever. Unless the group is very organised and insists on a mudguard only rule, as some clubs do in response to this problem, riding solo or in very small groups is sometimes a better approach when it's raining.
One look at the rain hammering on the doorstep can be enough to have you buying a smart trainer and subscribing to Zwift (other online training platforms are available). Riding indoors used to be grim, the preserve of racing cyclists doing hard intervals. But services like Zwift actually make it fun and, dare we say it, more enjoyable than riding in the rain? It's no wonder they have become hugely popular, leading to a revolution in indoor training.
And it never rains in the virtual cycling world. Oh, it does? Um...
Ah soggy shorts! You’ve battled horrendous rain to get into the office on time, and now you’re faced with the challenge of trying to dry your kit out for the return commute. You could be organised and bring spare clothing, or as is often more likely, hope your office has good radiators and your colleagues don’t mind you turning the place into a temporary drying room and the associated smell of sweaty cycling kit. Pulling on wet bib shorts is probably the most unappealing thing you can do in cycling, so try and avoid it at all costs.
Not just because you’re in a hurry to get home to a warm shower and hot meal, but because of science!
Going fast on a bike is all about reducing drag. Thinner, or lower density air, means less resistance so you can ride at a higher speed (which is why Hour records are often performed at high altitude velodromes). Since air density decreases with lower barometric pressure, which often comes with unsettled weather, riding before or after a storm can lead to faster times on the bike. The difference in air density is also affected by temperature and humidity so these are two factors to take into account when checking the weather forecast.
It might not result in a hugely noticeable difference for regular riding, but if you’re riding against the clock or attacking a timed segment, it’s a marginal gain you might want to explore.
Besides aerodynamic drag, which is the biggest obstacle to going fast, you also need to consider rolling resistance. If the roads are coated with water, then fricton between the tyre and road surface should be reduced.
Sarah Hohmann-Spohr, marketing at Continental, explains: “Following physics, the tyre would become faster, yes. This is due to the road’s surface and the micropores of the tarmac. Simply said, and depending on the (road) conditions: when these small parts get filled with water, the road surface would become rather dense and therefore provides less resistance. In the same way as this can lead to a more slippery situation, it can help to reduce the tyre pressure to a certain degree, in order to keep the grip.”
So you enjoy or hate riding in the rain? Let us know in the comments section below.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.