The Rain

When I think about what we do as cyclists, certain words recur with pop-hit chorus regularity. There’s ‘hard.’ There’s ‘challenging.’ There’s ‘suffering.’ There’s ‘difficult.’ We can add dozens more, but I’ve established the pattern. You won’t find ‘easy’ on the list. Nor will you find ‘lazy.’

‘Fun’ is problematic. You and I think what we do is fun, but most of the world thinks we’re off our rockers just for wearing the Lycra. That’s before they find out that four hours is more fun than three. Most folks don’t trust our definition of fun.

I don’t know about you, but I take a bit of perverse delight in gradually paying out the crazy details of my life as a cyclist. Dinner parties are perfect for this particular hobby. I can usually guess the questions that will come, depending on the time of year. In the summer, they revolve around the L-word and the Tour de France. In the winter it goes like so:

“You didn’t ride today, did you?”

“Really? Wasn’t it cold?”

“Where’d you go?”

“How far is that?”

“Holy cow. How long did it take you?”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun.”

And that’s when it isn’t raining. Rain changes the stakes of the game. And the colder the rain, the higher the stakes. No regularly occurring weather event can make a cyclist skip training as easily as rain.

In Southern California, where months will pass without a drop falling from the sky, those first rains fall on oil-slick streets, turning them into SoCal’s answer to black ice. As hazards go, it’s as sure as the toaster in the bathtub, if not quite as deadly. But in an el nino year, there comes a point when they are as safe as, say, swimming with sharks.

Still, in a world full of hard deeds, among the hardest I’ve ever undertaken in my quest for my skewed sense of a good time is leaving home for a training ride in the rain. It ranks right up there on Moh’s scale of hardness alongside rubies and sapphires.

As many times as I’ve done it, I can remember a remarkable number of rides I’ve done in the rain. There was the time I had to climb 90 percent of the Col du Lauteret in an ever-cooling rain to get back to our hotel, only to arrive and learn there was no hot water.On another occasion, moments after it started raining on me on I-70 in Colorado that lightning struck a tree 200 meters away and I thought, “I need to be somewhere else.”

I once spent four hours riding in torrential rain and 50-degree temps to review a Mountain Cycle road bike. Two days later the bike tech poured two pounds of water from the frame. We knew this because he weighed it once without knowing there was water caught in the down tube and chainstays. He flipped the frame around to put it in the stand for the rebuild and a six-pack’s-worth of hazardous waste escaped the frame. After shaking and turning the frame around a bit more, he re-weighed it. Oops. Turns out the frame really was pretty light.

One late spring day, in the middle of a UMASS training ride, a trap door opened in the clouds and the rain hit the road with such force that I could see it splashing up, creating a mist that my front wheel cut through with the swift passage of a knife through Brie. A teammate turned to me and said, “Well Mr. Brady, this is a ride you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” Indeed.

I separate in my mind training in the rain from racing in the rain. They just aren’t the same. You’re supposed to suffer during a race. And if rain is suffering, then racing can’t possibly preclude rain. Avoiding a race because of rain is like wanting to skip the first 100k because it would make the race too long.

I always raced well in cold, wet conditions. The first time trial, the first crit and the first road race I ever won were all run in cold, rainy conditions. Irish blood is an easy excuse, but that’s hardly the point. It’s easy to skip a training ride when it rains. But skipping a rainy race could impugn one’s manhood. Gads. We race bikes to demonstrate precisely the opposite. And because it’s fun.

Even so, training in the rain isn’t about racing in the rain. A long ride in the rain teaches us what we can endure. It’s the x-ray that reveals the steel rebar deep down inside. After an crushing rain ride you can’t help but think, “If I can do this….”

But let’s be honest: Our idea of fun really is odd. It is measurably obtuse. That is to say, what we think is fun is somewhere between 90 and 180 degrees off from what the average person would consider an advisably, suggestably good time. The sort of thing you put in a guide for tourists.

The truth is, we can’t be trusted. With our clickety-clack shoes, stretchy clothing coated in postcard colors and billboard logos, we are, to most of the world, a fun antidote. They think we’re one roll of tinfoil shy of a hat. Thank God. It keeps us off the radar and ensures our secrets. Confidence comes from doing a long, hard ride in the rain, and that isn’t something we want the whole world to know.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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32 comments

  1. MattS

    Great piece Padraig, I really like your angle here. Your last point seems to hit the nail on the head: “The truth is, we can’t be trusted.” I’ve come to realize that ‘regular’ folks don’t trust me when conversation turns to activities out of doors. In their eyes I’m simply skewed at best, nuts at worst. One colleague calls me an optimist every time I don’t latch on to an opportunity to complain about the weather, or recount a great ride on Sunday during the typical Monday morning “So, how was your weekend?” chat. “Great, did the family thing on Saturday, ballet and hanging out, big ride on Sunday with friends.” “What, really, but it was raining, you ride in that….” “Yeah, you wear clothes, its fine, the sound of tires on wet pavement is peaceful.” “Oh Matt, you are such an optimist.” I.e., the way you see the world is off kilter, and you are not to be trusted!

  2. Robot

    I really love riding the rain sometimes. There is that point where you can’t get any more wet, when the whole thing just suddenly frees up in your mind. I go all eight-years-old. It makes me wanna go fast.

    There is also something very freeing about being deemed nuts. Kills other people’s expectations of you. Takes the pressure off.

  3. Christopher

    I have a random day off today and decided to sleep in. I was going to go out for a ride after I finished breakfast. I prepare for the cold with a jacket, LS jersey, tights, booties, wool socks, and a wool cap. I get my bike down off the rack it hangs on and fill my bottles. I turn my Garmin on and get ready to push off. Then the inevitable happens. A driving rain starts and hasn’t stopped. I am going to wuss out today. There always comes another.

  4. Joe

    As an Oregon native, we don’t endure the extreme cold like some areas of the country but our winter riding consists mostly of rain, rain and more rain. Starts to wear on you after consecutive long Sunday rides in the wet, but it sure makes you feel tougher than the rest. That first rainy race is going to feel great!

    Sure makes the first few dry days all the more magical.

  5. Rico

    Sure, feel free to wax poetic, but after living in Portland, OR, for the past ten years–commuting in rain, riding in rain, training in rain…Hell, you can have it. Ride 3-5 hours in 42 degrees and rain–not once–but again, and again, and again, and you might start dreaming of Arizona.

    So, all riders out there in dry locals–stay there and rejoice. Revel in your good fortune. Dance in the frickin’ (dry) street.

    Others, slogging through a wet, cold, Winter…roll on, buds. We’re all in this, together.

  6. Touriste-Routier

    If you are the least bit competitive with your riding buddies, riding in the rain makes for the best catch-up or move ahead days, getting those miles in while your friends are riding the couch.

    Rain is just liquid sunshine. There is something about being out there, when no one else is.

  7. wvcycling

    It took me so long to be able to ride in the rain. I don’t mind it, but even with a TT Helmet with full eyeshield, I still flinch every time a raindrop comes in X-inches of distance from my face. Its like my eyes somehow focus on the raindrops when I don’t want them to.

    I learned to stare at my tire 60% of the time and look at the road only about 40% of the time. Crazy, I know…

  8. ervgopwr

    It’s funny that this topic came up, after racing in the rain this weekend (and sucking as usual) I decided not to commute in today, due to threat of rain. And doublely agree with the ‘strangeness’ of our sport and it’s participants. Cyclists are KOOKS! ;)

  9. Alex

    I like to ride in the rain, and I don´t mind the cold. It´s my bike and clothing that dread the wet weather. If only I had a self-cleaning equipment I´d sure appreciate more, but I guess I got so used to dealing with it I´ve come to enjoy the post-ride ritual. As for we being nuts and unreliable, that´s absolutely out of contention. Spot on.

  10. Jim Morehouse

    Timely piece. I live in Las Vegas and have trained in the rain four days in a row and more is coming in tomorrow. I’ve come to accept it. I know my SoCal counterparts are staying indoors crying about it, so I want to take every advantage on them I can! (I used to live in SoCal, and yes, I used to stay indoors when it rained, too. I got used to bad weather when I moved to the Rocky Mountains…)

  11. Robot

    I feel a lot of sympathy with the Portland folks. The weather here in Boston is terminally inclement. We get plenty of rain, snow, ice, crap. And my attitude fluctuates. Sometimes I’m down with it. Sometimes it wrings the soul right out of me.

    As the Danish woman who lives down the street from me says, “There’s nothing wrong with the weather, but there might be something wrong with your jacket.”

  12. blue

    Last night I gave the bike an overhaul; got a new chain, spent hours scrubbing my drivetrain, getting off all the caked on grease and gunk off each cog and chainring. I also replaced derailleur cables, and spent way too much time putting my new bar tape on just right. Then, of course, this morning it rains. I’m supposed to be in summer right now (southern hemisphere), and being semi-arid it’s not supposed to rain much in summer. So of course, the day after my overhaul, as I eat breakfast and begin to think about my commute, the skies open up and it begins to pour.

    So in the best interests of my steed, I caught a ride with a mate into work. I could use a rest day anyway.

  13. William M. deRosset

    Dear Padraig,

    Thank you for the wonderfully written article. It was a romp.

    “Still, in a world full of hard deeds, among the hardest I’ve ever undertaken in my quest for my skewed sense of a good time is leaving home for a training ride in the rain.”

    Really? Rain on a training ride just isn’t “epic”, especially if it was raining or wet when you left the house. Just ride the “rain bike”–you know, the one with fenders?

    Full fenders are the difference between a gusty 200K ride at 0 and rainy/sleety being:

    1. a matter of a rain jacket (or a nice wool trainer and a wind shell), shooter’s lenses in the glasses, a set of booties, and a free smile at the end of the day and

    2. full-hot embrocation, heavy bib tights, and technical-fabric body covering, ending with a chamois with ground-in grit, shivering in the shower until the hot water runs out, two pounds of road lime in the shower with you, a disaster in the garage, and six months of compromised circulation to one’s feet.

    Your pick, I suppose. I’ve tried it both ways and know my preference.

    My riding companions also generally appreciate fenders–one can draft without a faceful of grinding compound and salt water.

    Best Regards,

    Will

    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

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  15. James

    Another Portlander here… The thing that cracks me up is when I commute to work people I work with just shake their heads. When it’s quitting time and the rain is just pissing down co-workers offer me rides home figuring I would be nuts to “ride in that stuff”! My response is always, “I have great rain gear!!!” You have to have rain gear to ride out here…


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for the terrific comments.

      The rain bike is an obvious response to the issue of riding in the wet. When I was young and could only afford one racing bike, it wasn’t an option and now that I live in Southern California owning a rain bike is a bit like owning a snowmobile. Most of the time we don’t get enough rain enough days in a row to make riding on the wet roads advisable, so my experience and perspective is informed by a poor past and a dry present. And when I lived in the South, there were times when the rain was so torrential that you wouldn’t ride in it because no matter what you did, you just couldn’t see.

      Who knows, I might move north someday. If I do, save me a set of long-reach calipers.

  16. Bret Gross

    Yeah, we SoCal folks are spoiled. Rain sneaks in and reminds us of how easy it is to be comfortable.
    Rode hills yesterday afternoon and wanted to get in an easy spin this morning, before the predicted afternoon storm. Awoke to wet streets.
    A few hours later the streets were dry but the clouds over the ocean were threatening, so I decided to sneak in a couple dozen miles before the storm.
    I wasn’t until I got home that I realized it: despite my ‘heavy’ legs at the beginning of the ride, I somehow dug down and spun like a madman for the last 20 miles so that I could beat the rain home.
    Busted! So much for a ‘recovery’ ride. More like a ‘motivational’ ride.
    It’s true — we can’t be trusted

  17. souleur

    Thanks for this Padraig:

    You nailed it to me, as I have a strange aversion to rain like an alcoholic in rehab who keeps on trying to take a drink on antabuse. I love my bike, but riding in the rain brings about these very nauseating feelings, especially when my brakes pads grind into my rims and I can envision the sand and grit gnawing away, the chain lube washes out and I realize when I get home it’ll be time to pull the BB…yet again. Thanks to Phil, he makes it some easier.

    I do seem to remember these rides though, the storms, finding shelter under an awning or buckling down in an old barn in the middle of nowhere, the hail, the hard fronts slamming through w/headwinds that knock you into your granny. And most interestingly, its when your just getting about 1/2 way out and to the point of no quick or easy return.

    I will take dry/cold or dry/hot any day of the week and pass my cup of rain to you all who enjoy it so much, you can enjoy my portion too.

    Here’s one to you fella’s (and gals) who love the rain, you got me on this one, bottoms up:-)


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Bret: You sound like a guy I can trust. We should ride sometime.

      Souleur: I’ve had those experiences. I can’t explain why the rain isn’t bugging me this year, but it’s handy given the el nino year.

      Mike: I totally hear you. You can romanticize anything until reality sets in. I recall 17 straight days of rain in Memphis once and at the end of it I didn’t own a dry pair of shoes—of any variety.

  18. dacrizzow

    another portlander-during cyclocross season we pray for it. after that it’s outta my system. some days commuting it’s uplifting, magical, motivational and beautiful. sometimes it just hurts.hurts so bad you wish someone did this to you so you could punch them. bottom line-you ride enough, you will get your hardman rain rides. spend the money on good rain gear, get a singlespeed with fenders. then again spinning in the garage with the space heaters and a DVD can be it’s own suffering.

  19. Dan

    You wanna know why we Portlanders put up with all of the rain? Because we also get to live in Portland when the sun is out! When you’ve ridden up to Council Crest and can see 5 Cascade peaks on a perfect summer day, life doesn’t get much better. :)

  20. Zach

    I do have to say that this offering from RKP is appropriate given the amount of rain riding I’ve done in LA this month, including a drenching rain and howling wind at the first road race of the year. At the same time, having done my workout on the trainer today because of the time crunch and wet afternoon, I have to say that the indoor work takes a different kind of mental fortitude. Not easy to get all pumped up for the trainer like it is to watch a quick clip of a muddy Roubaix and get pumped up for the rain.

  21. Terry

    Another rider from Portland. Cherry Pie Road Race…probably going to be wet. Big deal we’ve been riding in the wet from months. To get out on a training ride all I say to myself is, just make it to the end of the driveway..once I get past that obstacle I’m good to go. I’m also aready wet so why not ride!

  22. Dan O

    Ah – rain rides. Living in the Seattle area for 20+ years now, been a few rides in the rain. Like maybe hundreds, though you’d be amazed how little it actually pours here – usually just showers and wet pavement.

    Fenders, fenders, fenders are the key. Did I mention fenders? They make the ride almost enjoyable, losing the toxic mud stripe up the back and wet road grit worked into your shorts – that’s always fun….

    Having a rain bike is always a bonus, no need to pull fenders on and off – just leave ‘em on. My ’97 Ibis Hakkalugi ‘cross bike serves this purpose. Fenders remain bolted in place all year, only removed for the very occasional ‘cross race and off road ride.

    After using fenders for years, getting caught in the rain on the “fast” bike, lacking fenders – seems like torture at times.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Dan O: My former co-worker Joe Lindsey, these days of the Boulder Report, reviewed an Ibis Hakkalügi and loved it so much I believe he purchased it. I got a few rides in on it and was impressed by its stellar handling. One of my top three ‘cross bikes I ever rode.

      The way this winter/spring is going, I may yet equip a bike with fenders. That is, once I get over this virus.

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