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