How Can I Ride Safely on Wet Roads

Q:  I live in Seattle and the rains have begun. I just bought a road bike to replace my trusty old mountain bike, but it seems much less stable in the wet. I'm spooked by slick pavement on the steep hills. What's the secret to safe control in wet conditions? -- Andrew R.

COACH FRED:  The main tactic for slick-road riding is to do everything slowly and deliberately. On a wet road, tires lose traction much more easily when braking, cornering or accelerating.

To ride this way takes good anticipation. You need to plan for what's coming so you can react unhurriedly rather than at the last moment. Here's what to look out for:

  • Painted lines. They can be incredibly slippery when wet, especially if it's new paint. Be wary of any corner in town where crosswalks are present. Same goes for manhole covers and any other metal surface.
  • Fallen leaves. These aren't usually considered a road hazard, but when they're wet (or covering a wet road) they can be as slick as an icy spot. As we get closer to winter, low temps can mean there actually is an icy spot.
  • Gravel. Bad enough when it's dry, in the wet it can be like riding on ball bearings.

For all three challenges, the cornering approach is similar. Stay as wide as traffic allows, initiate the turn before the slick area, then cross it on as straight a line as possible. If your bike is upright on a slippery patch, it's less likely to slide out. Once safely across, lean the bike again to complete the turn.

Never grab the brakes while the bike is angled on a wet surface. A braked wheel tends to go straight, so if you clamp the stoppers while cornering, you'll almost certainly skid off course and may go down.

Speaking of braking, remember that it takes several wheel revolutions to wipe moisture from the rims before pads take hold. Anticipate a much longer stopping distance. Be ready to lighten your grip as soon as the pads grab, or you could lock the wheels and skid.

As for your road bike being less stable than your mountain bike, much of the difference can be laid to tire size.   Try fitting your road bike with the widest tires the frame will accept -- 700x28C or greater.

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