by Fred Matheny
I live in arid western Colorado, so riding in the rain isn’t a common experience. I rarely face the challenge of bicycling on slick roads. (Sometimes the roads are slippery from a passing cattle drive, but that’s a different story!)
Some years ago I rode with a friend in eastern Pennsylvania. We started from his house atop a hill. It was raining lightly and I still remember the panic I felt as I tried to follow him down that twisting descent.
Cornering (and braking) becomes a whole new game when the road is wet. In extreme conditions, traction can become almost non-existent. In the Giro d’Italia some years ago, a sudden rainstorm turned the Italian roads into a skating rink. The best bike handlers in the world were sliding across the pavement on their Lycra at every corner. They even fell when they stood up while riding a straight line!
Although cornering on wet roads will never be as secure as on dry pavement, good technique can help keep you upright.
Some Wet Road Tips
Slow down, particularly when rain starts. The road will be more slippery in the early stages of a shower than after the rain has had time to wash away the film of oil and dust. Even pro cyclists often slow almost to a stop on sharp turns when rain begins.
Test your traction. You can get a feel for tire adhesion by wiggling the bike as you ride. Do this gingerly at first, riding slowly. Steer an imaginary slalom course about a foot wide. Accentuate each turn with your hips. With a little practice you’ll feel the bike begin to lose traction slightly on each arc. How much is a good indicator of road slickness.
Reduce tire pressure. If it’s raining when you begin a ride, let some air out of your tires. If you normally run 100 psi, go down to 75 or 80 psi, depending on your weight. The theory is that a tire at lower inflation compresses more under load. It has a larger contact patch on the road.
Watch out for slick spots. One of the most common slippery surfaces results when painted lines and markers on the road are wet. Turning while on them could easily cause tires to slip. If you can’t avoid riding on them, keep your bike as upright as possible. Treat wet road paint as if it were ice, because it can be almost that slick. Other dangers when wet include manhole covers, metal plates, steel-deck bridges, railroad tracks, fallen leaves and pine straw, and tarry crack filler.
Be smooth. Don’t make any abrupt movements that might break your traction. Initiate all turns smoothly in a wide arc. Don’t wait until the last minute and then heel the bike over all at once.
Try a tripod. The idea is to emulate off-road downhillers by unclipping the foot that’s on the inside of the turn, holding that leg out through the corner and “dabbing” if you start to lose traction. This technique requires some practice but it’s useful not only on wet roads but on gravelly or sandy bends.
David Minden says
Fred, what about wider tires with supple sidewalls to get better and more consistent traction? And, weighting the outside pedal to increase traction?
Brian Nystrom says
One of the keys to riding on any slippery surface is to relax, which is easier to say than it is to do if you’re not used to it. If you’re nervous, you’ll tend to tense your muscles and ride in a rigid fashion, which increases the likelihood of losing traction. The best way I’ve found to get comfortable with riding on slippery surfaces is through experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean intentionally riding in the rain; you can accomplish the same thing by riding off-road. Whether that means buying a mountain or gravel bike, or just riding your road bike on dirt, gravel and/or grass is up to you, but the skills you gain will directly translate to any type of low-traction riding. An added advantage of this is that you’ll be riding slower and on softer surfaces, if you choose your venues wisely.
Spending time on the “dirt side” also opens up another world of riding enjoyment that you may not have considered. There are good reasons why “gravel” riding is enjoying explosive growth; it’s not just a fad, it’s a lot of fun! Once you get used to riding on loose surfaces, having the bike move around under you a bit and feeling the limits of traction, you’ll be able to relax more on sketchy pavement sections and enjoy all of your riding more.
Matt K says
Another technique that can help is to lean your body, not the bike, when cornering.
I was on a very hilly century (Climb to the Clouds) a couple of months back when we ran into a very sudden rain storm (and then it got cold). Going downhill, the braking was terrible. I was on some high profile carbon wheels, but even the folks on aluminum rims had problems. I tried feathering the brakes, etc., but really had to clamp down to get my speed under control. So….. any advice on braking while descending in the rain? Besides pulling over and attempting to wait it out.