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.