Random Thoughts on Riding in the Rain
I do a fair bit of riding in the wet, whether in the rain or on days after the rain when the roads are wet. It’s not that I enjoy riding in the wet. It’s just that I don’t live in southern California. The upside (if you can call it that) is that one gets to accumulate certain types of experience and thoughts on different aspects of cycling in the wet. People in southern California do not have the opportunity as often as we do round here.
Just as a general qualifier (and a disclaimer), these random thoughts are a result of longer rides rather than, for example, short jaunts or commutes of 10 or 20 km. In other words, they are thoughts arising from being exposed to rain water for a prolonged period of time. And no, that is not a polite way of saying ‘crazed thoughts’. I think.
Of course, riding in the rain calls for suitable kit. However, I found that ‘suitable’ is a slippery notion and that a pursuit of the perfect rain kit can very nearly drive one insane. Until the problem is properly framed. Let’s start with overshoes.
Overshoes are marketed as solutions for keeping your feet dry, warm or both. (Unless you are looking at those that are designed specifically for time trials.) Those that are meant to keep them dry are usually made of a waterproof upper, usually polyurethane or silicone combined with elastane, with taped seams and zippers. They do the job just fine on a day after the rain. The waterproof upper and the taped seams do the job. On a rainy day, they are fine for the first hour or so, after which I learned to adjust my expectations.
The water dripping down your legs will inevitably slip through the ankle band after a while. You will have learned that road grit somehow manages to get lodged between the band and your skin, causing irritation. In order to avoid this irritation, you may have chosen to wear socks that are longer than the overshoes, in which case, your socks peeping out from the overshoes absorb and draw the water into your shoes.
Your cycling shoes probably have vents in the carbon fibre soles, just behind your toes, aiding ingress of road sprays. You put a duct tape over those vents to prevent the cunning water to slip through. Even then, water somehow manages to enter from the bottom / front. If, like me, you wear shoes with leather uppers, this is just a battle you cannot win.
Therefore, you have water coming in from the top and from the bottom. So what’s the point of wearing these rain covers on a rainy ride? To protect your shoes from road muck. I have tried a few makes and models, and this is the only, practical conclusion that I can draw. So, what to do? Choose a pair that isn’t too ugly. If your feet are going to get wet anyway, they should not be made to suffer a hideous pair of overshoes. Life’s too short for such indignities.
If the roads are wet but it is not actually raining, I find that slipping one’s stockinged feet in a pair of plastic bags nicked from the fresh produce section of the supermarket before putting on one’s shoes helps to keep the feet completely dry even if there is water ingress from the bottom / front. Obviously, this little trick does not help with water seeping in from the top when it is raining.
For the cooler months, overshoes made of neoprene are often marketed as water-resistant, but copy writers can get rather poetic in the product description in such a way that you may think that they are water-proof (even when there is no additional membrane that makes the overshoes water-proof) and will keep your little feet dry on a rainy jaunt. They don’t. Yes, they can keep away the occasional road sprays but not when they are persistent. These neoprene ones will suffer from the same manners of water ingress as the polyurethane cousins. Not only that, neoprene actually holds water. If, for example, you are climbing the third categorised alpine col of the day in the driving rain, you will definitely feel the added rotational weight on your feet. It’s a bit like having ankle weights.
Surfers and divers don’t wear neoprene suits because they are water-resistant. They wear neoprene because the material keeps them warm despite being immersed in cold water. It helps to retain body heat whilst allowing a good range of movements. So they are really about keeping your feet from freezing (and protecting your shoes from road muck). Again, it’s best not to choose a pair that is too ugly, like the ones with appalling nerdy graphics. I should really replace my Rapha overshoes since they are becoming rather tatty after several years of abuse and crashes, but my size seems to be sold out whenever I think of getting replacements…
In contrast, I still have a difficult time getting my head round rain jackets. Regardless of which one you get, it is likely to be the most expensive cycling kit you will ever have, considering the cost of ownership. The purchase price may range from here to there, but they will all require regular re-proofing, using a bottle or spray of chemicals that command a breathtaking price, at an alarming frequency particularly as the jacket ages.
I find that a rain jacket’s ugliness is in inverse relation to the retail price. Perhaps not surprisingly, the more expensive ones tend to have a better cut rather than something that looks like a waterproof jacket designed for trainspotters. Mind you, I have nothing against trainspotters. I spotted a tramspotter the other day, happily snapping away with his enormous DSLR camera. He looked like a nice enough man, with a big grin on his face as if he was staring at a naked Alessandra Ambrosio. Or something.
‘Breathable’ is a HUGE word in rain jackets because everyone is after something that won’t turn you into a steamed dumpling during a ride. (There must be a Studio Ghibli film with such a scene?) ‘WPB’ is the holy grail. Water Proof Breathable. ‘Waterproof’ is not an absolute term, and there are varying degrees of waterproofness (is that a word?). The definition is rather more elastic than one might hope. And, so is the definition of ‘breathable’, provided you feel that a latex inner tube can be characterised as breathable.
Whatever DWR treatment is applied to the WPB fabric, it will deteriorate with exposure to rain, heat, perspiration and all the things to which such a jacket will be exposed. Including laundering. The more you use, the more you need to launder the garment. The more you wash, the more the proofing treatment deteriorates.
Therefore, when I saw a care label that said ‘Wash Me Often’, I thought they were the most seductive words in print, bar none. A rain jacket that demands to be washed often. And, to re-activate the proofing characteristics, all you have to do is to pop it in the tumble dryer for a few minutes after it’s been laundered and line-dried.
The look of the jacket is what one might imagine to be an Issey Miyake-designed costume for Saturday Night Fever. And it makes you look like a million miles per hour.
I surfed the Interwebz to read up on reviews by users and found that there seems to be a consensus amongst them that the jacket is the holy grail. I have yet to spot a rain jacket with so many consistently good reviews.
So, even though I had some misgivings about the fact that it is littered with velcros, I bought the Castelli Pocket Liner Jacket.
Uncovered velcros cause damage to fabric that comes into contact, and it is inevitable that it is partially or fully uncovered at one point or another. The Pocket Liner is no exception. But no matter.
The first outing for the jacket was a 108 km jaunt to the coast with a dozen crazy MAMiLs, in the pissing summer rain. I still don’t know how we did it, but we recorded the highest average speed as a group despite the weather condition, and the record still remains to this day. The temperature was about 15°C, so it was neither too hot nor too cold, at a good tempo.
After about an hour into the ride, I noticed that I have water swishing about in the sleeves. When we stopped for a pee break, I opened the velcros on the cuff, let the arms drop, and a good amount of water gushed out of the sleeves as though I was peeing out of both wrists whilst others were relieving themselves through more traditional channels. Ignoring the fact that water was not beading at all on the exterior and the shell looking rather soaked, I thought that I might be perspiring profusely even though I tend not to sweat buckets. After all, I’m wearing the king of rain jackets, so it simply can’t be rain accumulating in my sleeves…
I followed the care instructions precisely and went on several more wet rides. Same thing each time. Water in the sleeves. Torso completely soaked, especially the front. Since when do I sweat like a proverbial pig? In a ‘breathable’ jacket?
The Castelli Pocket Liner Jacket is made of a fabric made by eVent Fabrics, called the Pocket Liner fabric, of which there are a few varieties. The fabric is designed to constantly release sweat vapours whilst preventing water coming in from the outside. It sounds like a one-way street, no?
I had a close look at the jacket and noticed that there is a very subtle difference between the exterior and interior texture even though the cloth looks identical on both sides. It is ever so slightly smoother on the inside. My first thought was that perhaps Castelli assembled the jacket with the cloth inside out, an easy manufacturing error to make considering that the fabric looks identical on both sides. It would explain the jacket drawing in water from the outside and retaining it inside.
I wrote to eVent to explain the issue and to ask specific questions about the correct fabric orientation and behaviour . Glenn Crowther initially replied with some scripted, superficial description of the fabric, peppered with weasle clauses (including, ‘we didn’t make the jacket,’ as if I didn’t know), without answering my questions. There was a whiff of Crowther having had some training in issues / crisis management. Such techniques are apt for dealing with the media, but it’s usually not a good idea to use them when addressing users; it usually backfires.
His immediate conclusion was that it needed re-proofing, using something like Nikwax.
So, I got a recommendation that completely ignores the fact that the jacket was purchased new and the prolific water ingress happened on the first wearing.
After a few more emails, Crowther eventually answered my question about whether there is a front and back for the fabric. The answer was, no. He also said, “If liquid water does get into the garment, it will effectively hold it ‘in’ while the heat and humidity of the body creates the needed driving force to pass moisture vapor through the membrane and ‘dry out’ the garment from the inside.” There is certainly no lack of humidity with all that water swishing about and the jersey being completely soaked, is there? So, I am not generating enough heat… Hucking fell, I’m reptilian.
Having been told that the fabric orientation did not matter, I did a little experiment. I sat in the bath tub wearing the jacket (right side out, as manufactured) and aimed the hand-held shower head at my upper body. I let the lukewarm water run for about a minute and a half. The water beaded and rolled off the jacket. I was completely dry on the inside albeit it must be noted that I wasn’t perspiring or generating heat above (or below) my normal body temperature of about 36.4°C since I was just sitting in the tub. 10/10 water repellency performance.
I then went on a few more rainy rides, only to find that the jacket went back to its old habits almost immediately after setting off each time: no rain water beading on the exterior, water in the sleeves, torso soaked through. A complete failure outside of the bath tub: it lets water in from the outside and won’t let water escape from the inside.
To look at it another way, it has a really impressive ability to keep water in, as if it is completely impermeable on the inside. If only it were the other way round.
Since the retailer from whom I bought the jacket terminated the relationship with the rather bizarre local Castelli distributor, there was not much sense in bringing it up with the guys at the shop. I have not tried putting on any DWR treatment like Nikwax on the jacket, but I must admit that I am disinclined to do it simply out of principle. Interestingly enough, Castelli do not even mention anything about the need to re-proof the jacket occasionally, never mind prior to first use. To say the least, I’m disappointed with the jacket. I realise that I am in the minority, but, alas, I canot replace my experience with those of others.
If you are a cold-blooded c#@*% like me, this may not be a rain jacket for you. However, it’s still a very handsome jacket as far as rain jackets go.
In the end, I think a rain jacket is unnecessary, even undesirable, if the temperature is anywhere above something like 12°C and you are not going somewhere to meet anyone other than soaked cyclists — no point worrying about being presentable (as if kitted out in Lycra is presentable in the first place). On cooler days, it would be important to keep dry lest one gets cold. The search continues…
It’s very rare to see road bikes fitted with mudguards in Belgium. In some countries, if you turn up at a club ride without mudguards during the wetter months, you would attract comment at the very least and at worst be told to come back another time when properly equipped. Here, you attract comment if you do turn up with mudguards. I was of the view that mudguards are for commuters, so the local practice does not seem alien to my personal leanings. However, at one point I got a bit tired of drinking out of bidons with the top covered in muck. It adds flavour and texture to the water but not the sort that I really enjoy.
Therefore, I decided to get mudguards for the wet days, but there was one problem: my bike has very little tyre clearance so full mudguards cannot be installed. In any case, the only objective was to protect the water bottles, not myself or other parts of the bike like the front mech. I chose Crud’s Crudcatcher for the front and Full Windsor’s Foldnfix for rear.
The Crudcatcher is easy to install, does the job effectively and does not damage the frame.
I chose Foldnfix over other options because it extended down along the seat tube, giving the second bottle some protection from the rear wheel spray. It does its job reasonably well. However, it damages the paint on the frame, namely the seat stays and the seat tube. My frame is powder coated and still got all scratched up, so if you have a frame that has been wet-painted, you should expect the damage to be caused more quickly. The problem is that wind and road vibration will move the Foldnfix in various directions, making it rub against the frame almost continuously. If you do not apply adhesive frame protectors where the Foldnfix comes into contact with the frame, there will be damage to the paintwork. But I learned the hard way…
Despite the damage caused by Foldnfix, I discovered that not having a soaking wet bum (crack) or a mud-caked seat-pack is really rather nice. At the same time, however, I realised that there is something uglier than normal mudguards that wrap around the wheels and therefore reasonably conform to the existing lines of the bike: mudguards that impose lines of their own. Both the Crudcatcher and the Foldnfix in particular add all sorts of lines to the bike form. They really stick out visually. A real eye-sore.
Therefore, I ended up getting what I should have bought at the outset: SKS’s Raceblade XL. They even come with adhesive frame protectors. However, I learned that road grit gets lodged between the rubber mounting bracket and the frame protector, so unless you clean the area after each wet ride, the grit will eventually rub through the protector and cause cosmetic damage to the fork or frame. Therefore, proper maintenance is essential although it is a well designed product with all the essential bits thoughtfully included in the kit.
All that said, when you are riding in a pack where nobody else has mudguards, this mudguard issue becomes moot because you will have sprays coming from all directions unless you are leading the pack from start to finish. On the aforementioned ride to the coast, I ended up looking like I dove into a pig pen head first. There was no doubt more than a handful of horse manure and probably some cow manure mixed into the melange of road muck. But it must be said that we were, as Winston Churchill once said, happy as a pig in shit. Or, was that Alfred Tennyson?
I find that one of the easiest parts to neglect when looking after my bike is the bottom bracket / chain set. (The only other neglected part being the headset…) I took apart my main bike completely in preparation to have the frame and few other bits resprayed. When I took off the chain set (cranks), I realised that the bearings were in an appalling state after 2 years of no maintenance and being exposed to quite a bit of rain. They were practically seized up, particularly the drive side. I was really rather shocked because I did not detect any resistance or noise whilst riding or rotating the chain set by hand whilst looking after the chain, pedal, derailleur et al.
I’m certainly not the first one to notice that Campagnolo‘s outboard bearings are not sealed, and some seem to make a major issue out of it. However, given that bearing seals only discourage, not prevent the ingress of principally air and coincidentally debris and liquid, I don’t really think it’s something over which to get one’s knickers in a knot. You would have to perform regular maintenance on them anyway, and the lack of seal makes the job easier, which, of course, gives me even less of an excuse for not having done it in 2 years.
To be honest, I was a bit embarrassed to discover that the bearings were in such a state. I had the bearings on both sides replaced with a new set. Lesson learned.
Unlike the bottom bracket, I am much better about servicing my hubs. That said, it’s been about 7000 km and gallons of rain since I had serviced them last. Even though I think that there is no hub in the world that spins (or looks) better than a well-maintained, classic cup-and-cone Campagnolo Record hubs (I have absolutely no test data to back up my opinion, just a few wheels installed on a couple of bikes in the household), they would be making all sorts of gritty noise whilst making hesitant rotations if they hadn’t been looked after during a similar period, under similar conditions. Not Chris King R45s. Seeing that they spin so well, one would never guess that they need any attention. Of course, the interior was full of debris as well as water and needed a thorough cleaning and re-lubricating. I also found that the o-ring for the driveshell needs replacing.
What is really impressive is the fact that a King hub is not just a pretty face. They are very handsome hubs, probably the best looking hubs in production today, with Phil Wood hubs being the only worthy candidates for comparison. What is even more impressive is the interior. Designed, machined and finished to such a high standard that it is like a piece of jewellery that came out of Carvin French’s workshop in their heyday when André Chervin and Serge Carponcy still sat at the bench. It really is beautiful. And, I’m talking about the bits that are not visible when assembled. The only downside is that the rear hub requires a rather expensive proprietary tool to perform a full service, and your local King retailer may not have the tool in their workshop because they cannot justify the purchase cost. Campagnolo also have an illustrious history of requiring expensive, proprietary tools, so Chris King certainly keep good company…
One of the difficulties in naming products is trying to communicate what sort of problem the product solves without pigeon-holing it as something that is useful only for solving a specific problem. The name of Panaracer‘s Gravel King tyres clearly states the intention, for gravel racing. They are actually also rather good on the cobbles, fast and silent on the tarmac, confident on the bends and tenacious in the wet. They also weigh little for a model with good puncture protection. Furthermore, they are priced very well, especially considering that they are made in Japan rather than in a country with low labour rates. I don’t really understand how Panasonic managed to put all those characteristics in one product, but they did. However, I do have two complaints. One is that Panasonic’s international distribution is relatively limited, and their products are simply not available at all in certain countries like Belgium. The other is that, as far as I know, the Gravel King’s brown sidewall variant, which I like, is unavailable outside of Japan. If I weren’t so promiscuous when it comes to tyres, I would run Gravel Kings all the time.
Stopping or slowing down in the rain can be really tricky if you don’t have good brake pads on your caliper or cantilever brakes. The stock Campagnolo brake pads are really quite good in dry conditions. Their effectiveness in wet conditions is high when they are still very new but deteriorates very quickly with use.
A bit more than a year ago, after riding for about 4 hours in biblical weather condition, we were on the last bit of descending Col de Castillon when we approached a junction. My friend Mark’s Campagnolo Record brake calipers fitted with stock Campagnolo pads were completely useless because of all the road muck that had accumulated on the brake pads and rims in the preceding 4 hours. He could hardly slow down, never mind stop at the junction. The only reason why he eventually came to a halt is because the road turned up after the junction. It could have been the last time he and his C50 ever went for a ride. Scary thought. One tends not to forget such episodes.
Which is why I use Kool-Stop‘s salmon or dual compound brake pads. They do wear faster than the standard black stuff. However, I know what my priorities are.
I don’t mind the rain, but a sunny 20°C day is, well, preferable for a jolly.