Cycling in Wet Weather

Don't let rain spoil your French cycling holiday. Emma Philpott has this advice for cycling in wet weather.

Cycling through the rain. Photo: Paula Moya

Cycling through the rain. Photo: Paula Moya

My partner and I had just lifted our bicycles onto a train destined for Newhaven harbour on a very wet and windy Friday night when we noticed that four other touring cyclists were sharing the compartment. “On the ferry?” one asked. “Couldn't resist the weather forecast?”

It was late summer and we had booked ferry tickets to Dieppe for a week of cycle touring in France. With our route drawn up, campsites chosen and our gear packed, we hadn't anticipated that a storm would sit over the north of France that same week. Instead of easy summer cycling, we spent our first two days struggling along the coast against lashing rain and a headwind.

Rather than ruining our holiday, the wet weather brought some unexpected bonuses: a pleasant temperature for cycling; traffic was light on the roads; campsites were far from full; and tourist sites were almost empty. It rained intermittently for the entire week but never for long enough to really soak through rain jackets or to halt our progress.

If rain is forecast for your holiday or unexpectedly hits your planned route, don't get too disheartened – with just a little preparation, you can still enjoy the ride.

Essential wet weather gear

Watertight and rolling on. Photo: Hazel Owen

Watertight and rolling on. Photo: Hazel Owen

The most essential piece of wet weather kit is a rain jacket. What you pack – a road cyclist jacket (usually a longer tail, slimmer fit), one with a mountain bike cut (often wider, can fit layers underneath easily) or a multi-purpose hiking rain wear – will depend on what sort of tour you are undertaking, how fast you're planning to cycle and what time of year you'll be on the road. Look for a jacket that packs small, consider designs with increased ventilation (eg underarm vents), and decide if you need extras like pockets or a hood. High tech materials such as Gore Tex will give you a balance between breathability and waterproofing, but they're usually at the upper end of the price range. In very hot weather consider packing a small cycling poncho, a water resistant commuting jacket or even a clean rubbish sack, just in case the weather turns.

Jackets aside, here's what else I'd suggest packing on any trip just in case you get caught in the rain.

Warm baselayer: On every trip I throw a lightweight synthetic or merino wool top into my clothes pile. If it's designed for active wear, it should wick sweat away from you while you exercise and keep you warm, even if wet.

Set of warm 'civilian' clothes: Keep a set of clothes dry so you can change into them at the end of a wet day. Add a pair of wool socks to your dry change of clothes to make wet camping a bit more luxurious.

Waterproof luggage: If your bags aren't waterproof, invest in rain covers for them, or keep your most important stuff in lightweight dry bags or thick plastic bags.

If you're planning a multi-month trip or if rain is forecast, you may want to take some additional kit to keep you dry on the bike.

Full length rain pants or rainlegs: I find full length pants a little warm to cycle in, but rainlegs (which cover the front of your legs only) don't give as much protection in heavy or persistent rain.

Overshoes or waterproof socks: Keep your shoes dry or just your feet. Both of these options keep your feet warm and dry, but it can take a bit of effort to put them on when rain starts unexpectedly.

Cycling gloves: Windproof or waterproof gloves can keep your hands a little warmer, but even wearing short finger gloves will give you a better grip on handlebars in the rain.

Rain tarp for camping: A little more living space for a minimum increase in weight, a tarp can also give you a little more shade on hot days and can also be used as a bike shelter.

Riding in the rain

Unless the forecast is particularly grim, you can't predict whether rain will appear on your bike tour. When you find yourself pedalling into rainclouds, keep the following in mind.

Ensure you are visible to drivers:  If the sky darkens, turn on your lights, check your reflectors are clean, and wear high visibility clothing. Consider a hi-viz rain jacket or vest, or wear one with reflective strips. In France, it's actually written in law that cyclists should wear high-viz vests at dawn, dusk, after dark and in poor weather.

Check your luggage is watertight: If it starts to rain, I always pull over to take out my jacket and close my panniers properly. Make sure your passport, any valuables and electronics are protected from the wet.

Cycle a little slower: Roads may be slippery, especially manhole covers and painted signs on the road. Surface water can build up quickly on roads and disguise potholes and debris, so cycle with added caution. Be extra careful when you encounter rain after a long dry period as oil may be lifted from the road, creating a more dangerous surface.

Brake carefully: Rim brakes work poorly in the wet, so apply frequent gentle pressure to the brakes to clear water off and be aware that they won't work as well as they do in the dry. Disc brakes should continue to perform as usual, but you may slip more easily on the road.

Treat yourself: Rainy days are nice days to have warm drinks and snacks. If you find a suitable shelter, pull out your cooker and make a hot lunch. If you've been wet for several days of camping, take a break from the outdoors and treat yourself to a hotel room, a dinner out and a hot shower to lift damp spirits.

Keep cycling!: Just before we cycled across the border from Spain to France, someone asked me: “So what do you do when it rains?” My immediate answer: “Keep riding.” In practice, this isn't always true. Shelter is tempting if you pass it just as a storm front breaks, and likewise cafés are good places to warm up and dry off. However, rain often doesn't last for long when you're moving. Unless the storm is particularly ferocious, the cooler temperatures, quieter roads and the sharper colours of scenery around you are worth getting a little damp for.

See also Emma's guide to cycle camping and Stephen Lord's guide to choosing a (waterproof!) tent.

Emma Philpott is a world-curious New Zealander who packed up London life to cycle back to New Zealand in March 2010, boyfriend in tow. After spending winter in Istanbul, they will continue travelling east during 2011 towards Russia, Mongolia, China and South-East Asia. You can follow her adventures on her Rolling Tales blog.

See Emma's other articles for Freewheeling France


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