Bicycling in the Rain in Southern California

Here in Southern California, it generally only rains in the winter months, and even then it’s usually sporadic enough for me to plan my cycling days around the rain.  But this week we’re in the second day of six predicted straight days of rain.  Most of the local cyclists retreat to the dread of a stationary indoor trainer, but if people in the bike-friendly northwest can ride in the rain, then why can’t I?  Furthermore, with my multi-day tours, such as my ride across the USA, not riding in the rain means a forced layover day in a small town motel room and a day behind schedule.  Also, while I don’t ride ultra events like George, I still think it’s a good idea to know one’s limits with respect to the weather and how to deal with them, which he saved me the trouble of explaining. 🙂  So I thought I’d share some tips that have been helpful for me.

A Google search will reveal a lot of excellent sites, such as this one, with advice for riding in the rain, so I won’t attempt to duplicate (well, not too much) what others have written.  Instead, I’ll try to tailor my advice toward Southern California.

Bike: Unless you want it to get thrashed from the road grit, keep the race bike in the garage. I have a second road bike that I use for rain/touring/commuting, with enough clearance to install fenders. Yes, fenders are geeky, but they keep the dirt and water splashed up from the road off you and your bike.  Front and rear lights are a good idea too. When you get home, wipe the chain dry so that it doesn’t rust, and relube it. If I can, I also like to quickly hose off the tires and rims to get rid of the road grit which accumulates there.

Riding Technique: It’s well summarized on other sites, so I won’t say too much here. In general, if you keep straight and minimize lateral movements you’ll be OK – though watch for slippery surfaces such as manhole covers, railroad tracks, and painted lines. Don’t take the corners as hard as you would in dry conditions. Finally, braking distance (for rim brakes) is reduced due to wet rims – “feather” the brakes to clear the water off the rims first, and even then be careful not to apply too much rear brake and skid the rear wheel.

Jacket: Unless you’re racing and you want people to see your jersey underneath, don’t bother with the clear plastic jackets, as they’ll be too hot. Instead, find a jacket that will keep you dry but has zippered armpit and other vents to let your body heat out, as well as a rear drop flap. I’m wearing a Burley rain jacket in the photo above, but something like a Novara Stratos or a Showers Pass jacket, both available at REI, should do the trick.

Booties: I have a pair of lightweight Burley rain booties to keep my feet dry, but I don’t know where to find something comparable locally. I’ve seen plenty of neoprene booties at Performance and REI, but those will get a little warm around here.

Pants: In a very light rain I can get away with wearing tights, but I’ve found a pair of lightweight rain pants to be best. I use the Novara Express pants from REI.  I’m happy with them because even though I’m tall, they’re long enough to cover the tops of my rain booties, keeping the water from going into my feet.

Headwear: I know cyclists in the Pacific Northwest may wear a helmet cover, but I haven’t found it necessary with the warmer rains in Southern California.

Downpours/Thunderstorms: Lightning is the biggest issue for cyclists, as they are an easy target, though lightning is usually not an issue in Southern California. When riding across the USA during the summer, I would try to get most of my miles in the morning, which would give me enough time to sit out the afternoon thunderstorms. Also, if I can, I try to seek shelter from downpours, since they often pass quick and can be waited out.

Final Thoughts (updated): In discussions after I originally posted the above, some local cyclists have expressed safety concerns about riding in the rain. Though I don’t deny that rain is less safe than dry conditions, I don’t think that means riding in the rain rises to the level of unsafe. It’s easy to complain that motorists here don’t know how to drive in the rain, but as long as I’ve made sure I’m visible (and I do have lights in the rain to help with that) I’ve never had any close calls. It’s only when rain has been accompanied by additional hazards such as fog, wind, or flooding (such as in the latter days of the December storms) where I’d likely wait for the weather to pass.

But what I find strange is that the same people who won’t ride in the rain around here have no problem with riding on a foggy morning or in the canyons when there’s Santa Ana winds strong enough to blow you off the bike. I daresay that riding in the rain is safer than fog or strong winds any day!

By the way, I rode three days out of those six straight days of rain. I learned that my ten year old rain jacket had started losing its water resistant qualities, so I bought some Nikwax at REI to rejuvenate it, and now it works great again!