The shortest days of the year have arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, which also means that the rainy season is in full swing in many areas. For some, it's hibernation time, a time to increase the caloric intake, binge on Netflix, and let the bike sit, untouched, in a corner until the sun decides to show its face again. Others become Zwifters, the denizens of the online cycling world, battling away against their virtual competitors from the comfort of their basements. And then there are the riders who aren't going to let a little (or a lot) of rain dampen their spirits, riders who have cracked the code and figured out how to have a good time outside, even when building an ark seems like it would be a smarter activity.
Interested in joining those hearty souls? Here are eight tips and tricks that will help to make those journeys out into the deluge as enjoyable as possible.
1. Front Fender
It's no fun being forced to spend an evening trying to coax chunks of mud and pine needles out of your eyeballs, which is why a simple front fender is a must-have accessory. There are a variety of options out there, but the basic concept is the same – a flexible piece of plastic is zip-tied or Velcroed to your fork's legs and brake arch, preventing the stream of mucky water that comes off the front wheel from hitting you in the face.
2. Metallic Brake Pads
Many brake sets come with organic pads as the stock configuration, a fact that I still find baffling. Yes, they are a little quieter in dry conditions, but they also wear out faster, aren't as consistent during sustained braking, and most of all, perform extremely poorly when they're wet. Swap out those pads for a set of metallic ones and you'll be rewarded with improved braking performance, increased pad life, and the ability to actually stop when you want to while riding in wet weather.
3. Goggles / Glasses
Even with a fender installed it's still a good idea to have some sort of eye protection in place to keep the flying mud and pouring rain at bay. Clear lenses are a must – when there's no sun, the only thing a tinted lens does is make it harder to see the tree that's rushing at your face.
If you decide to go the goggle route, it's worth taking a look at how much replacement lenses cost, since that mud will inevitably lead to scratches, no matter how careful you are. The same thing goes for sunglasses – shelling out hundreds of dollars for a set of glasses with clear lenses isn't going to be worth it when there are more economical options available at your local hardware store, although the cheaper options do tend to be more prone to fogging up.
I typically ditch the glasses or goggles when I'm climbing, and don them for the descents, which helps keep them fog-free for as long as possible. What about running tear-offs or roll-off lenses? Well, unless you're the kind of person that tosses your empty soda cans out the car window, skip the tear-offs altogether – they inevitably end up as trailside litter, and that's never a good thing. Roll-offs can be useful, but if you're not racing, it's just as easy to stop every once in a while to clean the mud off your lenses – a quick spritz of water and a wipe with a cloth or the inside of a goggle bag usually does the trick.
4. Proper Tires
The arrival of fall and winter rains means that it's time to take off that fast-rolling semi-slick that you installed at the beginning of summer and replaced it with something meatier for more gripping and less slipping. Proper tire choice will depend on your location – what works for the loamy mud of the Pacific Northwest may not be the best choice for the the slippery, greasy soil found somewhere like Champery.
Full-on mud spikes can be an option, at least as a front tire, but that'll depend on how often you'll be encountering rocks or roots. A softer compound rubber can also help provide increased traction in slippery conditions, as can running slightly lower tire pressures than you would on dry, hardpacked trails.
Spikes are best when they can dig into the soil – put them on a solid surface and that confidence-inspiring traction slips away. In the Pacific Northwest, the classic Maxxis Minion DHF or DHR II will work year round, but when the heavens really open up, I'm a fan of running a tire that resembles a cut-down mud spike up front, whether that's a Specialized Hillbilly, Continental Der Baron, Maxxis Shorty, or something similar.
5. Appropriate Apparel
A waterproof, breathable shell is a worthwhile investment, but you don't need to go too crazy – remember, you only need something that will keep you relatively dry while you cruise a few hours; it's unlikely you'll end up trying to tackle Everest while wearing the same jacket. Look for a jacket with pit or chest zippers – no matter how breathable a jacket may be, you'll likely find yourself looking for even more ventilation on long climbs.
In the summertime it's easy to get away with wearing a cotton t-shirt instead of a synthetic jersey, but when it's cold and wet out it's best to stick with synthetic or wool layers. They'll help wick your sweat away, which will keep you drier and warmer. Even if your shoes aren't waterproof a pair of wool socks will go a long way towards helping you maintain feeling in your toes.
On really wet days I'll bring two pairs of gloves, one for the climb and one for the descent, or sometimes I'll stash my gloves in my pocket or pack and go gloveless until it's time to descend. Yes, there are waterproof, windproof, and insulated options out there, but I still haven't come across any that match my preference for having as little material between my hands and the bar as possible, and as long as it's above freezing I'll stick with the same thin gloves I wear in the summer.
Everyone's different, though, so some experimentation will be necessary to figure out the exact layering system that works for you. There's also the temperature and terrain to consider – in the Pacific Northwest there tends to be a thick tree cover, which keeps some of the wind and rain at bay. That's in contrast to some of the more open terrain in Scotland or other similar areas, where there's minimal shelter, and entire rides are spent fully exposed to the elements.
6. Flat Pedals
I regularly switch back and forth between clipless pedals and flats, but when things are really sloppy I usually bust out the Five Tens and flat pedals. It's a good way to brush up on some skills, it's much easier to take a foot off, and there's nothing to get clogged with mud.
Of course, flat pedals aren't a requirement by any means, but at the very least you may want to look for a clipless pedal with some sort of platform around the mechanism. That way there's a place to rest your foot if you can't clip in right away.
7. Adjusted Expectations
Remember those long summer rides, the ones where you blissfully pedaled for hours and hours without worrying about the sun setting, or succumbing to hypothermia all by yourself deep in the woods? Those happy memories can give you something to look forward to, but keep in mind that it's not going to be all sunshine and rainbows when you go out for a mucky late-season ride. The sun has a tendency to slip away before you know it, if it shows up at all, which means it's not a bad idea to pack a light in your pack, even if a night ride isn't in your plans.
It's also best to approach riding in inclement weather with an open mind, and be prepared to adapt accordingly. Rather than trying to set a speed record, maybe it's time to fine-tune those technical climbing skills – after all, if you can clean a section when it's shining with slug-snot, just think how easy it will be when the sun returns. Or what about heading out for a trail maintenance / exploratory mission? Toss a small folding saw in your pack and take care of the smaller fallen trees and branches that you come across, and unclog any blockages that are keeping trails from draining properly. You'll still get a ride in, plus you'll get bonus points for doing a bit of maintenance.
8. A Post-Ride Cleaning Routine
Ok, you survived your journey out into the storm, but now you're back home, cold, wet, and covered with mud. Developing an effective post-ride cleaning routine is key to making the transition from the outside to the inside world as easy as possible. Everyone's different, but after really sloppy rides I'll typically rinse off my bike while I'm still wearing my muddy gear.
Next, I'll turn the hose on myself, spraying the mud off my shorts, jacket, shoes, etc... Having a towel and a laundry bag for those soggy clothes nearby is handy – wrap up in the towel, toss the wet clothes into the bag and make your way inside. This is where a boot drier is especially handy – put those soggy kicks and your gloves on the drier now, and your feet and hands will thank you the next time you head out for a ride.
Disclaimer: When it comes to wet weather riding, there's a short phrase that pretty much covers all the bases: "Don't be an idiot." If you live in a location where the soil turns into a gloppy, sticky mess after only a little bit of precipitation, it's best to give the trails time to dry out rather than risk damaging them. Ask your local bike shop or trail organization for suggestions about where to ride when it's wet and sloppy.
The rainy season is also usually the prime time for trail building and maintenance – don't be afraid to trade out those bike shoes for some work boots and give back to the trails.