We had a little rain here this weekend in NorCal. As much as we enjoy the velcro traction the first rains of the season bring, after watching more than a few riders go down when they hit slippery roots, foot bridges, and rocks, we thought that we’d better drag out our Bikeskills article on Wet Weather Riding Tips.
Some of us just can’t wait for the dust to be gone in order to hit the best mountain biking riding conditions of the year: ah those first rains!
For others, fall is the time they start coming back to mountain biking because their summer activities are winding down. Still others use fall and winter mountain biking as way to either get in to or stay in shape. But if you’re one of those that think the wet and cold season’s onset means putting the mountain bike away till spring, we’ve got news and “how tos” for you!
So regardless of what your angle is, make the most of what many of think is the best time to mountain bike by creating the hot set up. And don’t worry: you don’t need to go off the deep end when it comes to planning and or changing things; a little bit of time and effort now will pay off not just in more fun, but will help you stay comfortable, and unnecessary wear and tear on your equipment – and yourself – as well.”
If there’s a single thing that you should take a look at when it comes to wet weather riding it’s your bike’s tires. Most riders are aware that tires with either closely spaced or shallow “knobs” tend to fill up with mud, but what is equally important – if not more so – is tire “compound” specifically what is known as reboundThe technical term for how fast or slow a tire’s rubber rebounds is hysteresis. The “faster” the tire rebounds, the less friction it tends to have compared to one that rebounds more slowly. Friction means a loss of energy so as long as the traction is good, relatively hard, fast rebounding tires are fine. But when the traction starts to go – usually when the first drop of water lands on that root in front of you – there are relatively new technology solutionsthat can and will make a huge difference in your ability to control your bike in low-traction situations. And since more control means more safety, and more fun, we like slow rebound tires, especially during the fall and winter!
On the left is a typical cross country race tire. Not good for wet conditions in general. While the middle tire has a more aggressive tread pattern, when it’s wet and sticky, you’ll need a more “open” tread pattern like the tire on the right.
Bicycle tire manufacturers call slow rebound tires either “sticky”, “slow”, or even “slow rebound”, compound. Don’t confuse slow rebound or sticky tires with soft or low “durometer” tire compounds. Sticky and slow are different characteristics and qualities than soft and low durometer. However, some soft tires are also slow rebound as well. Additionally, some tire companies now have “dual compound” tires that have“fast rolling” low friction center strips and slow rebound, softer compounds on the sides where you need it most during turns, at strange angles, etc. For most trail riding and cross country bikes and riding, dual compound tires tend to offer the best overall solution to wet weather and other low traction conditions.
If you don’t want to get a new set of tires, at least think seriously about getting a slow rebound, or dual compound front tire. As Joe Lawwill says, “as long as my front tire makes it, I’ve got a pretty good chance of getting me and the bike there as well…” Put a slow rebound, sticky tire on the front of your bike and you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.
Some types of soil and riding conditions also require tires with other characteristics. If you ride in mud that tends to stick and cake to things, you’ll need tires with fewer, widely spaced, deep knobs. But there are a couple of things to consider. The first is that mud tires tend to be narrower than normal to allow them to sink down and find traction: so go down a size in width compared to your summer treads. Additionally, keep in mind that if you get tires with widely spaced knobs, riding them on the street, or even rocky abrasive trails will wear those expensive things down at an incredible rate.
If you have disc brakes then the winter doesn’t present the braking problems it used to for cantilever and v-brake equipped bikes. But if you’re still using rim brakes, there are several things to think about, the first being pad and rim wear. Most mountain bikers know that brake pads wear out. Fewer are aware that not only do the pads wear the rim sidewalls out, but with enough wear, the rims can catastrophically fail which we don’t need to tell you is not good. Make sure you check your rims for wear anytime you change your brake pads and especially before you start riding in the rain or wet conditions as rain and dirt combine to create grit that will wear the rims (and pads) at a very rapid rate
If you don’t know what to look for, take your bike to your local bike shop and have a mechanic look it over. When it comes to the correct brake pad, ask for pads for wet weather riding. They’ll last longer, but be aware that they won’t have as much stopping power in dry conditions because the pads are much harder. Thinking of stopping power, remember that when you first apply your brakes when it’s wet out, they first have to “squee-gee” the water between the rim and the brake pad before they engage and slow you down. In other words, rim brake performance is far worse wet than when dry.
Rim, or “V-brakes” on the left. Not good when wet. Mechanical discs (middle image) have “wire” cables running from the levers to the calipers on the wheels whereas the hydraulic brakes on the right have hoses filled with brake fluid which keep out the dirt and minimize maintenance issues.
Those with disc brakes, you’re not aren’t automatically home free. If you’re going to be riding long, sustained downhill trails, make sure that you have the right kind of pads. Pad compounds differ and some pads can cause excessive heat build up. Again, if you’re not sure what you have or need, run, ride, or drive down to your local bike shops and ask the people who do know. For most other riding conditions, the pads you use in the summer will work just fine.
Got mechanical disc brakes? Then make sure you either replace and at least clean your cables as dirt and grit will not only degrade lever feel and response, but cause powerful disc brakes to be erratic, or even cause them to lock up at times when you rather they didn’t. And although hydraulic disc brakes have sealed “lines” make sure you take a look at them every now and then for leaks that are a lot easier to spot while it’s still dry out there.
If you haven’t had your bike tuned up for a year or so, now is an excellent time to do so. In particular, items like hubs, pedals, and headsets need periodic maintenance that includes cleaning and re-lubing. A few bucks spent now will prevent damaging even destroying expensive components and on trail failure can lead to long walks or worse. Cleaning and repacking hubs, headsets, and pedals is one of those jobs that’s both messy and time consuming. It’s also something that requires skill. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself, by now you know what I’m going to say: take you bike to your local bike mechanic.
The biggest and constant wet water lubrication challenge is the chain. The only way we’ve found to solve the problem is the same advice about drinking while riding: early and often, don’t wait until you feel symptoms of dehydration. With chains, it’s same: early and often, don’t wait until you hear a noisy chain or see rust forming.
We like really thick chain lubes for wet conditions. There are a number of light, spray lubes like Boeshield that will protect the “other” parts of your bike when it gets wet. There are special waterproof greases made just for bikes. And before you put a wet, muddy bike away, make sure you clean it, dry it, and re-apply more lubrication. Citrus based cleaners work well but grease-cutting dish washing detergents and warm water get the job done as well.
Whether you use a higher viscosity (stickier, thicker) lube, a so-called “dry” (usually paraffin based), or one of the many products that claim to work miracles and last eons, is up to you. One thing you should always do though is to bring a small amount of whatever chain lube you use on the ride, especially when it’s raining or wet out.
You might not think handle bar grips are an important control and safety item, and usually they’re not, not until they starting slipping anyway…. And by and large, most “slip-on” grips will slip and rotate when they get wet underneath. There are few things more frustrating than being in the middle of a great, ripping, single-track ride that you can’t really enjoy it because your grips are slipping and spinning!
For years people tried everything from hair spray, weather strip adhesive, paint, to paraffin chain lube (go figure…) to keep grips from slipping but. We were never able to find a one of them that worked. But these days there’s a better mousetrap: grips that have “collars” that can be cinched down to the handlebars and as far as we know, simply can’t, won’t, and don’t slip. They cost a few bucks more than regular grips but add a huge measure of control and safety and are the only kind we use.
The slip-on grip on the left will spin when it gets wet enough. The clamp-on grip in the middle is a lower cost alternative to the screw on type on the right that uses aluminum collars and has replaceable rubber inserts. Both type clamp-ons will keep the grips firmly secured to the bar.
What to Wear
When it comes to cooler and wetter weather, there are three things to think about: staying warm, staying dry, and protecting yourself from more treacherous conditions.
Warm isn’t as straightforward as it seems. If you dress to warmly during climbs you tend to sweat. Sweat is water no matter how bad it smells and will soak clothes – including the so-called wicking fabrics. And if you take layers off, unless you have a place to store them, they can become either a hazard, get wet, or lost. We solve the problem by wearing packs that are at least water resistant and always bring a lightweight, waterproof jacket of some sort during the cold and wet season. Keep any other extra layers in a plastic bag and they’ll stay dry as well. If you think the temp may really drop on the way down, think about tossing in some ski gloves and maybe even some toe warmers in that pack. Remember, if you lose feeling in your hands, you’re going to lose the ability to maintain control of your bike.
Since it doesn’t get all that cold here in Northern California, staying dry presents a bigger problem for us that staying warm. That said, we’ve never found a way to stay completely dry without changing clothes! Dr. Steve Sussman taught us all a good trick for staying dry: he always keeps a tightly packed “base layer” in a plastic bag in his pack. It weighs just a few ounces and takes up almost no space, and represents the only sure fire way to be dry again. Why didn’t we think of that?
While staying 100% dry is a huge challenge, it’s easier to stay comfortable and avoid getting the chills.
First up is a good rain jacket. Get one that’s truly, guaranteed, waterproof. Don’t get a thick, heavy, or insulated jacket but rather the thinnest, lightest one you can. You’ll wear and pack it more often and if you need more warmth, layer up underneath; use the jacket to stay dry, and resist the effects of the wind, not to maintain body heat. Also, make sure the jacket has a long tail, specifically for cycling or water and dirt will come off your rear tire and get in to your shorts and that’s no fun. Oh, and make sure that the jacket arms are also “cycling cut” so you can extend them fully without the jacket material binding anywhere.
A good rain jacket not only has multiple, waterproof membranes, but, has a long tail to keep the mud and water out. Waterproof pants must be relative snug around the lower leg or they’ll end up in your chain. Cold, wet hands are numb, dangerous hands: get some waterproof gloves. Clear lensed, impact resistant glasses are an absolute must.
Waterproof pants are a good thing to have as well. There again, get material that is truly waterproof and make sure they’re made for biking as hiking, running and other types of clothing may not be reinforced or cut in a way to either last or allow comfortable cycling range of motion. And make sure you have something (like a Velcro strap) to keep that drive side pant leg out of the chain and chain rings!
There are all sorts of special cold and wet weather gear items. Go to your local bike shop and check out everything from Gore Tex socks to waterproof helmet liners to anti-fogging fluids for your eye protection.
Things tend to happen a lot faster when the terrain gets wet and slippery. With that in mind, how about a little protection? We’re always surprised that so few people wear anything other than the shorts, gloves, and half-helmet trio while mountain biking. But when it comes to aggressive riding, dangerous terrain, or during inclement weather conditions, you should really think about some very basic, lightweight, protective gear. We’re not talking about the mutant ninja turtle suits down hill racers wear, rather something along the lines of a pair of lightweight, comfortable elbow protectors and some knee and shin guards to go along with them. There are even a few, very lightweight, full and “convertible” full/half face helmets on the market that could prevent, or minimize potential, serious facial injuries as well.
The knee and elbow pads on the left and center are both light and comfortable yet will protect you from minor injuries caused by hitting rocks, tree branches, etc. And current generation full-face helmets are both lightweight and have exceptional venting to keep you from overheating.
Wet weather rides can be either the most fun or miserable you’ve ever had. It’s all about preparation… well, preparation and the right mental attitude. So get prepared, get yourself in the right frame of mind and get out and stay out there!
Here’s are a couple of videos that focus on some of wet weather riding’s most difficult challenges:
Tara Llanes Helps You Handle Slippery Roots, Rocks, and Water Crossings
Jiro Nakamrua with Some Basic Tips on Wet Weather Riding