Tag Archives: rain

A Rainy Day Escape

What a lovely ride it was in the rain this morning – a cool drizzle sifting out of the sky, the pavement glistening and every rustle, chirp and whisper carrying clearly in the dampness. It is wonderful the way a quiet rain can magnify sound and carry it surprising distances. All the way across the marshes I could hear the waterfowl gabbling and twitting in the reeds and tall grasses, the faint hum of an occasional car miles, away on the A-259, and the even more distant toot of a train – so many intriguing, ear-catching sounds I was continually looking around, half-expecting to find that I wasn’t alone after all on the old road.

But I was. It was just me, all alone on the darkened marsh road with that gentle rain pattering down all around. I loved it. The best part came when I hit the seafront, deserted at that hour, and spun along it listening to the soothing wash of waves over shingle.  It was gentle, rhythmic, wonderfully soft and full and luxuriant – more like the soundtrack for a tropical escape than a spin along a faded English seafront. Listening to it as I tooled along the promenade sent my mind rambling down memory lane, to many another beach and seafront, to old summers and escapes and times past, and made this a particularly rich and rewarding ride.

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A Very English Drought

When I read in the news this morning that Sussex remains in a state of drought I found myself growing rather wistful for Australia, where I lived for many years and where they know how to do a drought properly or at least in a way that makes sense to me. Until I moved to England I’d always though of droughts as extended periods of arid cloudless skies and unbroken sunshine. Certainly that’s the way that John Steinbeck describes the onset of the drought that blighted 1930s Oklahoma in the opening chapter of Grapes of Wrath, with the sinewy, sun-bronzed farmers gazing into the pale blue skies day after day looking for any sign, any tantalizing hint, of rain and slowly losing hope. That’s the kind of drought I can understand. The kind they had in the Bible. They kind they still have in outback Australia.

Who ever heard of a drought where it rains nearly every day; where you seldom see the sun; where every time you go out for a bike ride you get wet and have to hang your cycling things up in the airing cupboard to dry out; where your front door gets stuck in the frame because of all the constant seeping of dampness into the wood; where you can never hang the laundry out; where your grass grows long enough to need mowing but you can’t do it because the ground’s too soft and muddy? That’s an English drought.

To be sure, what rain we’ve had hasn’t exactly bucketed down with monsoonal intensity. Apparently that’s the trouble: although it’s damp and rainy every day we’ve not had sufficient inches of rainfall to fill the reservoirs and top-up groundwater levels. Daily drizzle and intermittent showers, even long slow dreary weeks of them, aren’t enough to do the trick. Neither do weeks of suicide skies and raw blustery winds; they just set a mood. My mood’s been well and truly set. I could do with a change. I’m going to be mighty glad when this very English drought finally breaks or at least expresses itself in some decent traditional manner and we can see a little sunshine now and then.

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Sixty Miles in a Soft English Rain

It’s a bank holiday weekend here in England and as is traditionally the case with bank holiday weekends, the weather is cold and grey and rainy. It seems the wettest and chilliest April in over a hundred years has segued into an even chillier and wetter May, with the low pressure system that appears to have been anchored these isles the past few weeks now raining on everybody’s grand plans for the long weekend – mine included.

I’ve got the place to myself this weekend, the wife and kids having decamped to Spain for a few days to visit an aunt and uncle who retired to the Costa del Sol. I stayed behind to try to wrap up a story I am writing and thereby meet some pressing deadlines, but with all the extra hours and so much quiet on my hands I thought too that I might at least be able to indulge in a longer, more elaborate Sunday ride – maybe take the Pegoretti out for its inaugural outing of the 2012 season and go for a spin up to Beachy Head, a sixty- or eighty-mile loop (depending how I do it) that is particularly delightful on that bike which just seems to soar up hills of its own accord. I had visions of early morning sunshine, soft blue skies, the Hawthorne in bloom along the lanes and everywhere you look that elusive champagne clarity in the light that lets you imagine that you can pick out every detail in the landscape from miles away.

But that’s not what happened. I went out this morning into a cold blue overcast light and a steady rain. I was aboard my winter bike once more – the doughty old Thorn – dressed in winterish mode, and with flashing lights, fore and aft, to signal my presence in the pre-dawn gloom. But you know what? I had a lovely ride. The rain was soft, the air was cool and still, and the Sunday morning quiet gave the rainy-day streetscapes in town and along the seafront promenade a pleasing downbeat quality.

It was curiously seductive too. I hadn’t planned on going far when I first set out but I found myself enjoying this ride through the soft English rain so much that I just kept on pedalling, out across the marshes and over to Beachy Head, doing my sixty-mile loop in spite of myself, and finding in the rain-freshened colours and the picaresque freedom of being out and about on such a quiet rainy Sunday as this the sense of escape I’d been hoping to find all along. By the time I spun back home I felt as though I had been on a holiday.

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Tips for Riding in the Rain

My grandfather used to take the weather very personally as did the postmaster in the little New England village near where we grew up, and often when we went down with him to get the mail we’d end up twiddling our thumbs for an hour while the two of them would strike up long grumbling conversations about the fickleness and downright unfairness of the North Country weather and the gods that controlled it, particularly in those not-infrequent times when we’d get a week or two of cold miserable rainy weather in the middle of what ought to have been high summer.

I can see them in my mind’s eye even now, my grandfather leaning against the old-fashioned wooden counter, swordbill cap in hand, shaking his head and muttering, “You’d think They would give us a break.” Even as a child I used to wonder who in the world he though ‘they’ were, but I was never silly enough to ask. In hindsight, I think he would probably just have laughed – as I do now myself when I hear myself muttering his exact same phrase about the interminable run of blustery weather we’ve been enduring the past couple of weeks: “You’d think They would give us a break!”

Alas, ‘They’ don’t seem to have any plans to because the all the forecasts I’ve read are calling for continued bluster and rain throughout the coming week. So since They probably aren’t going to give us a break – unless it is just to make a liar out of me – I thought I’d put together a few hopefully useful tips for riding in the wet.

Number One – dress appropriately, not just for the chill and rain, but also for the type of cycling you are going to be doing. A race-oriented cyclist out for a hard, fast training ride will not want the same sort of wet-weather gear as a cyclo-tourist who may be out there all day pedalling a laden tourer over hill and dale and then camping in the rain as well. And then there’s the commuter who might be riding only five miles or so to a nice warm office. Everyone’s needs and expectations will be different, and what it comes down to is finding the most suitable-to-you balance of waterproof and breathable.

For a road cyclist, someone out on a reasonably brisk pleasure or training ride, breathability is going to be your most important criteria. Cycling at speed generates a lot of body heat and no fully waterproof garment on the market – GoreTex, eVent or whatever – is going to be able to breath well enough to dissipate that well enough to keep you cool and dry inside. You’re just going to have to accept the fact that you’re going to get wet. So use a lightweight shower-resistant shell to ward off the rain as long as possible, and as a second line of defence wear a jersey made of sportswool or similar fabric and/or a merino base layer underneath. A merino base later is particularly good for keeping you warm even when its wet, is pretty well odour-free and will dry quickly when you return. The saving grace to these kinds of sporty or pleasure rides, even when they are high mileage and last a few hours, is that you know that at the end of it you’re coming home to a hot shower and a change of clothes.

Not so a tourist who may be out in the rain all day and then pitching camp along the roadside somewhere. There you want to stay as dry as possible. Fortunately, touring pace seldom generates anything like the body heat of a race or training ride and so here a good quality waterproof jacket with pit-zips will usually do the trick. At this end of the market, you really do get what you pay for – the more, the better – and so if you are going to be doing a lot of touring in cool wet climates it pays to invest in the best waterproof jacket you can afford. And definitely get one with pit-zips. There isn’t a hi-tech fabric made that doesn’t benefit from extra ventilation. On that score it also helps to go for a looser fitting MBT-cut jacket than a body-hugging race-cut one, again to keep the air circulating inside.

A commuter will have similar needs to a tourist, except here the rides will typically be short with a very definite end point. You want to arrive dry and presentable, even if you do have a change of clothing waiting for you at the office or tucked in your panniers. Here again a good ‘breathable’ waterproof will be your friend. Commuters who ride in street clothes, and along city streets where crosswinds are not likely to be a factor, can get away with an old-fashioned riding cape – if they choose to. These are absolutely waterproof yet highly breathable by virtue of the air circulating under the skirts and they can be worn over anything. They are cheap and they offer the additional advantage of keeping your legs dry as well. I have one – a Carradice oilskin that I throw on occasionally. It’s not bad.

Gloves are important. Nothing drains the pleasure out of a ride faster than cold wet fingers. Finding decent waterproof gloves that keep your hands warm and dry, and yet are still thin enough to give you a good tactile sense over your handlebars, shifters and brakes is like finding the Holy Grail. In my experience there are none that will accomplish all those things, and the compromises you make are purely personal: cold and damp versus warm and dry and trying to steer with a pair of boxing gloves clapped over your hands.

Waterproof trousers are a judgement call. On my morning rides I never bother with them if it’s raining, but instead wear good thermal tights that I can hang up to dry in the airing cupboard when I get back. Touring is another matter. For that I’ll roll up a pair and tuck them in my panniers. I prefer the three-quarter length, since there is less chance of overheating and I don’t worry much about getting my calves wet anyway. Feet and shoes are something else entirely. A pair of neoprene overshoes – preferably something durable enough to walk around in off the bike – is highly desirable. Wet feet are no fun at all and cycling shoes can take ages to dry.

Number two – don’t forget your bike wants a bit of protection from the mud and rain too, so consider installing a set of mudguards. This is easily done if you already have the braze-on eyelets for them, but not at all impossible if you don’t. There are excellent lightweight mudguard sets made by companies such as Crud that can be attached with zip ties and that will do the job perfectly. Not only will the people riding behind you – if you go out in a group – be friendlier to you on a rainy ride if you have mudguards on your bike, your drivetrain will be happier too. Mudguards, particularly front ones with the extra flap hanging down, keep a lot of nasty gunk from being splashed up into your chain.

Number three – bear in mind that your old familiar network of streets and roads that you know so well will be a very different place in the rain. It can be a lot slicker, especially if the rains have come after a long dry spell. Motor vehicles have a nasty habit of leaving residues of oil and exhaust on the bitumen. These build up over time if they are not washed away by regular rains. Consequently the first rain after a dry spell can create some nasty slippery spots that are as well disguised as black ice in winter.

Bearing this in mind, as well as the general hydroplaning possibilities concealed within a thin sheen of water on smooth bitumen, take extra care on the curves. Pick your line and take it nice and smooth and stately. Remember too, as you’re riding along, that the painted markings on the road are going to be slipperier than regular bitumen, and that iron grates and the like can also be very slippery. And never splash through puddles. That pothole concealed by that puddle might be a hell of a lot deeper and rougher than you think it is. Even if you think you know from regular observation how deep a given pothole is, or ought to be, don’t overlook the possibility that all that rain has washed it out and made it worse. Be wary.

Number four – be seen. The greyish gloom of a rainy afternoon is at least as dangerous as riding at night, if not more so. Not only is everything dim and blurry, but motorists will be peering down the road through misty windows and with thumping, smeary wipers obscuring their view. Wearing bright colours, reflective vests, and having LED blinkers flashing fore and aft is a really good way to improve your odds of survival.

And now that I’ve sat down and cranked out more than fifteen hundred words of wisdom on riding in the rain, I look out my window and see that the clouds have parted – momentarily at least – and broad sunshine is streaming down all around. Alas, more rain though is scheduled for tonight, and most particularly in the early hours of tomorrow morning when I go out for my ride. God, you’d think they’d give us a break.

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