Friday, February 7, 2014

Bicycling in the Rain, or How To Be an Idiot


With rain finally upon us (relieving for now a terrible drought here in the Bay Area), it’s time to talk about this ridiculous practice of riding a bicycle in the rain for fun and fitness.  I don’t mean getting caught in the rain, which can happen to any cyclist, or commuting in the rain, which is a noble activity that can involve fenders and such.  I’m talking about making a conscious decision to ride in the rain, which I did last Sunday, to my great misery.

This post should appeal to those with a yen for schadenfreude (look, two words—almost in a row— borrowed from another language!).  You can also read here about the strange notion of the "Reverse Murphy," and about why a cyclist who braves bad weather should never, ever begin to believe he's tough or something.  At the end I even have a surprising get-warm-quick recipe.

The idiocy of riding in crummy weather

For an amateur cyclist to train in bad weather is an affectation, like when a Master's racer dopes.  I mean, if you’re doing this sport as a hobby, and you’re not trying to make a living at it, there’s no point making yourself more miserable than necessary just to be better prepared for racing in crummy weather (which you should also avoid). I doubt you get better at tolerating cold with practice anyway. And, you’ll get a better workout on an indoor trainer, if you can handle the tedium. (Click here for motivational and logistical trips on training indoors.)

Besides, there’s the bike to think about.  Brake pads will usually last years if you only ride in dry weather, but in one or two wet rides (especially if your terrain is hilly, like mine) you can burn halfway through a pair.  Then there’s the time spent cleaning up your drivetrain; if you have that much time to kill, you should be training more, or—better yet—doing something truly worthwhile.  And if you go mountain biking in the rain, you severely damage the trail and basically sand away your drivetrain with all that grit.

So why did I ride?

Last Saturday night, I gave my bike a tune-up.  I filed the shellac off my new brake pads, cleaned everything up, and got my chain and cogs clean enough to eat off of.  I mixed up a couple bottles of energy drink for a Mount Diablo assault the next morning.  All this, even though I was certain it was going to rain.

Why was I certain?  After all, Accuweather said there was only a 25% chance of rain.  Well, it was simple Murphy’s Law:  whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.  And since I’d done such a nice job tuning up my bike, it had to rain.

Okay, so why didn’t I bail in advance, like the smartest of us four guys who had planned to ride together?  It’s because of this terrible drought we’ve been having.  It’s only rained once since last spring, and just barely.  All the liberals around here have been self-flagellating about it for two months.  So I figured I’d pull a Reverse-Murphy.  That is, I would cause it to rain—much as you’d do with a rain dance or cloud seeding—by tuning up my bike.  If I backed out of the ride, the drought would continue.

Being stupid in the rain

I woke up at 5:45 a.m. and went out on my porch.  No rain yet, but the wind in the trees was making a very specific sound, a slightly clattery whir that always means rain is imminent.  At about 6:30 I checked my e-mail; Todd had written, “My rain dance didn’t work (again), so Northside here I come.”  I figured he’d only looked out the window, and hadn’t noticed the special pre-rain breeze.

Fifteen minutes later I checked my e-mail again.  “Whoops,” Todd wrote.  “My rain dance worked after all.  Back to bed.”  Classic last-minute flakage but it wasn’t inappropriate … he’d signed on for this ride at the last minute anyway.  What I was looking for was an e-mail from Craig, who lives on the other side of the hills, an hour away from the coffee shop where we met.  Had he written, “It’s raining and frigid so I’m turning around,” I’d have probably bailed.  But no e-mail from Craig, meaning he was evidently well underway and toughing it out.  To stand him up and make him spend another miserable solo hour getting home while the rest of us slept … I couldn’t do that to a pal. 

I almost left on time, but when I got outside and found myself pummeled by some very big, very cold raindrops, I suddenly felt the urge to, uh, take care of post-digestive matters one more time.  You know about OCD; have you heard of its cousin, OCB?  Obsessive-Compulsive Bowels?  By the time I’d stripped off all my layers, done my business, and suited back up, I was running good and late.

I held out some hope that I’d roll up to the coffee shop and Craig wouldn’t be there.  I’d had this same hope on a similar winter morning in the early ‘90s when meeting up with my friend Trevor; when I saw him there, shivering in the rain, I thought, “Damn you to hell!”  He was, as he freely admitted, no happier to see me.

Of course Craig did show.  We steamed up Spruce Street, a nice uphill, and weren’t too cold then, but by the time we finished descending the east side of Wildcat Canyon Road to Orinda, we were completely drenched and miserable.  It was about 40 degrees out.  (I know, to most of the U.S. that’s downright balmy, but we Californians are a bunch of pansies.  Our routinely great weather makes us soft.) 

My shins felt like they’d been encased in ice.  I told Craig I’d escort him home but Mount Diablo was out of the question.  (A ten-mile descent in such weather would be the end of me.)  He suggested we ride out on the flats to Danville and then he could drive me home.  Drive me home?!  What would come next?  Aromatherapy and a subscription to “O, The Oprah Magazine”?  No way.

Riding home—the second hour of my ride—I just got colder and colder.  My feet felt like they were big blocks of ice.  The fingers of my fleece gloves became grotesquely distended with the wet, and when I wiped my nose I could taste all the salt the gloves had absorbed from sweat over the years, now carried away by the water.  Same with my helmet pads, though the water dripping from them also had a chemical taste.  My hands barely worked; shifting to a bigger cog was easy (swinging the palm of my hand like a hammer) but I could hardly click the smaller lever.  Most of all, I was too cold to even pedal hard, perhaps because my very spirit was waterlogged , soggy, and saggy.

I am not a hard man

When I was a teenager, I had this Coors Classic poster on my wall.  The cyclist pictured had thighs that literally gleamed.  Look, here it is now:

I’m going to admit something now.  In those years, riding in the mountains west of Boulder meant getting caught in thunderstorms not infrequently, and when I did, my legs—being wet—would gleam, and I would pretend I was the guy in the poster.  Laugh all you want, but haven’t you also fallen prey to mild narcissism at some point in your life?  It helped me brave some storms, anyway.  I wasn’t yet wise enough to be humble.

Well, I am now.   Slogging home through that incessant rain, I was too miserable, and feeling too sorry for myself, to feel like a badass.  I just felt stupid and lame.  I think it’s funny when some cycling fan bags on Cadel Evans for seeming a bit whiny during post-race interviews.  Did you see Evans in the Giro d’Italia last year?  (If not, click here or here for a blow-by-blow recap.)  Throughout the Giro it was raining most of the time, and snowing the rest of the time, and those poor guys had to not only brave the weather, but endure all the normal stress and strain of racing all-out.  I’d be bawling like a little girl after just one day of that, to say nothing of doing it for three weeks.  So I cut Evans plenty of slack.

And yet, even pro bike racers are nothing compared to 19th century sailors.   I’ve been reading Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr., about his voyage around Cape Horn back in the early 1830s, in a ~100-foot merchant brig, and man, those guys knew how to suffer.  After all, they never had a choice.  Whenever the wind changed, which was pretty much a constant thing, they had to take in one sail or another, doing all kinds of complicated stuff with the rigging in all kinds of weather, day and night. 

For example, on one particularly stormy winter night near Cape Horn, the wind 
came on to blow worse and worse, with hail and snow beating like so many furies upon the ship, it being as dark and thick as night could make it.  The mainsail was blowing and slatting with a noise like thunder....  The yard over which we lay was cased with ice ... the sail itself about as pliable as though it had been made of sheets of sheathing copper.  It blew a perfect hurricane, with alternate blasts of snow, hail, and rain.  We had to fist the sail with bare hands.  No one could trust himself to mittens, for if he slipped, he was a gone man....  Frequently we were obliged to leave off altogether and take to beating our hands upon the sail, to keep them from freezing.
As cold as I was on my stupid little ride, I knew I’d be home in an hour or so, and the furnace would be going, and I’d have a hot shower and plenty to eat.  These guys?  They didn’t have a hot shower for over two years.  They’d go days or even weeks without dry clothes.  To eat they got nothing but salt beef, hard bread, and (on Sundays) a bit of duff (basically a steamed flour/water pudding).

At least last year’s luckless Giro riders didn’t have to worry about scurvy:  
The scurvy had begun to show itself on board.  One man had it so badly as to be disabled and off duty, and the English lad, Ben, was in a dreadful state, and was daily growing worse.  His legs swelled and pained him so that he could not walk; his flesh lost its elasticity, so that if it was pressed in, it would not return to its shape; and his gums swelled until he could not open his mouth.  His breath, too, became very offensive; he lost all strength and spirit; could eat nothing; grew worse every day; and, in fact, unless something was done for him, would be a dead man in a week, at the rate at which he was sinking.  [After encountering another ship, and being given a whole bunch of onions], we carried them forward, stowed them away in the forecastle, refusing to have them cooked, and ate them raw, with our beef and bread.... It was like a scent of blood to a hound.  We ate them at every meal, by the dozen; and filled our pockets with them, to eat in our watch on deck.
Imagine sharing a tiny forecastle with a bunch of unwashed sailors, and getting diseased breath so awful that the constant eating of raw onions is actually an improvement.  What a place to return to after slaving away with frozen rigging on an iced-over deck for four hours at a time.  Needless to say, absolutely nothing involving a white collar middle-aged man in Lycra doing a winter bicycle ride in California could possibly compare.

How to warm up

I got home, dragged my bike up the steps to the porch, and stood there a moment wondering how I was going to manage to dig past the gels, the tool kit, and the bags of drink mix in my jersey pocket to fish out my house key.  Fortunately my wife heard me from inside and opened the door.  A blast of warm air hit me.  It took me a few minutes to remove my shoes and I rolled my bike, which was dripping black filth, down to the garage.  I couldn’t shower right away for fear of chilblains on my lily white feet.  You can see my feet weren’t doing very well:

I huddled over a heater vent for at least twenty minutes before my teeth stopped chattering.  I don’t remember what I ate but it wasn’t hot cocoa; I wasn’t in the mood.  I guess I’d have felt like a girl scout or something.  Once, after getting stuck in the rain and snow on a Diablo ride, I came home and ate some rollmops, just to embrace my northern European heritage.  (What?  You haven’t heard of  rollmops?  It’s raw herring wrapped around a dill pickle.)  But on this morning I was too dejected by the futility of it all to play games with food and we didn’t have any herring anyway.

What I didn’t consider until much later, when my brain had thawed out, was that to warm up properly I should have done what the sailors in Dana’s book did: 
Throughout the night it stormed violently—rain, hail, and snow, and the sleet beating upon the vessel—the wind continuing ahead, and the sea running high.  At day-break (about three, A.M.) the deck was covered with snow.  The captain sent up the steward with a glass of grog to each of the watch; and all the time that we were off the Cape, grog was given to the morning watch, and to all hands whenever we reefed topsails.
What is grog?  It’s basically watered-down rum, named after Admiral Vernon of the Royal Navy, who was nicknamed Old Grog after the grogram fabric of his coat.  (The word “groggy” stems from “grog.”) 

So, when I had some friends over a few nights later, I found a few (widely divergent) grog recipes, did some improvising, and made up some good grog—so good, in fact, I had to make a second batch.  Here’s the grog recipe I worked out (this makes one generous serving):

1½ to 2 oz. dark rum
½ ounce lime juice
1 tsp sugar
1 small dollop of molasses
4 oz. water

In a pot on the stove, heat the water to a boil.  Kill the heat.  Stir in the sugar until it dissolves.  (You could use brown sugar instead of sugar and molasses.)  Put in everything else and stir well.  Serve hot.  Do not garnish with an orange slice or a cinnamon stick, because do you think those totally badass sailors ever went in for fricking garnish?

The best part of this (admittedly inauthentic) grog?  Due to the lime juice, you won’t get scurvy!


If we’d stuck to our original plan and ridden up Mount Diablo, we’d have been snowed on.  Look! 


  1. Brilliant. Especially liked the inclusion of the Dana excerpts. I feel better already about being inside and warm today.

  2. I perused this just before heading into the Pineapple Express for a nice long rainy ride. I wondered, fleetingly, if I was an idiot. I think you've missed one key point: Riding in the rain is FUN! The trick is to wear enough (but not too many) items of clothing.
    If, like me, you've gone up Tunnel Rd 10,000,000 times, there's nothing like gusting avalanches of rain to add novelty to the experience.

    1. Well, riding in the rain can be fun if it's not winter and 40 degrees. If you enjoy that, there could be something wrong with you. You might want to have that checked out... ;-)