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Off-Road Rain Riding in Marin
Danny Forer

In January 1996, I wrote an article, for the Grizzly Peak Cycling (GPC) club newsletter, called "Cats and Dogs", about bike riding in the rain. It was mostly about road riding in the rain. (it is copied below, after this article for anyone interested).

Now, it is 10 years later, and I thought I would go back and review that article, and see what changes, in clothing and equipment, I now use for mountain bike rain rides.

Ten years ago I wrote: "Of course the secret to enjoying riding in the “full on” conditions of a January rain storm is careful planning and preparation. However, low IQ, poor interpersonal skills, dysfunctional family life, boring meaningless work, lack of indoor hobbies, also can be helpful in getting you out the door on your bike when the rain is coming down in buckets."

Yeah, that still is true.

Anyway here are some things that work for me for day long rain rides off- road in Marin:

Bike Accessories
Front and rear fenders are a must. Disc brakes are great in the rain. For lube I like something really heavy, made for wet conditions. I know several experienced riders who like 10W30 motor oil on their chains, to prevent chain suck. What ever you use, put it on thick, and then bring a bottle along for the ride to put on again.

Route Selection
Mt. Tam, and most of Marin's fireroads, and legal singletrack, drain fairly well, and are good for riding, however your choice of route is important.
Riding up Tam and going down Railroad on a rainy day is an example of a poorly chosen rain route. The weather is generally worse at higher elevations, and long downhills, especially on something like Railroad, which because it is so easy, your speed is high, just makes you cold. I like to chose a route that stays lower on the mountain, with many shorter ups and downs. Also, it is easy to bail if you get chilled or miserable. For a lunch stop I like West Point Inn (closed this winter for renovation) or a coffeehouse in Mill Valley, or store in Lagunitas.

I have found that doing a 3 plus hour ride in the rain, it is just about impossible to stay dry. However, it is possible to be comfortable, not to cold or hot. This is what works for me, starting from the top and working down :

1. Baseball Cap Under Helmet- this adds warmth, and keeps the rain off my face. I also carry in my pack a ski hat and balaclava. Both weigh very little, and when I get chilled, or stop, they are great to have.

2. No Glasses- they just fog up and get wet. If you have a front fender this works, otherwise you will probably get stuff in your eyes.

3. Base Layer- I like the pearl izumi tank top. Adds warmth, with little weight.

4. Wool Short Sleeve Jersey- Yeah, wool, the new miracle fiber that has been around for 500 years or so. Lycra is crappy in the rain. The downside with modern wool is the high price ($85 or more for a well made jersey) and I have had a problem with durability. The upside is that it can keep you warm when wet. My favorite rain jersey is an all wool short sleeve made by Kucharik. I also wear a lightweight vest.

5. Arm Warmers- I use the BTCEB arm warmers made by Defeet. They are warmer than the standard lycra arm warmers I have used before.

6. Gortex Jacket- Gortex is completely waterproof. Yeah, and Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I have had over 8 gortex jackets in my life, and none are waterproof. The spray on stuff doesn't work very well either. Still, the best thing to have on a rain ride.

7. Gloves- Nothing works too well in the rain. I have tried several "waterproof" models, all crap. Wool gloves from Walgreens, costing $7 work as well as anything in the rain. I bring two pairs of gloves on a rain ride. A light pair for the first half of the ride, and then a heavier pair for the second half of the ride, when I am soaked and tend to be colder. If you know of a brand and style that works for a long rain ride, I am interested. (Wetsuit gloves are not the answer.)

8. Bib Shorts- I like the extra material on my lower back that bibs provide, better than regular bike shorts.

9. Rain Pants & Tights- My favorite item for a rain ride is an old pair of wool tights by Pearl Izumi. When I use them I don't need rain pants, which I don't care for. Unfortunately, my wool tights are small on me, and not that comfortable anymore, so I go with regular lycra tights, and a very light rain shell pant cover. Works fair.

10. Feet- Bike shoes are all about ventilation, and are not suitable for winter riding. It is like walking in the snow in sneakers. About 8 years ago I bought winter riding shoes, and use them from Nov to March. Several brands are available- Lake, Northwave, Sidi, etc. Everyone I know, who has gotten winter shoes has been very happy with them, so the brand doesn't matter that much. I bought a pair that was very roomy, and wear wool ski socks for every winter ride. For a rain ride, I wear gortex socks over the wool, and find that my feet can stay dry for about 3 hours or so, and then, even when wet, I am still comfortable. (Booties, work for road riding. They are not suitable for mtn bike riding. The problems include traction and durability.)

11. Gaitors- I had knee-high gators from backcountry skiing, and tried them for rain rides. They work great--they help keep your shoes drier, they reduce wetness on the lower part of your leg, and keep water from running down into your boots. The downside is that I look like a dork. So it goes. If you have a pair from skiing, try it on the bike in the rain, and you will be happy with them.

12. Backpack- In the winter I use a large size Deuter pack, that has a built in frame, that can hold all the extra clothing I bring. It has an attached rain cover as well. To keep the weight down, I don't bother with a water bladder in the winter. My water needs are so much less than in the warm weather, I find a couple of water bottles on my bike is fine. So, my pack is larger than most, but actually weighs less than my friends.

Other Items-

A. Garbage Bag- I like to change after a ride, and put all my muddy, wet clothes in the bag.
B. Towel- for changing after the ride

Of course, what works for me, and my style of riding, will not be suitable for everyone. I would be interested to hear what other riders find work for them.

For anyone who cares, this is the article I wrote 10 years ago about rain riding.

January 1996

by Danny Forer

Liberating. That is the word I would use to describe bike riding in the rain. Not so much the ride itself, but the freeing of yourself from the whims of weather. I used to feel hostage to weather conditions. I would wake up on a Sunday with a ride planned, and if it was raining all my plans would be canceled and it would turn into a “Macy’s Day”. (That is a day so boring that the highlight is reading the bra ads in the Sunday Macy’s catalog)

Now my rides are on regardless of the weather. No more “rain cancels” in my own personal ride descriptions. Of course the secret to enjoying riding in the “full on” conditions of a January rain storm is careful planning and preparation. However, low IQ, poor interpersonal skills, dysfunctional family life, boring meaningless work, and lack of indoor hobbies, also can be helpful in getting you out the door on your bike when the rain is coming down in buckets.

So based on years of riding in the rain, as a 7 year everyday bike commuter during the wet winters of the 80’s, and numerous single and multi-day tours, here are some of my suggestions for other cyclists who wish to cast off their chains (and Kryptonite locks) to the all powerful Gods of Good Weather, and experience the freedom of all weather bike riding.

First a small digression. The most inspirational example I saw of cyclists riding in “full on conditions” was a February night a couple of years ago. I was in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side. A snowstorm had just moved in and there was about 5” on the ground. It was snowing heavily and more was expected. Making conditions even worse was the cold and the wind. It was about 8pm, and the streets were deserted of cars, but there were lots and lots of delivery boys (men) on bicycles taking Chinese food to all the Yuppies who didn’t want to leave the warmth and comfort of their apartments to go out for dinner. These guys were wearing sneakers and jackets and seemed to be doing ok as they rode through the snow. No Gortex booties, no Thinsulate jerseys, no high tech bike wear or cycle accessories. Just a positive attitude and a job to be done. I keep them in mind when I think the weather is too bad to go out in.

Safety-- The guy in Volvo with the underpowered defroster and the wiper blades that have not been changed since the Carter administration can barely see the road, and most definitely can’t see you. Rain riding requires brightly colored clothes and quiet road. Also your brakes won’t work. Bike brakes in the rain are like Rollerblade brakes, they just slow you down, they don’t stop you. I have had times where I pressed the brakes as hard as I could and by the time I came to a complete stop I was in a different area code. Try to ride around objects in your way, or jump over them. So, ride safely and attentively and anticipate problems before they occur. Activities suggested in this article are for professionals only, and don’t forget this sentence when/if you get hurt and think about legal action against this well meaning author.

The Bike--I know titanium can’t rust, but the best plan is to have a rain bike. Mine is an older non-suspended mtn bike with fat boy tires. It is great. Rule number 1- Never, ever, clean a rain bike. If you do that you will end up spending more time cleaning the bike than riding. Just marinate bike in WD 40 at the end of the ride and let it be. I like a mtn bike for a road ride in the rain because I like having a wider tire on the road, the cantilever brakes offer some advantages over road brakes (please note safety above), and less chance of flats. In rain rides the roads are often covered in debris and the stability of this type of bike can’t be beat. This is not a ride that will be entered into your log as a personal record for your average speed. This is a ride to enjoy the outdoors, to get exercise, and to get away from the ones you love.

Accessories--If you can put on fenders on the bike do it. I use detachable fenders--Backscracher for the rear and Splash Guard for the front. The Backscracher is fabulous, and the Splash Guard is somewhat helpful. Both are cheap and take less than 1 minute for this mechanically challenged person to put on and remove. Your comfort on a rain ride will increase dramatically with fenders.

Clothing--This advice is based on what has worked for me. Clothing is very personal (just look at my son who likes to wear pants with the crotch below his knee) and follow your own instincts and pocketbook. The goal of course is to be comfortable. You will get wet. I think it is impossible, no matter how much you spend or what you wear to be dry on a 2 hour hilly rain ride. You get wet from either the rain on the outside or sweat on the inside. I have been able to be comfortable for long rain rides with the right clothing. I start with basic bike clothes of shorts, long sleeve jersey ( go Pearl Izumi) and tights. I like my Gortex shell top and Gortex pants. The company that makes Gortex claims it is waterproof and breathable. Right, and OJ is looking for the real killers. But it seems to work OK for me. It is very wind resistant and that is important. Under my helmet I wear a baseball cap. I have been telling friends how good this works, in keeping rain off my face and providing extra warmth, and absolutely no one has followed my advice. Nada. No one. I want to maintain my perfect record in this regard, so please ignore this brilliant suggestion, and keep going hatless, but this is the best tip for clothing in the rain. For hand comfort I bring two pairs of gloves, both heavier than I would be wearing if not raining. The important thing is hand warmth, don’t worry about water resistant, none are. I like the lobster gloves from Performance. On my feet I wear full booties. Don’t mess with the half toe kind, your feet will be underwater and squishy very quickly and you need warmth. Wool socks, if you can fit them in your shoes are also a good idea. I also bring along a heavy weight jersey as well. To carry all this I ditch my fanny pack and instead carry a light day pack. If the weather does clear, which is unlikely, usually it just gets worse, the pack can easily hold my pants, extra gloves, extra jersey, etc. I also wear clear glasses which keeps all the debris on the road from getting in your eyes.

Route--In full on conditions I have ridden in downtown SF, route 1 on the Coast near Gualala, off road on Bo Ridge and Pt. Reyes, climbs up Sonora Pass and Tunitas Creek, and a 70 mile ride from Freemont to Berkeley. However, a good idea is to choose a route that has little car traffic, and numerous bailout points. Avoiding ridges or summits is a good idea as the wind can be intense on these rides. For me a Tilden Park ride from my house has been an excellent storm ride. There is almost no traffic (none on closed South Park), and it is easy at any point to come to my senses and to bag it and go back home. Being out in the rain in place like Tilden can be wonderful. The park is never more alive than at these times. Streams flowing, trees bending in the wind, smells of nature more intense than other times. It is a great time to be out there. Make sure to say hello to the hikers and dog walkers. You will find everyone to be extra friendly, due to the shared camaraderie of survivors of disaster.

After Ride-- Your friends, family, co-workers, will all be convinced you are crazy when doing a ride in a downpour. Nothing ruins a good rain ride like ending up in a locked unit of a local psychiatric hospital, held against your will, under State Statute 5150, as a danger to yourself or others. So it is important to tell everyone that it was a horrible ordeal and that you will never do that again. Try to not smile when saying this. Then go directly to the washing machine. Take off every item of clothing, until you are standing naked (only do this if you live with friends). Start it on gentle setting. You want to make sure you have everything clean and dry for the next time it rains.

January 28, 1996

Slowest Rider
5,237 Posts
Good Advice

Thanks for all the helpful rain hints. I'll try some as I get stir crazy and go out in the rain here and there, depending on where parks are open. I sometimes ride up to 8 hours in the rain. It is actually a lot of fun once you get it right and are comfortable.

As for getting wet, I agree it's impossible to keep dry. I've given up. I use a windbreaker usually for the first hour or two until my sweat makes wetter than any rain, and then I just take it off. I agree the goretex fabrics are not up to dissipatting the amount of moisture emitted by a hard grind MTB effort, and are effectively useless. The only purpose of the windbreaker is to fool me into thinking I'm going to stay dry at the beginning of the ride.

I found my skin is waterproof, I generate plenty of heat for the CA temps, and so I just really mostly need my normal MTB clothing. Best to just drop the soppy mess when you get home before the wife catches you in the house with it.

I use a skull cap instead of a baseball cap. I have a nice big visor on my helmet (Giro Xen) that keeps rain off my glasses along with some good fenders.

Yea, I find wool helps - keeps warm when wet.

The biggest problem is keeping the gear dry in the Camelback. I finally took up Dan'ger's suggestion last winter and individually waterproofed everything in the pack - especially maps and electronics like cameras. I use multiple sturdy zip lock freezer storage bags. Had some (unitended) submersions in deep steam crossings at Henry Coe to prove it worked.

Slowest Rider
5,237 Posts
Places to Ride in Rain

I've been keeping a list of NorCal places that are open and fun to ride in the rain based on suggestions from MTBR. I've only been to perhaps 2/3 of them Here's the list:
  • Sierra Azul (Los Gatos, Kennedy area) Fire Roads
  • Henry Coe (East of Gilroy) Fire Roads only in rain, scattered Singletrack when dry
  • Angwin & Boggs & Oak Hill (40 min north of Napa) Singletrack
  • Red Hills (Central Valley, Sierra Foothills, 20 min east of Oakdale) Singletrack
  • Rockville (Napa) Singletrack
  • Annadel (Santa Rosa) Mostly Singletrack, some Fire Road (Wins my award so far as most fun.)
  • China Camp (San Rafael) Singletrack
  • Fort Ord (Monterey) Fire Road and Singletrack mix
  • Tamarancho (Marin) Singletrack
  • Demo (Santa Cruz mountains) - does OK but best to wait a day or two
  • Wilder (Santa Cruz) Too muddy??

1,604 Posts
Hey are you going to test the trail?

Nice article, I do pretty much do what you say, except I learned it the hard way. As far as I can see from Fairfax, its going to RAIN and it is one ugly, sucky mudfest on the trail and its going to get worse in the next few days. My guess is about 10 inches of rain.

I once attempted RockSprings-Laurel Dell during an El Nino year ('98) and it was no fun. Maybe the lakes loop or Loma Alta is better but this coming week, I don't know. I'm checking the runoff on Fairfax-Bolinas Rd. Or sticking to fireroads.

Anyways, I'm going to get to the trail work in January. See you there?
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