Everyone’s heard of the “spring thaw” but that usually doesn’t include the “spring flood” unless you happen to live along the Nile or the Mississippi. Here in New York, we’re certainly not used to having enough runoff to whitewater raft down the street, but in the past week or so, we’ve seen plenty of H2O. And because the temperatures have been relatively nice, that makes you wonder if you should be riding your bike or building an ark; if you’re one of those riders like myself who can’t wait to get outside again, take an extra moment to consider a few extra measures to keep yourself safe riding in the slop of the “spring thaw.”
Prep Your Bike
Taking a few minutes and spending a bit of spare change can make all the difference between having a good ride, and ending up sliding across the tarmac, looking like a doofus who forgot his water skis.
Lower tire pressure (Free!)
Spend 30 seconds and lower your tire pressure by a few PSI. This has the effect of creating a larger contact patch on the road giving more traction in wet and sloppy conditions. If you normally run 95 PSI, try 91 or 92. Generally 3-5psi will give you enough of a boost in traction without completely pegging your rolling resistance. Don’t let out too much air, otherwise you’ll be prone to pinch flatting, and nothing sucks more than changing a flat in the slop and wet.
Heavier tires (~$50-$70)
Yeah, changing tires is a royal pain in the ass, but leave those expensive racing tires at home. There’s no need to shred up your good lightweight racing tires in nasty, gritty, sloppy conditions. During this time of year there are loads of cinders on the road, not to mention chunks of rock, grit, salt and broken glass. Invest in some “early season” or “bad weather” tires for just these kinds of conditions. Ideally, they will be something with a heavier casing and more puncture resistance, especially since water on the roads causes debris to stick to the tires and easily work it’s way down to those delicate tubes.
fenders (less than $50)
Sure, some bikes don’t have fender mounts (my Look does not) but there are plenty of decent fenders that strap on or mount in other ways that will keep a lot of crap off you and your bike (more to keep crap off of you as opposed to the bike, but same difference.)
Even the most intricate bike outfitting will be all for naught if you don’t take care of yourself. There’s nothing fun about riding in slop while being ill-equipped to deal with the conditions. In fact, not only is it not fun, but it’s downright dangerous. Crap in your eyes, hypothermia, frostbite, etc etc are all small dangers that need to be addressed.
Glasses (widely varying prices)
Whether you choose an old set of Ray Bans made popular by Will Smith in a certain extraterrestrial movie, or your rocking/rolling/rubbing the lastest high tech riding wear from Oakley, a pair of glasses will save your eyes in the crappy spring conditions. All that water, grit and sand on the road? Yep, that’s going to make its way towards your face in the form of road spray from passing vehicles, and rooster tails of crap from your buddy’s wheel that you’re sucking on. A good pair of close fitting glasses can save your bacon, because once you’ve got a cinder stuck in your eye, your day is done. Trust me on that.
Layers & Waterproof Clothing (widely varying prices)
These two ideas go together like peanut butter and barbecue sauce. Hey, don’t knock it ’till you try it, ok? Anyway, layering in several thin, breathable, wicking layers is certainly the way to go when there’s a chill in the air. Additionally, if you do overheat or should you end up soaked by a passing puddle splash or freak rain (or if you decide to raft down the local creek by the seat of your pants) you can always strip off wet and soggy outer layers before they end up cooling your core too much.
Along the same lines, investing in some waterproof items like a jacket, leg warmers or bib tights and simple things like shoe covers can make all the difference. Once you’re wet, your body will cool off very quickly and you’ll be that much closer to some kind of cold related issue. Staying dry = staying warm.
Keep yourself warm (About $8)
This seems obvious, but there are way too many occasions where cyclists are just freezing on a ride, but refuse to stop and warm themselves up. Stopping at the local coffee house for a cup of joe and a quick burning pastry will be a welcome relief from the sting of the chilled air and the cold, damp sogginess of slogging along wet roads. Plus, you get the added benefit of allowing your outer layers to dry out just a touch while you rip on your riding buddies a little bit.
Be Extra Careful of the Road
So now your bike is fitted for riding in everything short of a horse field full of sewage treatment water, and you’re ready to scuba dive into a septic tank. Still, all the care in the world won’t help you if you lock up the brakes doing 40mph downhill into a T intersection. A couple of easy things to keep in mind about the surface you’re riding on will add the finishing touches on your safety.
Avoid standing water
I avoid puddles like the plague. Sure, I was always the kid who jumped into the first puddle I saw, but I’ve learned that there are bad things lurking under that water. Actually, the best thing to remember is that puddles CONTAIN the plague; knowing that, you probably won’t roll through them.
The main problem with puddles is that you’re never sure what they conceal. There can be a pothole the size of a small planet under there, there could be broken glass, grit, slimy ooze, hypodermic needles…you never know. Best to steer clear of them so that you don’t end up with a flat, a busted rim or pitched over the bars from hitting the mother of all sinkholes.
Avoid painted lines
Painted lines. They keep motorists in their lanes and sometimes designate a bike lane for us to travel in. They’re also slippery as all hell when wet (that’s what she said.) For that reason, never, never, EVER ride on those painted lines. Be extremely careful when cornering on or over them as well. It only takes a second of poor traction to drop you to the tarmac and have you bloody and sobbing like a playground bully’s daily conquest, so pick your lines extra wisely in the wet.
Avoid “Wet black snakes”
Though it sounds like a great new garage/grunge/punk band, these insidious little buggers are simply the lines of black patching tar that road crews use to mend cracks in the tarmac. And you guessed it: they’re extremely slick in the rain/wet. Treat them like painted lines, although they tend to be much smaller and generally run perpendicular to your line of travel (unlike painted lines that run parallel to your line of travel) so you’ll likely not have much to worry about unless you try to corner aggressively on them.
Now get out and ride…
As you can see, with a little bit of preparation and a few dollars wisely spent, you can easily conquer the slimy, wet spring weather and spend a lot of very pleasing miles outside in the early part of the season. Of course, once you’re back home, don’t forget to clean that bike properly (see The Fizzy Green Wonder,) refuel your engine and warm yourself up properly. Sure, it’s rough and yeah, it really takes a lot of motivation to be out in nasty conditions, but it certainly will pay off down the road. Honestly, if nothing else, you’ll be known as that badass who goes out and plays on a bike while most other people are converting cubits and building their arks.
Got any more tips for the early wet weather rides? Post ’em up in the comments!