Cyclotouring in the Rain

Cyclotouring in the Rain

On a rainy weekend in late September, a group of seven friends headed out for a weekend tour in the mountains. We took a long train ride from Tokyo to Fukushima. We started climbing almost as soon as we left the station. Up an up we went, into a landscape hidden by clouds and rain.
When the clouds opened up for a moment, I saw mountains shrouded by mist. Then they were gone again. As I pondered the mystery of this elusive landscape, I realized how much I enjoy discovering a new place.
Riding in the fog was almost meditative. The muted sounds reinforced the quiet and solitude of the small roads.
I looked up from my musings to see steam coming out of the mountainside. This was a mesmerizing spectacle for me, but for my friends it was nothing unusual. A volcanic spring emerged from the mountainside here, and the water was traveling to an Onsen bath through ancient wooden pipes.
The rain stopped as we passed a beautiful lake, where an inviting line of row boats beckoned us to enjoy the still waters. But cyclotourists cannot linger too long, if they want to reach their destination. Riding our bikes, we experience the world quite intimately with every hill and valley, yet we are also outsiders who observe more than we participate. I often think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s romantic descriptions of this feeling. A mail pilot during the 1920s, he landed his plane in exotic places for half a day, then took off into his own world, up in the clouds, again.
The lure of a mysterious road and a sense of discovery are big parts of cyclotouring. And, as my Japanese is still limited, I had no idea where we were going. I could only follow my friends. This made the ride up this tiny mountain road full of anticipation.
The mountain road dead-ended in a narrow valley at a centuries-old Onsen bath and Ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn). This was our destination. Soaking in the hot bath, we relaxed and warmed up after a day of riding in the rain.
After the bath, we left our wet cycling clothes hanging to dry and donned the hotel’s yukata robes. These cotton robes mean that you don’t need to bring a complete change of clothes when you travel. On this chilly day, we also used the woolen capes that the hotel provides.
We sat down to a wonderful dinner of traditional Japanese fish, meats and vegetables. There was much laughter and merriment during the drawn-out meal. I caught snippets of stories about mountain passes (“touge”), bicycles (“jitensha”), the weather (“tenki”)… Even though I couldn’t follow most of what was being said, I was aglow with a warm and happy feeling. Cyclotouring is even more enjoyable with friends.
The first time I rode in these mountains was on a beautiful spring day, and it was spectacular. But despite the lack of cooperation from the weather on this rainy weekend, we had a great time. Perhaps cyclotouring’s greatest appeal is that it can be enjoyed almost anywhere, almost anytime.

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Comments (40)

  • Peter Chesworth

    The latest BQ arrived tonight. The days are getting longer here in Oz. topped off with an excellent short story of a dreamlike adventure. Three out of three. By the way, which side of the BB does the washer that came with my SKF go? Or can I chuck it out?

    October 13, 2016 at 2:02 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Glad you enjoy Bicycle Quarterly. I’m envious of springtime in Australia!
      SKF bottom bracket: The thin washer isn’t needed. The thicker 2.5 mm spacer that comes with the longer spindles goes on the driveside. It allows using the BB with 73 mm-wide shells – simply leave out the spacer, and you’ve adjusted for the 2.5 mm extra width of the shell on the driveside. (The non-driveside is adjustable, so no spacer needed.)

      October 13, 2016 at 2:09 am
  • Christian Bratina

    Since you are from Seattle, many of us would love a review of effective rain gear. We rode LEJOG with five days of drizzle to hard rain in which our Patagonian H2NO jackets became wet inside, my Gore booties leaked at the ankle where they don’t tighten enough, and the Showers Pass Club Pants flapped in the wind and rubbed the crank arm because the legs were too wide and could not be cinched well.

    October 13, 2016 at 2:49 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have had similar bad experiences with raingear. I rarely use it. I find that if your fenders and mudflap keep the spray off you, there isn’t that much water coming from above. Wool clothing insulates well even when it’s wet. I do wear a rain jacket when it’s really pouring. We’ve tested the Gore Bike Wear jackets years ago, and I still wear mine. It fits well and doesn’t flap in the wind even during fast descents.
      The difference between different types of fenders is truly amazing. I used to ride with plastic fenders and had a collection of booties, rain pants and other stuff. After every rainy ride, I had to reapply chain oil… I had a “rain bike” because riding in the rain was so hard on the bike.
      With the Honjo fenders I use now, the rolled edges keep the water inside the fenders, and there are no brackets riveted to the inside that act as dams and divert the water onto the stays, from where it drips onto your feet. The front fender reaches within 3″ of the ground, and a mudflap does the rest to keep water and grit off my feet and drivetrain. The rear fender extends a bit below the bottom bracket, so that even a crosswind doesn’t blow the water that exits at the end onto the chain. You can read about the different types of fenders in this post.

      October 13, 2016 at 3:04 am
      • cbratina

        Thanks, I will check the Gore jacket review. Comparing the Showers Pass jackets with the Gore, I like the features of the Gore Element jacket better. We use Velo Orange fenders with a leather mud flap. It was warm so we rode without rain paints for the most part until our shorts and chamois started getting wet. So I am thinking of rain shorts for the next tour. The booties keep the rain from drenchiing the shoes. We only take one pair of shoes for on and off the bike and I hate cycling and walking with squishy insoles.

        October 13, 2016 at 4:49 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I hate cycling and walking with squishy insoles.

          I agree, and I do bring spare socks in my handlebar bag on cyclotouring trips.

          October 13, 2016 at 5:33 am
      • Gail Rehbein

        Thanks for the tip about the Gore jackets. I’ll check them out.

        October 13, 2016 at 7:00 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          They were the first jackets cut for cycling, rather than to look good when you are trying them on in the shop. So they have the “tuxedo” cut that is very short in the front, so it doesn’t bunch up, and much longer in the rear. Before, I had made my own Gore-Tex jacket with a similar cut, but the Gore one was even better.

          October 13, 2016 at 7:27 pm
          • Gail Rehbein

            Thanks Jan, the design looks really good. Since reading your post, I’ve found a couple of sites that sell them online to Australia. It’s our rainy season coming up plus I’m getting ready for a 9 day ride in Victoria in November along the Great Ocean Road where there might be some rainy days (or not?). Either way, a good rain jacket is on my list.

            October 13, 2016 at 7:43 pm
    • Chris V.

      Personally, I’m convinced through my own personal experience and from reliable sources that Gore type jackets are not really that effective at breathing while keeping water out. Without adequate ventilation you will easily become saturated from the inside out. Basically, you will end up sweating yourself wet. When I have ridden in drizzle I opt for a jacket with very large arm pit zips, or I use a vest. If you can stand having wet arms, I would vote for a vest that is as water resistant as possible. A vest allows your armpits to breath.
      I will admit that I don’t ride much in the rain. But I do often ride in the winter with temps dipping into the single digits. If you get a hard sweat on in those types of temps you can easily create the same effect as riding in a damp and cool conditions. Basically you can put yourself into a state of hypothermia by becoming saturated from inside the jacket.
      I once completed a 50 mile gravel road ride in single digit winter weather, where I was wearing a military grade Gore-tex jacket (not an optimal riding jacket I know). When I stopped to take the jacket off there was sweat beaded up on the inside of the jacket and running down the inside of the jacket. So much for breathable! So, I now ride in vests and I’m able to thermal regulate much better. I like wool, but IMHO that when a jersey is saturated, its saturated and it won’t keep you warm.
      Fenders are great!

      October 13, 2016 at 2:21 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        military grade Gore-tex jacket

        You should try one of the lightweight cycling jackets. It’s like comparing a heavy, clunky city bike with a handmade performance bike… My favorite jacket is made from Windstopper material, so it’s not totally waterproof, but very breathable.

        October 13, 2016 at 6:50 pm
    • Gail Rehbein

      I’ve had the same experience with my H2NO jacket.

      October 13, 2016 at 6:58 pm
  • 47hasbegun

    In my own experience, this sort of riding in heavy rain is significantly less fun when going solo than when in a group. Suffering loves company, after all.
    I used to brave storms when riding alone all day when I was younger, but I’ve found it not worth the stress more recently.

    October 13, 2016 at 2:55 am
  • Ryan Francesconi

    “Perhaps cyclotouring’s greatest appeal is that it can be enjoyed almost anywhere, almost anytime.”
    When the ride ends with an onsen, most definitely!!

    October 13, 2016 at 9:22 am
  • Paul L

    Do you usually use a different pedal once fall hits? I was thinking that maybe switching from SPD-SL to SPD might be better for being off the bike in the wet (coffee shops, etc), without giving up a whole lot in performance because the weather will do that anyway 🙂

    October 13, 2016 at 10:24 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I always want to be able to walk when I get off the bike, so I use SPD pedals, even for competitive events. You don’t give up anything in performance. It’s harder to find shoes that are good for walking, yet stiff enough to pedal for days without foot pain. The Dromartis I now use really are the perfect shoe for the riding I do. When I am touring, I don’t bring any “off-the-bike” shoes any longer.

      October 13, 2016 at 4:38 pm
      • Paul

        That’s great information – thanks! Might have to work my way up to Dromartis, but goals are good 🙂

        October 13, 2016 at 5:04 pm
  • Stephen Bamford

    Always inspirational! Thanks for sharing!

    October 13, 2016 at 11:10 am
  • Frank B.

    I’m not an Apple user, but I must admit their recent “Morning Ride” spot nicely captures what pleasure cycling in the rain can be:

    October 13, 2016 at 11:14 am
    • Tom

      Rain, ok. Lightning storm, not so much…

      October 14, 2016 at 10:44 am
  • Robert Hoehne

    The photography in the latest BQ is gorgeous. Fantastic production levels, impressed. You’ll have to do a story on using your bike to travel and as a platform for photography, storage, equipment, etc.

    October 13, 2016 at 2:37 pm
  • CharleyT

    It seems you have done a lot of touring in Japan. Is there a guide book you would recommend for someone who wants to do their first tours in that country? Have you ever created an itinerary of your past tours there?

    October 13, 2016 at 3:03 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There are many wonderful itineraries in Japan. The ride from Tsumago via Iida and Odaira Passes to Iida is a favorite. I also recommend the “Nihon Alps” Super Randonnée from Chino onward. It includes the incredible Shirabiso Pass. You can find that route online…

      October 13, 2016 at 6:52 pm
  • Michael

    Ruding in a light rain can be very pleasant and a beautiful ambiance.
    1. I don’t mind riding in a light rain. But when it rains I don’t like using non-machined rims. They don’t stop very well in the rain. Even with salmon pads. My machined rims seem to do very well in the rain even with black stock brake pads and side pulls. Any tips for getting better breaking out of non-machined rims in the rain with side pulls?
    2. I can ride in light rain for hours and not get wet. Rain gear works in light rain. Riding in a downpour long enough I get totally soaked even with raingear/shoe covers. Any ideas?

    October 13, 2016 at 9:37 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      1. Rims with or without machined sidewalls soon look that same as the sidewalls wear. Key for cutting through the water are powerful brakes. Unfortunately, many long-reach rim brakes sold for Allroad bikes are marginal in the dry, and border on dangerous in the wet. The difference between a long-reach dual pivot brake and a Compass centerpull in the wet is remarkable. 😉 Keeping your rims warm by lightly dragging the brake during long, straight descents helps. Then you can get the water off the rim more quickly when you need to brake.
      2. Either go slowly so that the rain gear does its job, or go fast enough that you keep warm despite being wet. In between doesn’t seem to work so well for me.

      October 13, 2016 at 9:53 pm
    • DaveS

      Comment on 2:
      The main goal is to stay warm. As mentioned above, there is a trade off in rain gear between water proof and breathing/venting that prevents sweat buildup inside the rain gear so as I see it, you are getting wet regardless. I think the best approach is to wear what will keep you warm during the ride. If you think there is a possibility of getting wet during a tour, I bring a change of clothes that are in a dry sack.
      I do have a suggestion for keeping your shoes dry. I use the disposable plastic bags that grocery stores provide every time you buy something. They cover the shoe and can be tucked under tights at the ankle. I’ve had no issue clipping into my pedals with these on (I use Time ATAC mountain). The bags are more than durable enough to last through multiple clip ins. They have kept my feet warm and dry during downpours in the 30’s and 40’s (keeping my feet warm in a downpour in the 30’s has been an issue for me). It’s cheap (actually free) and it works. It’s just not fashionable, but I don’t really care in cold & wet weather conditions.

      October 14, 2016 at 8:42 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I have used plastic bags for mountain descents when it was below freezing, to insulate my feet. I put them on the inside of the shoes, over my socks. Breathability is less of an issue when it’s that cold – you don’t sweat.

        October 14, 2016 at 3:39 pm
      • marmotte27

        “Breathability is less of an issue when it’s that cold – you don’t sweat.”
        Sweating is very individual. I always sweat, regardless of outside temperatures. So clothing, at once breathuable and windproof is of the utmost importance to me.
        I haven’t really found my holy grail yet in that area (provided it actually exists…)

        October 16, 2016 at 6:26 am
  • Michael

    Do you still sell the GB Rims? Can’t find the link. What about anodized rims? Are they tougher to stop in the rain?

    October 14, 2016 at 7:26 am
  • Robert Cochran

    I just received my first issue of Bicycle Quarterly, #57, and I’ve also read several of your blog posts. I’m soon going to have a second try at completing my first 200K randonneuring brevet. My first ride was in the hills of Frederick, Maryland and given my poor training state and a cold, nonstop rain, I was unable to complete it. I recognize the great importance of constant training. In addition, I believe I need both better fenders and wider tires for events in my area. I’m in the process of exploring whether my fairly low-end Jamis bicycle can be fitted with the Honjo fenders and the 44 mm Compass tires.

    October 16, 2016 at 3:56 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Training is important, but you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) train “constantly”. Your body gets stronger when it adapts to what you demand of it. That happens only when you rest. So to get stronger, you work hard (preferably through intervals), then rest to allow your body to get stronger. That part deals with the speed. The endurance comes through relatively few long rides.
      Some randonneurs ride almost all the time, but it’s just because they enjoy riding so much, not because it’s necessary training for the sport.

      October 16, 2016 at 6:31 pm
  • Michael

    Your saddle in the latest edition of BQ looks like it has some kind of film on the bottom side of it. Is that something you stuck on there for water protection for riding in the rain?

    October 16, 2016 at 4:50 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I use a standard Brooks saddle. Since my bikes (with one exception) have fenders, there is no protection needed, except when I stop. Then I cover the saddle with a plastic bag.

      October 16, 2016 at 6:32 pm
      • Michael

        BQ 57, p. 58. What is that under the saddle? Looks like tan paper? Or does that model not get stained under the saddle during production like the B17 line does, and that is unstained leather I’m seeing?

        October 16, 2016 at 7:01 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Good eye! Ah yes, now I remember. On that test bike, I was heading out and there were still a few puddles, so I made a cardboard cutout that fit. I figured it would absorb the moisture instead of the leather. One probably could make a more waterproof one… but you also might just redirect the water to the saddle’s most vulnerable spots – where the leather attaches to the frame.

          October 16, 2016 at 7:45 pm
  • Mark Hillman

    An interesting sidelight to rain touring in Japan, is that Costco Japan sells very heavy duty zip-loc bags. Essentially dry bags with a moderate lifespan and excellent pricing! Performed great for me during Typhoon Chanthu in mid-August on Hokkaido!

    October 16, 2016 at 9:09 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Finding a Costco in the mountains of Japan might be a challenge! One of the beautiful things of touring here is how little the modern world intrudes once you get away from the cities.
      There are convenience stores in most towns, though. Not do they have decent food to go, but they also sell $ 1 rain jackets. Not breathable, but better than nothing! (I haven’t tried them, but one rider on our trip forgot his rain jacket and bought one at the start of the ride.)

      October 16, 2016 at 9:50 pm
      • Markku Hillman

        100 yen stores too, with umbrellas AND brackets so they can be installed on you handlebars! Great 100yen tools too+ metric tape measures to take back to a land where the ancient english system…..

        October 16, 2016 at 10:01 pm

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