An Impromptu Ride

On Monday, Seattle experienced a huge rainstorm as the rainy season arrived in earnest. By noon, more than 2 inches of rain had fallen in my neighborhood, and the wind gusts reminded me of Hurricane Sandy, which I experienced in Philadelphia. (I was lucky and not on the shore, where the storm surges caused the real damage.)

I had a dentist appointment that day, and seeing the rain drops bounce off the pavement, I wasn’t looking forward to the ride across town. In fact, I was reluctantly considering to take the car. But then it looked like the rain was letting up a bit. I took it as a sign: Ride your bike! I contemplated riding in street clothes and rain gear, but then decided to change into cycling clothes. Comfort prevailed over convenience. The rain did indeed let up, and it was a pleasant ride. As the wind whipped across Greenlake, waves were breaking on the surface of this usually placid little lake. Fortunately, the strong crosswinds didn’t bother my Urban Bike. Better yet, I was on the upwind side of the road, so the spray from passing cars blew away from me. I got to the dentist only slightly moist on the outer layer of my woolen clothes.

When I left the dentist’s office, it had stopped raining. As I turned onto the Burke-Gilman Trail, I could not help but think that it was a lovely afternoon for a ride. Back at work, my desk for once was not crammed with urgent deadlines. What if I rode a few minutes the other way, then turned around and head home?

The trail is wonderful on winter weekdays, almost deserted. It’s like having a road to yourself. When there is a break after a heavy rainstorm, it almost seems like the earth is breathing a sigh of relief. It now has time to absorb all that water, or at least try to.

At one spot on the trail, a drain appeared to be clogged, and I rode through half a foot of water. A vactor truck had pulled up, and the workers were assessing the situation. Along the bluff, there were rushing creeks where usually no water flows. Further into the ride, I saw that much of Lake City Way had flooded (below). Police were closing the lanes and redirecting traffic. The photos, by the way, are courtesy of the Seattle Times. I did not bring a camera, nor would I have wanted to stop and get cold during this ride.

As I rode along Lake Washington, I saw the yellow maples at Holmes Point across the water, not far away. What if I rode one of our favorite routes that loops around the North End of Lake Washington? I resisted the temptation, but then decided to at least continue to the northern end of Lake Washington, where I could see the waves crash into the beach at Logboom Park.

Pushed along by the powerful wind, I got there quickly. That meant I would have to ride into a strong wind on the way back. If I continued the loop, then I’d be sheltered among the trees on the Eastside. There was the possibility – no, likelihood – that it would start raining again, but so what? I checked my watch. I should be able to make it home barely in time for dinner. I did not have much food with me, but I could pick up something if needed at a convenience store… I decided to give in to the temptation and continued past Logboom Park.

It’s the off-season, but I felt good climbing the long ascent of Juanita Drive. I noticed that the cars coming the other way had their windshield wipers on and their headlights illuminated. Not a good sign, but turning around now seemed silly. It was almost as far if I turned back as if I continued. The descent to Holmes Point usually is a great place to test the handling of bicycles, as it has some sharp turns with decreasing radii. Today, I took it with caution, as wet leaves and tree branches littered the road. When I reached the bottom, the storm started in earnest again. I flipped the switch on my stem to turn on my lights and continued. I thought about putting on my rain jacket, but stopping was not appealing, and my wool jersey and wool tights kept me warm, if not dry. At least I wouldn’t overheat on the next climb.

As so often, once you are out in the rain, the weather doesn’t diminish the fun of riding. I was enjoying myself as I rode through Kirkland and Medina. Even though my fenders kept the spray off my feet, the deluge was soaking them from above. Darkness fell, but from this point, I would be on small streets with little traffic. On the steep hills along the shore in Bellevue, I wished for better brakes. Usually, I drag the brakes on long urban downhills in the rain to keep the rims warm, so that all incoming water evaporates. In this deluge, the rims cooled so quickly that this did not work. I pulled on the levers as hard as I could, and for a long time got almost no braking. Then, finally, the pads had removed the water and grabbed the rim, and the bike slowed immediately. Not wanting to stop, but just slow down, I opened the levers, only to have the rims coated with water again immediately. Mental note: If I were to ride in weather like this often, I might get disc brakes.

The leaves on the road required cautious cornering, and my iffy brakes required me to slow long before every intersection, so my average speed was much lower than usual, and I was running far behind schedule. Lest my family worry when I didn’t show up on time for dinner, I try to find a payphone to call them, but if there is a payphone left on the Eastside, I didn’t see it along this course.

As I rode through Beaux Arts, I was not looking forward to the bike trail across the Interstate 90 bridge. For some reason, the planners decided to put the trail on the side of the freeway that is downwind during rainstorms. On wet days, the spray is blown across the low concrete barrier and onto the cyclists riding within a few feet of the speeding cars. I needn’t worry on this day since the traffic was stop-and-go, and there was no spray. I stopped in Leschi to buy some chocolate. The nice clerk let me use their phone to call home. As I continued on Lake Washington Boulevard, I saw that my favorite hillclimb up Alder Lane had a mudslide coming down the road. A huge pool of muddy water had collected on the road – but fortunately not in my lane. A little further, utility crews were digging out a manhole, illuminated by bright worklights. I dodged more standing water in the Arboretum (photo at the top of the post) and finally made it home at 6:30, an hour behind schedule. I am glad I didn’t take the car to the dentist, because I would have missed the opportunity for a great ride.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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46 Responses to An Impromptu Ride

  1. Matt Surch says:

    Lovely story, Jan. Such is the joy of cycling, flexibility to follow your fancy…..I’ve been wondering whether you’d buy into disc brakes at some point; seems you are one step closer after this ride.

    • We keep an open mind about everything. Disc brakes, at least the current mechanical ones, don’t work as well as good rim brakes in the dry, and they require stiffer forks, plus ideally are used with through-axles to prevent the wheel from coming out of the dropouts. For me, those disadvantages make them not very appealing. However, in the rain, they work better than rim brakes, and depending on how and where you ride, they may be a good option.

      • Matt Surch says:

        Good points, Jan. Some of us mountain bike riders turned ‘roadies’ have gone to mechanical discs for cyclocross bikes. We find that proper adjustment, coupled with compressionless and very smooth cable and housing (Yokozuna Reaction) provides stopping power far exceeding any rim brake design (including the linear pull.v-brakes we’d been using previously) we’ve encountered in all conditions. The compressionless housing makes a difference, and the very low friction helps too. Stiffer forks are required, that is not debatable in my mind. The only way to address this is to de-couple suspension and steering precision, as done with telescopic or linkage suspension forks. That amounts to more weight and complexity; this is worthwhile for mtbs, but harder to justify for, say, a rando bike. A through-axle is ideal, I agree, but forward facing dropouts have been used for years on mtbs without problems; in fact, I have a rigid mtb fork I use with a 7″ rotor that had never budged, nor do I expect it to.

        Bases on my experience, I’d stick with v-brakes(I use the TRP ones) on rigid bikes that don’t tend to have to deal with rim-denting rocks, so as to preserve the ride quality and simplicity. For rougher terrain, disc brakes, regardless of whether suspension is involved, and tires 50mm and larger.

      • On gravel, most brakes provide enough stopping power – your tire traction limits brake power. It’s easy to lock up the wheel. My bad experiences were going down a 12% hill, light changes to red at the bottom, and I pull the lever to the bars, but the bike only slows down leisurely.

        You are right about decoupling suspension and fork stiffness for disc brakes – mountain bikes and motorbikes have done that for years.

  2. Patrick Moore says:

    Jan — good story. Two questions: first, have you tried rain capes and, if so, what is your opinion? I’m no rain expert, but I have ridden with them in downpours and can attest that they do work between neck and knee and that the sail effect, even in very strong wind, is annoying but not unbearable (go slow). I prefer the cheap ($30) Campmor to either Carradice: the Duxback is too hot and the bright yellow one is too narrow for riding in the hoods.

    Second: disks: doubtless you’ve seen Alex’s fork? Also, my Fargo has slightly forward spacing dropouts so that the torque of the caliper pushes the wheel into the dropouts. Also again: mine (BB7s with Tektro V brake levers) are as powerful as any other brake I’ve used but not very easy to modulate. But — repeat — as powerful as any other brake. 160 mm rotors.

    Lastly, drum brakes? http://www.63xc.com/dws/hubbrake.htm Light tubing — but with long reaction arm.

    • Rain capes – At 30+ mph, it’s hard to see how a rain cape would stay put! In fact, even the slightly oversized sleeves of my rain jacket throw the bike off course when they start flapping in the wind.

    • Doug in Seattle says:

      I used a rain cape for several years. I found it works fine for commuting and riding around town in the drizzle common to Seattle.

      When I tried to ride through storms in coastal Northern California, it was pretty miserable. Very hard to push one against a 30mph headwind for 7 miles. Crosswinds were dangerous.

      I also used it for some touring and found it unsuitable for the task. The added wind resistance really makes a difference when you’re riding for hours.

      Otherwise I liked it!

  3. Willem says:

    What brakes does your urban bike have? My loaded tourer has Magura HS66 hydrauic rim brakes for drop bars, and they are certainly up to long and wet descends, even if it is obviously harder work than on a dry day. They are heavier than some alternatives, but so is a loaded bike. The bad news is that Magura discontinued them, so you now have to find them on Ebay.
    Willem.

    • My Urban Bike has long-arm Mafac cantilevers and Mafac brake levers. The two aren’t a good match, and I am considering changing to a lever with less cable pull, and thus higher mechanical advantage. That would help a bit with squeezing the water off the rim.

  4. Lyle Wiens says:

    I’m not sure I fully understand your apprehension regarding disc brakes. I’m an avid cyclist and have worked in a bike shop and I have never heard of anyone loosing a front wheel because of them. Many budget mountain bikes (<$600) come with disc brakes and don't have front wheels with through axles. They usually just come with a normal axle and "lawyer lips" on the fork ends. It also seems that cyclocross bikes are now utilizing disc brakes as well and these bikes definitely do not have through axles. Who even makes a rigid fork that can handle through axles?

    • I am glad that disc brakes work for many riders. Regarding the “wheel ejection problem,” I suggest this link http://www.ne.jp/asahi/julesandjames/home/disk_and_quick_release/

      For braking power, hydraulic discs work much better, and you can use a secondary hydraulic cylinder that is activated by cable, so that you can use drop-bar brake levers. On my Urban Bike, the fork doesn’t have much give anyhow because the rack stiffens it, so it would be feasible to put on disc brakes if you were to have a new one custom-built. Through axles still seem like a good idea, even if nobody makes them right now. It shouldn’t be too hard to devise a custom solution.

      • Gert says:

        The secondary hydraulic cylinder You talk about. Which one is that? I know of a german one “Doppelmoppel”. (I am thinking of building a new bike with disc brakes and campagnolo parts. But am currently waiting for a wider variety of campagnolo compatible hubs for disc brakes)
        About the wheel ejection. I have never read anything about that before. So it can not be very common

      • Most accidents are not very common, but they can be catastrophic when they occur.

        I am not sure who makes the secondary hydraulic cylinders…

      • Matt says:

        Gert, TRP and Hope both make the hydraulic converters you are asking about. For hubs, Chris King is soon releasing their R45 road disc hubs, available for Campy. Novatec makes less expensive options too, which are actually fairly light and reliable.

      • Gert says:

        Thanks
        I have written it down. It will probaly be next summer I will be building it

        Gert

  5. Alistair says:

    Jan, great story. I know the route well and can imagine that the weather conditions made it feel like quite an adventure.
    By the way, as you were leaving your dentists I was a block or so behind, riding my tandem solo on the way to pick up my daughter from school. I recognized you because of the front rack on your bicycle. Tried to close the gap to say hello but never did bridge across, and I didn’t want to yell.
    I never imagined you were about to start an around the lake odyssey. Nicely done.

  6. Jim Duncan says:

    Hi Jan,

    You note the strong crosswind did not bother your Urban Bike. Compared to what? Is that because it’s heavier or is it the wheels or what? Thanks. Jim Duncan

    • Compared to a bike with more trail. As Tony Foale pointed out in his book “Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design – The Art and the Science,” when the wind pushes you sideways, trail acts as a lever on the steering. On a low-trail bike, the wind pushes you sideways, but the steering is affected very little. On a high-trail bike, you are pushed sideways, and the front wheel turns. The difference is very, very noticeable. I used to hate strong crosswinds, but now they don’t bother me at all.

  7. Bill Gobie says:

    First, about the I-90 bridge. The bike/ped path is on the sheltered side of the bridge. When there is a strong southerly wind, which is the predominant weather pattern here, waves can become high enough to overtop the wall on the south side of the bridge and throw solid water onto the roadway. Better for cars to deal with that than bicycles. The four low walls on the bridge slow the wind a bit. I don’t like the spray and grit in my face either, but crossing the bridge would be more difficult if the path was on the other side, unsheltered from wind and waves.

    Second, the problem of disc brakes ejecting wheels. The root of the problem is bike designers and builders uncritically follow motorcycle practice, placing the calipers behind the rotor where they “look right.” All that has to be done to make bicycle disc brakes safe is to mount the calipers ahead of the rotor. Then the caliper force on the rotor would push the axle into the dropouts.

  8. Matt Surch says:

    Whisky makes such a fork, 15mm through axle, for both road and cyclocross. I think this is a response to the impending extinction of 9mm front axles on mtbs. The 15mm axle is not significantly heavier (if heavier at all) as a system as the 9mm, yet provides greater torsional stiffness and safety (many a rider does not know how to operate a quick-release properly). If’given the option, I’d use the 15mm format, which I am very happy with on my mtb, but it is by no means required.

  9. Doug in Seattle says:

    Wow, great ride. All I did was go to work and arrive utterly soaked to the bone.

    I agree that a ride in the rain has a worse bark than bite. Last week a friend and I were out for a short ride across the sound. When the rain first hit, I was pretty miserable, but when you get used to, it becomes its own kind of fun.

  10. bryanwieyes says:

    I was out that day too, testing new grand bois tires! (I put too much air in them…) I chickened out on Holmes point.

    And I had similar issues in the rain – no-brakes no-brakes waaaay-too-much-brake – perhaps that’s just the pads drying the rims and then grabbing normally. Disc brakes will have that issue too to some extent. And of course, tire grip limits will always loom large in a downpour.

    The “wheel ejection problem” is no different from the “loose wheel” or “brake not bolted to the bridge” problems – a competent bike, with even a mildly competent user, should never have such problems. it may be that disc brakes for bicycles are not 100% debugged yet – I will wait a while, in part because I have a collection of nice bikes and wheels, and don’t want to convert – others can prove out bullet-proof solutions to these issues.

  11. Brucey says:

    In the UK we are also exposed to weather systems sweeping in from a great ocean that lies to our west, and (coincidentally?) we have had similar weather and similar difficulties here also in the last few days.

    Regarding disc brakes; I agree that they are usually attached to a stiffer, less comfortable frame/fork, and that they can be more powerful. However just as with rim brakes, performance varies considerably; some disc brakes I have owned have also exhibited severe wet weather ‘first application delay’. Again similarly to rim brakes, choice of pad compound can make a considerable difference. I do not have happy memories of standard Mafac brake blocks, or (now) some disc pads, either.

    Typical cable discs add about 300g per wheel to the bike, vs. caliper brakes, if the rim weight remains fixed and no allowance is made for additional frame weight. If expensive parts are used this can be approximately halved, but then the durability of the discs themselves may become questionable. Bent or damaged discs when MTBing are not uncommon. It also happens quite often that a disc is damaged in a silly way at a cafe or when bikes are parked together.

    Drum brakes such as aluminium Sturmey Archer 70mm units are very robust and also add about 300g per wheel vs caliper brakes, this time with little or no attendant increase in frame weight. However these brakes, although durable in standard form (they use smooth cartridge bearings, linings last five to fifteen years, typically), and unaffected until submerged (!) are generally not quite as powerful as disc brakes. A much lighter and more powerful drum brake is certainly possible; a modified 70mm SA brake can be made more powerful, and a lighter weight reaction arm can reduce weight. SA also manufacture a 90mm front brake which is as powerful in standard form as a modified 70mm unit, with even more to come, obviously.

    Highpath Engineering in the UK manufacture a novel variant of the hub brake which uses a long, lightweight reaction arm extending to the fork crown. This allows the lightest, most flexible fork blades to be retained. Because of the clever design, 80mm versions of this brake are both lighter and more powerful than SA 70mm units, and are at least as durable.

    Sadly I know of only one drum brake (in two sizes) that incorporates a hub generator at present; the SA units can have a hub generator that peforms similarly to many others ‘on-load’ but unfortunately the drag is not appreciably reduced when ‘off-load’. It is also not a very lightweight design. If it existed, a Schmidt/Highpath hybrid would be an impressive unit by comparison.

    I can thoroughly recommend SA drum brakes for utility/commuting/touring bike use; as well as varous IGHs (of course) simpler rear hubs are available for screw-on freewheels or with a shimano-splined cassette freehub body. They can be retro-fitted onto almost any frameset without great difficulty. Although durable enough in standard form, all can be further improved by the use of stainless steel bearing units with better seals if desired.

    Best regards

  12. Skip says:

    Not a bike take here. Telephone booths, at least where I am, have gone the way of the horse and buggy. If you don’t carry a cell phone with you (no matter what kind of ride it is) you/everyone should. An emergency can happen anywhere and it’s a good idea to be able to contact someone. More importantly think about the family wondering why you haven’t made it home for supper. Just my two cents.

    • Cell phones are useful tools for many people, yet I have decided not to own one.

      I often go to places where there is no reception anyhow. When I talk to the park rangers at Mount Rainier, they complain that many people now rely on their phones, rather than prepare for eventualities. Reading this, my wife said that she won’t worry when I don’t show up for dinner, but she will worry if I don’t make it by breakfast.

      Why don’t I carry a cell phone? One of the few luxuries in my life is being out of reach when I ride. It’s good for me not to be connected. About twice a year, a cell phone would come in handy, but there are many things that would come in handy twice a year, yet I don’t own them.

      • nishiki83 says:

        I believe the beginning of the end of civilized society can be marked by the day the telephone crawled down off the kitchen wall and into someone’s front pocket. No one will ever say “I thought of that while yabbering away on my cell phone”…I enjoyed this impromptu ride and report…and no product placement!

  13. Daniel says:

    The bicycling adventure sounds like great fun but I’d be leery about sharing it in a public forum where my wife might see why I was unnecessarily late for dinner. You must have an understanding family ;)

  14. Iain Strachan says:

    I can’t see that anyone has mentioned CSS impregnated rims. I have a pair of Rigida Grizzly CSS rims and they are stunning in the dry -or wet when used with good V brakes and the requisite hardened brake blocks. For the extra cost, remarkable

    • doug says:

      My tandem has a pair of wheels with CSS coating. I bought them not knowing what it was, since the deal for a set of tandem wheels was unbeatable. They are indeed great — both tours my wife and I have done featured quite a bit of rain, and the braking was very consistent no matter the conditions. A huge plus for a very heavy fully loaded tandem with a wife on the back!

      There was a learning curve, though: I used brand new salmon coolstops for the first ride with a camping load, and the results were hilarious. All four pads were totally used up after less than 150 miles, and coming to a stop produced literally earsplitting screeching. My wife was not happy with all the attention we were getting on our trip across very hilly Whidbey Island!

  15. Brucey says:

    FWIW I think Nishiki83 is spot on; starting with 24 hours, subtract the average time spent sleeping, watching TV, yammering on the phone etc and it doesn’t leave much left over to be alone with one’s thoughts, let alone work, friends, family etc.

    I believe the societal impact of technology is far greater than the superficial ‘enablement’ it seems to endow; in many of us it is fundamentally changing the structure and function of our single most important and energy hungry organ; the brain.

    Only time will tell if this is a ‘good thing’ or not…

  16. Matthew J says:

    How much higher than normal rain is Seattle experiencing?

    Shouldn’t the city infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest be designed to handle precipitation without all that flooding?

  17. jd says:

    I didn’t ride that day, and regretted it. I arrived at work 45 minutes later than planned and plenty grumpy after sitting on the bus along I-5 (for eternity) thinking how I could have ridden and had a mini adventure and felt smug about my ride. Ugh. You made the right call. For me the trick is just getting out of the house. Put enough clothes on to step outside, and then take them off at the first hill. At least that’s my plan tomorrow (forecast for 30 deg. at 6 AM).

  18. Matt R says:

    What about your saddle? Do you ride a leather saddle? How do you keep it dry in such rain?

    • I rode a Berthoud leather saddle. I keep it dry by sitting on it. I find that is very effective.

      The saddle color did get a little pale after the bike dried out, and I put some Obernauf saddle treatment on it. It’ll be fine. It’s not the first time I’ve ridden in torrential downpours – PBP 2007 and 2011 come to mind.

  19. Willem says:

    For ceramic rims use Koolstop Green.
    Willem

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