Anyone who lives in Colorado knows the weather can change on a dime — sunny and 70 degrees one day, blizzard and 20 degrees the next. We received more than 50 inches of snow in April alone. It makes training a little … inconsistent, if you’re not an indoor-trainer sort of cyclist. Which I’m not. My fluid trainer is now living with a friend, getting much more attention and appreciation than I ever gave it.
So with about a month left before the start of Ride The Rockies, I’m either left with not training enough, or getting my outdoor miles in weather that’s a little messy and inconvenient. And while I’m not going out in 12 inches of snow, I do try to get some miles in when it’s messy. Because after doing seven RTR tours, I know we’re in for a little bit of everything, both in terms of weather and road conditions. And I’d rather be somewhat prepared for how to ride in those conditions.
In past years, I’ve ridden through downpours and thunderstorms outside Leadville; snowstorms going up Berthoud Pass; windstorms heading out of Montrose; sleet and freezing rain coming down Independence Pass. Add to that the 20 miles of full-on gravel (a surprise addition from a local mining company); miles of dirt and sandtraps (a last-minute detour to avoid late construction); chopped up asphalt and the occasional carpet-tack attack (courtesy of disgruntled locals).
In short, you have to be ready for anything.
So while riding in clear, warm sunshine on new, smooth asphalt is our ideal, we also have to know how to handle our bikes in less than ideal conditions, safely and mindfully. Otherwise, you may be waiting in the pouring rain for a SAG wagon — which might not be a bad idea, except they tend to fill up quickly when the weather turns; or walking your bike slowly through miles and miles of dirt roads. Which is just … not fun.
Last year, I had lots of practice training in rain and sleet — not by design. It’s just that when the weather is clear and warm in Boulder, it’s often a very different scene up in the mountain towns that are my destination. I can’t tell you how many times I left Boulder in beautiful spring conditions, only to find myself hammered with rain, wind and snow as I inched my way up to Ward or Brainard Lake just 20-25 miles away from home. I’ve often sat shivering and drenched in Ward’s little general store, sucking down coffee and glaring out at the snow, waiting for a break in the weather that never came. And for all the discomfort and annoyance of these episodes, I was always glad for them later, when I was trying to slowly ride down Independence Pass in the sleet, mindful of the slick, steep roads and being buffeted by winds that seemed determined to swoop me off my bike and over the nearest ledge.
Luckily, we’re usually blessed with amazing weather during Ride The Rockies. There have been some years when it’s been clear sailing under sunny skies. But there are pockets of ugly here and there, so a couple of non-expert, non-technical tips on handling the weather.
LAYERS: Bring them. Even if it seems absolutely gorgeous and clear when you start out. I’m talking everything from rain jackets and full-fingered gloves to boot covers, extra base layers, head covers. It may be cumbersome to haul that with you, but it’s worth the annoyance. Buy an extra large, compression travel bag for under your seat — they can handle a surprising amount of gear.
TIRES WITH FRESH TREADS: If yours are getting worn down, buy new ones. You need adequate traction on rain-slick roads, especially on the descents. Have a pair for training, and another for the actual event. I train on 4-season Continentals with Kevlar (Gatorskins are also good) — they’re a little bulkier, but I’m not a racer so I’m not concerned about speed. They handle all conditions and are wonderfully impervious to road trash — glass, goats-head prickers, sharp stones, etc.
GO SLOW: Especially if you’re getting your first taste of riding on dirt or in snow/rain, take it easy, stop as often as you need and try not to get freaked out. I don’t care if you have to inch along while other cyclists blow by you, keep your focus, stay at the speed you’re comfortable and don’t try to keep up with people who may not be riding safely. It’s not a race, it’s an experience. But you’ll encounter riders who will pass way too close and way too fast on those conditions — don’t try to keep up, even if you just want to chase them down and beat some sense into them. It’s not worth the effort or the possible injury. Keep YOUR pace.
RIDE WITH A FRIEND: Especially one who’s comfortable with all-weather riding, both for the confidence-building company and to get tips on navigating the conditions. I remember getting stuck in a hail storm during a training ride, and hearing my riding buddy pepper the air behind me with “Ouch! OUCH!!” and a few choice expletives. It makes it an experience. I also like being able to stop somewhere and warm up with coffee, or relax after a bumpy ride over dirt. Having company makes that much more pleasant and affirming. It can also help in windy conditions, when you can draft off of each other to get a break from the full-on headwinds. Learn how to stay just close enough to the forward bike’s “sweet spot” that you get a windbreak, but also that you’re safe enough to stop suddenly if necessary.
IF YOU NEED TO STOP, STOP: There’s a time when you have to listen to your gut and just get off the road, even if it’s just for a quick break. When I ride alone, I always bring my phone and a credit card or cash: I can call someone to come pick me up, and if I can’t reach anyone I can try for a taxi, if they run in that area. One of my best memories of this was when I had mechanical problems on a really hot day — no shade around, and I was baking. I called my dear friend Casey to come pick me up and he did — and then he hauled me up to a town half an hour away because he wanted to get coffee at his favorite shop. Way out of the way, but now that he’s gone, I’m so glad for the extra time it gave me with this quirky, lovely man.
So — the non-technical, common-sense guide to training in difficult conditions. Don’t be a fair-weather, fair-road cyclist when you train: Get some time in bad weather, put your tires on some messy roads and get comfortable. Odds are, it will come in handy in June.
— Ingrid Muller