Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cycling in the Rain & Steelhead Fishing: You gotta be out there in it

It occurred to me while cyclo-commuting to work in the rain the other morning how I'm coming to view cycling in the rain as the same as Steelhead fishing. The photo above shows DartreDame and me on her first ever Steelhead fishing trip (actually, her first ever real fishing of any kind). We began in the early morning snow, and our new relationship was on the line. Turned out she loved it and landed three Steelies and a Bull Trout on her first day, all on the fly! And guess what I caught? I caught Dartre: the catch of my life!

OK, back to cycling and fishing. So what's the similarity between winter Steelheading and cycling in the rain? In winter Steelheading you stand in a freezing cold river, typically with a strong wind, and driving rain or sleet or snow, and you endure. You pay your dues.

And...if you're smart you develop some strategies to keep warm and dry. I tried it all:

  • Neoprene gloves (too tight, therefore too cold; also clammy)
  • Nylon jacket (sweaty, therefore cold)
  • Hand warmers (too gimmicky and clumsy)
  • Toe warmers (ditto, only more so)
  • Cheap waders & boots (leaky and cccccold)
  • Cotton undies (cute and authentic-looking, but little thermal effect)
  • Jaunty "fishing" caps (photo-worthy, but inept at weatherproofing)
Eventually, I graduated to:
  • Layers
  • Wool
  • Base layers
  • Breathability
  • Fleece
  • Layers
  • Neck Gaitor
  • Glove liners, Wool mittens
  • Lots of food, ingested at a rapid tempo
  • Lots of Water, same
  • Quality Waders
  • Wool or Fleece Cap
  • Layers
But more than clothing, both activities are about a certain state of mind. Friends would wonder what I liked about wading a cold river in pretty horrible conditions. For me, it was just that. If I had the right gear, I loved snuggling into myself and wrapping myself in the smug satisfaction (smuggling?) that I could match the conditions. Once you accept the challenge--and are prepared--being immersed in dramatically wild weather is itself very fun!

I love the snowflakes, the subtle colors, the changes in the sky. The smells. On our last 200k--the Three Rivers Cruise--it was that pungent odor of decaying Salmon carcasses that when mixed with cold sharp air was intoxicating. Not the same sharpness in the warmer fall days. You just gotta be out there in it.

And then there is the act of wading a river. You don't so much plod forward as you'd walk on land. More like skating across the bottom rocks. You kind of glide with the current. Your weight must be secure on one foot before lifting the other, but sometimes you can float-shuffle. The main point is that you loosen up, relax, and "go with the flow". That's right, you immerse your self--your whole self--into the water, hokey pokey style. If you fight the water, or are tight, you'll go down. Believe me, I know because I've done it.

Same with riding your bicycle in the rain or driving a car on icey roads. It's a soft approach. No fast turns, and hopefully no fast stops. Easy does it.

I believe that the chief thing I'm getting at is that you have to just BE in the elements rather than fight them. To Steelhead in nasty weather you don't steel yourself so much as you let yourself ease into it. To cycle in nasty weather it's best to relax. My tendency while cycling in the rain is to hunch my shoulders and tense up. Not the best. I'm still working on that easing on down the road.

Of course, this is all well and good if you're well-prepared. Once you get chilled, it's a different matter. Everything is harder and less fun. There were days Steelhead fishing that it would take a long darn time to warm my toes back up. I mean they were just numb, and I was pretty toasted.

My goal as a newbie randonneur is to take my Steelheading lessons and get myself outfitted so that I don't reach that familiar popsicle state too often. The satisfaction then of riding in really bad conditions--but remaining relatively comfortable--is its own reward.

I probably better watch what I wish for. Am I dooming myself to some nasty brevets this coming year? Just in case, I've prepared since the March 2009 Berkie 200k where we rode twelve hours in the rain.

John Vincent, whom I met on that brevet, and I (note the hunching shoulders) have just finished in this photo, and it's funny how many improvements to your preparedness you can conjure up in hour after hour of rainy cycling.

Here are a few of my newer preparations:

My illumiNITE helmet cover, supposedly waterproof in addition to its nightime reflecting effects.

When I test rode the helmet cover during my work commute last week it caused coworkers to comment along the lines of: "Wow, you're really ready!" and "You look so Continental!" It has gotten me noticed...for better and worse.

At the end of last winter I got these mitts at the Outdoor Research store (and factory) in Seattle.

Jury is still out. I like the handy (really, not intended) cords (not shown) for tightening cuff, but they could get caught in spokes! YIKES. Need to modify.

Lastly, booties. I bought these last summer despite the smarta** local bicycle shop employee who mocked me for buying booties when it was 70 degrees outside. HA! It ain't 70 now buddy, and I knew a good find when I spied it.

What I like most about these is that they are SO easy to get on and off. And let me tell you, when I'm already cold it's amazing how such a thing as the difficulty of donning has an effect on whether I'll don them or not. Plus, they are large enough to fit well and hopefully not get shredded, because they don't interfere with my shoe soles. Again, we'll see, but first testing was positive. Below is the ingenious closure system.

Oops, not so obvious, but it is a wide swath of Velcro.

Then there is the wind. In a recent randon group listserve discussion it was revealed that the wind for cyclists is a headwind across 200 degrees of the total 360 degree circle from whence wind can come. You read that right. If it feels like the wind is more often a headwind than a tailwind, it is because that is so.

In flyfishing for Steelhead, the same phenomenon holds. On top of the cold weather you can just about guarantee you'll be casting into the wind, so you better learn how to do it. Cursing sometimes helps, but usually it's a tight loop that is the ticket. In cycling, same thing. Make yourself into a tight package and slice through.

Winter Steelheading isn't for everyone, but it has its special rewards. Same for cycling in the rain.

Keep it layered,



  1. I never thought of all the similarities. Good that you started out with the conditions, also good that you ended with the toys. I remember when I moved up from the cheapo Garcia Abu glass spinning rod and old Mitchell 300 reel to my first Fenwick CF rod and that basic Pfluger level wind casting reel. And then kept moving up the line through the higher tech to the ultimate minimalist esoteric hardware. I caught more fish, but that probably had more to do with hours spent than dollars spent, and so it is on the bike.

    But I thnk you really hit the nub of success when you talked about mind set. You can't succeed if you are not out there 'in it', and no matter the array of toys, you'll never stick if you don't think you can. Sure it needs to be fun, but just like flying, sometimes you have to fly through the clouds, hit a little rough air, to get to the sunny spot on the other side.

    Keep it reel

    Yr Pal Dr C

  2. Ah, yes. I trod the same fishing path: Mitchell 300, Fenwick fiberglass fly rod, Pflueger fly reel. Don't really need carbon or disc drag or all that.

    Also distinctly remember the feeling when I wore my first rubber hip boots the very first morning and strode right through barbed wire. Anyone need a perfectly good left hip boot?

    I swear I could hear the fishies snickering.