Summer on the highveld or winter in the Cape, there’s a chance that you could be caught in a downpour during a race. One quick rainstorm is hardly a worry; hours or days of continual rain can wear you down mentally and it’s very likely that your team will pull out. Months of preparation and planning down the drain. That’s why your choice of clothing and kit for rainy season races is important. It means the difference between being comfortable or suffering in unpleasant conditions.
A waterproof jacket should be your first purchase; be prepared to spend so that you buy right from the outset. A good jacket will survive many years and races.
My choice is an unlined jacket. They pack up small and they’re light in weight so you can keep it in your backpack throughout the race… just in case. Also, you’ll be wearing other tops and layers underneath; you don’t need any additional weight or warmth to be contributed by the jacket.
Your jacket must have a hood. “Hoods are very important,” says Team McCain Adventure Addicts captain Graham Bird. “It keeps the rain from going in the collar and also keeps your head dry and warm.” Depending on the size of the hood, you can wear your mountain bike helmet under or over it. If you’re on foot, a cap will keep the rain out of your eyes.
Jackets not only keep the rain out. “In summer being wet is not such a big deal,” says Jeremy Green. “It is the wind that is the killer. The jacket is more to keep the wind off your wet body than to keep your body dry, because you’ll be sweating inside anyway.”
Rain aside, Jeremy always keeps his jacket packed incase they stop at location exposed to the wind, like at the top of a cliff waiting to abseil. He also has a very lightweight, windproof, splash-proof (not waterproof) shell, which “doesn’t work unless it is a 65km race where the weather is irrelevant and there is no intention to stop other than for an emergency”.
What you wear under the jacket is just as important as the outer layer. Anthony Howes prioritises the management of getting wet rather than trying to stay dry. “Keep moving, keep hydrated and keep eating to stay warm,” he suggests. “A wicking shirt of technical fabric or thermal underwear works as an inner layer – no cotton or wool. These natural fabrics get water logged and become very cold and wet. With my wicking shirts I am still wet from sweating under the jacket but it is a warm sweaty wet and not great for smell, but enough to keep me warm.” He advises heading for a dry place, sheltered from the wind, if you stop for more than ten minutes to rest.
And on your legs?
“I don’t worry about the legs,” says Piers Pirow. “I usually take a waterproof jacket, a P100 fleece top and a 15-litre drybag for the gear in my backpack.”
If it is cold and wet for hours on end, Graham wears thermal tights as a base layer with waterproof pants on top. This combination works well for mountain biking too where wind chill is a big factor, especially on the flats and descents. Jeremy agrees, “Waterproof pants are a necessity for long periods of rain, not to keep you dry, but to keep you warm. You’ll probably be wet from sweat anyway”.
I wish that I had duck feet
When the ground is wet, your feet will be wet. Jeremy and Jacques Booysen like their Seal Skinz waterproof socks. “They work wonders for cold feet on the bike,” Jeremy explains. “But they do fill with water on the river crossings so they’re generally only appropriate for the longer races where you are prepared to strip down for a water crossing and dry off afterwards.”
Ronald Jessop is a man after my own heart. “I take plenty of socks,” he says. “Shoes with quick drying uppers help too and I also pack waterproof plasters to stick on any hot-spots before they turn into blisters. Works for me.”
Alex Pope uses the same strategy. “With regular changes of socks, and diligent support crew drying wet pairs, I avoid foot problems.”
“Sleeping when it is raining is not really an option if you are racing,” says Graham. “It is what the mind wants to do, but you have to just get out there and suck it up! If we do get tired and need to sleep, we prefer to find a warm shelter so that sleep is more beneficial. Out in the open you don’t sleep well, even under a shelter.”
Shelters are usually compulsory gear and they work for rain and dew, but are only worth pitching if you’re going to sleep for at least two hours; afterall, it takes 10-minutes to put up and another ten to take down. Jeremy’s lightweight shelter is too short to completely cover them. “When there’s lots of dew we sleep under the shelter with our feet stuffed into our backpacks. In the rain, this shelter would be disastrous so it isn’t an option unless it’s an emergency. When there’s a strong likelihood of rain we take a complete 3-season tent, even though it weighs two kilograms.”
Sleeping bags, and not bivvy bags, are essential. If you have to sleep, you want to sleep properly, not shivering in a plastic bag. Even so, most teams aim to reach a transition where their support crews have a camp setup, complete with a big tent, warm sleeping bags and hot drinks. But this is not always possible, so you have to be prepared.
Embrace the wet. Manage the cold
Hypothermia is not a nice game. Fortunately, with well-chosen clothing and gear wet conditions will add to your racing experience, not ruin it.
Author: Lisa de Speville | Published in Go Multi Magazine, March/April 2009