How to Cycle in Rain, Thunder and Lightning

With regard to giving advice on how to cycle in rain, thunder and lightning, well, I can’t help you, I just don’t. I don’t mean to suggest that I haven’t, I am saying that I choose not to. Really, what I’m focusing on is riding when there is lightning and thunder, not about riding in the rain, because, although it is not entirely pleasant, I’ll do it. This post is timely because yesterday afternoon, what started as light rain turned into a thunder and lightning show and, because my wife loves me (I’m still surprised by that at times, LOL), she waited 45 minutes outside my office for my workday to end so that she could drive me home in the relative safety of our car.

In a discussion on the commuting forum at BikeForums.net about cycling in thunder and lightning, most responded that they do not cycle when there is lightning although there is a general sense that the likelihood of being struck by lightning is very remote (lightning statistics show that only 1 in 700,000 people are struck by lightning in a year). More commuting forum members are concerned about high winds than lightning. However, should you happen to be out on the bike when there is a storm, avoid standing under or near tall structures: taking cover under an overpass or in a bus shelter or an entrance overhang will protect you from the lightning as well as the rain or hail should there be any.

One time, though, I was caught out, exposed, in a lightning storm. I had dropped something off at the office on a weekend (by bike) and was taking the short route home—about 4km, 15 minutes of cycling—in warm, cloudy weather (the clouds were intermittent so there was lots of sun but the clouds were big and fluffy, cumulonimbus maybe? probably, as they were rain clouds a bit later). Within the first few minutes of the ride home, the sky started to get dark and I thought that a rain storm was coming so I should hurry home before it arrived. Then I saw lightning so I started to count Mississippis (because 5 of them is about 5 seconds which is approximately the amount of time it takes sound to travel one mile) and I counted to 8 so the lightning was about 1.5 miles away (yes, I normally work in metric units but I haven’t converted this procedure to metric). Although that lightning strike wasn’t as far away as I would have liked it to be, it didn’t worry me too much.

I continued to ride and a couple of minutes later, I saw another strike of lightning but counted only 4 Mississippis before the clap of thunder: wow, that was less than a mile away! I continued to cycle when there was another strike of lightning but this time, I didn’t even have time to count 1 Mississippi before there was a huge crash of thunder: I figured that strike was just a couple of hundred meters (yards) above my head and it scared me but I was out in the open, there was no shelter anywhere, so I had to continue to cycle and pray that I wouldn’t get hit by the next one.

I don’t recall seeing any more lightning or hearing any more thunder during the rest of the ride home because shortly after that last strike, the skies opened up and torrential rain came pouring down. Fortunately, it was a warm day so the rain wasn’t cold but within a few seconds, I was drenched from head to toe. As I was cycling up the incline of the 2nd last road before my home street, the water in the gutter pouring down the slope was easily 5cm/2″ deep and the bow wave created by my front tire was filling up my shoe with water which then emptied out when I did a down stroke in my pedaling; fill, empty; fill, empty; fill, empty.

I don’t ever want to be out on my bike again when lightning strikes that close and so, for the most part, I will avoid going out on my bike in a storm with lightning and thunder.

If you choose to ride in a rain and thunder and lightning storm (or have no choice), ensure that you can be seen by traffic if you choose to ride on the road by having bright and reflective clothing and both front and rear lights on. Rain clouds reduce the brightness of the daylight and rain on windshields reduce the clarity of motorists’ vision. If the lightning sounds like it is getting close, I recommend that you find cover and wait it out.

Also, be aware that vehicle tires do not grip the road for braking as well as they do during dry conditions, especially during the first few minutes of a rainfall when the rainwater releases oils from the road surface and lubricates it a bit. After the first few minutes, the oils have essentially been washed away so although tire traction may not be as compromised as it was, wet surfaces (especially painted portions of the road) are still slipperier than dry surfaces. Whatever you can do to increase the distance between yourself and the vehicles, will provide additional safety (such as taking a different route through a residential area to avoid a busy street). Alternatively, leave your bike and take the transit or, if the option is available, put your bike on the front rack of a transit bus, even if that only reduces the distance you need to cycle in the rain and thunder and lightning.

Use good judgement when considering cycling in rain and especially if there is thunder and lightning and consider other options if there are any.

Update: Two Days Later

So, yesterday afternoon, the rain was on and off: sometimes sunny, sometimes spray in the air, sometimes a shower and sometimes heavy rain. I assumed that I wasn’t going to make it home dry (even if it wasn’t raining when I started out) and for that reason, I packed my RBS (Really Bright Stuff) Polaris Bikewear Rain Jacket into my pannier in the morning.

RBS (Really Bright Stuff) Rainjacket from Polaris Bikewear (unfortunately, the waterproof version of this jacket is no longer available although the windproof one is available)
RBS (Really Bright Stuff) Rainjacket from Polaris Bikewear (unfortunately, the waterproof version of this jacket is no longer available although the windproof one is available)

When I left my office building at the end of my day, I could hear the rumble of trucks out of sight on the main road and it was just spitting. By the time I exited the parking lot area, spitting had turned into a light shower for which I was thankful I was wearing the jacket. A couple of minutes later, I was on the road when I saw a bright flash of light (lightning) and, again, before I could count 1 Mississippi, a huge crack of thunder rang in my ears. However, where was I to go? On this same stretch of road as my previous encounter with a close strike of lightning, I was essentially exposed; no shelter anywhere, cars around me but at least there were lots of trees and lightposts that were taller than me and not too far away so if another strike were to happen nearby, the lightning would have plenty of choices that didn’t include me. I also realized at this point that the rumble of trucks I thought I could hear from my office door were probably rumbles of thunder from lightning I couldn’t or hadn’t seen.

Despite my advice in the earlier part of this post, I decided to keep cycling anyway. With the exception of a couple of strikes after which there was a 4 Mississippi delay before the sound of thunder, the rest of the visible strikes were 8 to 15 Mississippis away. My wife, who was at the dentist (3km away) while I was cycling, told me that there was lots of lightning going on around the dental office. I (obviously) made it home safely but a little shaken up and of course, wet but comfortable in the jacket. My wife asked me, Did you have an exciting ride? but strangely enough, she didn’t chastise me for having ridden while there was visible lightning all around (I am worth more dead than alive she’ll often say, lovingly).

Again, I was caught unprepared and in the open and still don’t want to repeat that. However, there may be other times when I may not have seen lightning or heard thunder or perhaps, there might not even be rain when I start out but still, I might get caught again. Hopefully, next time I get caught like this, I’ll be in a better position to escape exposure to lightning.

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