Mild weather from fall through spring in Austin makes for stellar cyclingof all types, and it’s one of those things for which our town truly deserves the bragging rights— for daily bike commuters, and particularly for those who don’t love to bike in bad weather (that would be most of us).
But this gem of a cycling city, where the sun shows its face an average of 300 days a year, is also nestled in the heart of a region known nationwide as “Flash Flood Alley,” so a rain forecast holds particularly nefarious implications.
A downpour can dump three inches of rain on part of the city in an hour, trapping cyclists behind low-water crossings or bad infrastructure. An empty creek bed can turn into a raging current before a group of mountain bikers has a chance to escape up its slippery banks.
“Austin has some hilly terrain, and the rainfall—depending on the circumstances—could create a wall of water, and here you are in the wrong spot,” said Matt Hollon, who commutes daily on a bicycle to his job as Environmental & Conservation Program Manager with the City of Austin, in which he works on the city’s flood management and watershed conservation programs.
Hollon, as a lifelong cyclist and a flash flood expert, is familiar with the dynamics of riding in the rain in Austin—and, in spite of the occasional two-year or ten-year storm that washes away houses and such—will be the first to say that while riding in the rain can be miserable at times, it can also be done easily by following a few tips.
“Between good gear and timing, and then just gutting it out when you don’t have a choice or seeking alternative, safer route, it’s not that big a deal,” Hollon said.
Assuming you don’t have the opportunity to stay indoors when the bottom falls out of that big black cloud in the sky, here are some tips from the experts for surviving the rain on a bike in Flash Flood Alley:
1. Get the Right Gear for You
Compared to the cost of firing up a car every time it sprinkles, investing a few hundreds bucks in some good rain gear is a no-brainer. Ponchos that cover you and your bike can be helpful for keeping rain off you and the sand and sediment off your DRIVE train. If that’s not comfortable, pick up a cycling-friendly rain suit. If you wear cycling glasses, a brimmed cycling hat under your helmet will cut down the spray in your face and on the lenses. Use Rain-X or a similar product on your glasses to keep your visibility high.
2. Get the Right Gear for your Bike
Water-proof panniers or a rain fly to cover your bike bag will keep your stuff dry. Carry dry clothes and/or a towel. Put your phone in a sandwich bag. Put fenders on your bike to keep the mud from dirtying your clothes; clip-ons that attach to your seat stem are easy to add and remove. For mountain biking, stick with 29-inch tires, 650Bs, and Fat Bikes to get more traction in the mud, according to the International Mountain Bicycling Association. And use an extra thick chain grease that won’t wash away in the rain if you’re doing this regularly.
3. Light it Up
In three-inches-an-hour deluges, cars can’t see you even if they are looking for you—which, in a bad storm, they aren’t. In bad downpours, they may pull onto the shoulder without noticing you. So in addition to being extra vigilant, light up your bike—headlights, tail lights, water proof LEDs on your tires—and make sure the rain gear you’ve chosen isn’t gray or black.
4. Turn Around, Don’t Drown
Avoid low-water crossings and creekbeds. We’ll get into specific locations further down, but in general terms, follow the same rules as you would in a car. If water is rushing across the road crossing a stream or bed, don’t ride into it. The same current that can wash away a Toyota Tacoma can definitely wash away your bike.
5. Choose a Familiar Route
A rain forecast is not the day to pick a new way to work. Rain can fill and cover potholes, storm drains can surprise you, bad infrastructure can flood some streets quicker than others. You need to know where the dangers are before they get covered in water.
“It’s good to know where that stuff is,” Hollon said. “You have to be much more on your guard in the rain, and knowing what is out there and where you are is a big part of the intelligence of cycling.”
6. Be Wary of Road Surfaces and Ride Accordingly
Look for rainbows in the water that may signal oil slicks. Be wary of sand and sediment that cause bikes to slide, more so than cars. Stay off painted areas like stripes and arrows, as they are slicker than regular road surfaces. Be ready to walk your bike through difficult turns, and don’t let your bike lean too much one way or the other when you are taking a corner. Slow down. Ride on a sidewalk if you need to—the only places in Austin that don’t allow this are the UT campus and downtown.
7. Postpone your Ride, or Take the Bus
Or a car. Sometimes, you just gotta give up the ghost and hang up the helmet for the day. When you have a choice, and the rain is blinding, and the crossings are closing, and the floodwaters are raging, it makes no sense to endanger your life and that of others so you can bike the 2.5 miles to work instead of ride. “I’ve been known to call in and say I’m going to be telecommuting from home for a few hours until the rain is through,” Hollon said. “Knowing that you have to roll with the weather a little bit is something we did for millions of years until the last century.”
LOCATIONS TO AVOID
There are 753 low-water crossings in Travis and surrounding counties. Here are some of the areas of Austin with low-water crossings that cyclists may encounter. This isn’t a complete list. In flooding, many of these will have signs or barriers, and it’s illegal to go around them. But people get washed away on these on a regular basis, so it helps to be familiar with their dangers.
For a full, current list of the low-water crossings and whether they are closed or not, check ATXFloods.com.
- Downtown and Central: 2000 W Barton Springs Road; Waller at 8th Street; Lamar at both 9th and 10th streets; Hemphill at 32nd near West Campus.
- South Austin: Wasson Road at Congress (near Stassney Lane); 700 Industrial (71 and I-35); 1301 W Oltorf St (Woodview Mobile Home Park); Manchaca and Jones Road area has half a dozen crossings, going east on Jones through Sunset Valley; South Boggy Creek at Ditmar.
- West Austin: Westlake Drive around the Mt. Bonnell Viewing Platform; 4500 Steiner Ranch; Spicewood Springs Road, west of Texas 360, has half a dozen low-water crossings within a few miles of each other.
- North Austin: There are three dangerous low-water crossings near Duval and Mopac, across from The Domain - one at O’Neal, one at Adelphi, and one at Waters Park Road; a mile or two up Mopac, McNeil Road; the Lake Creek area near Round Rock at I-35 has several low-water crossings. Rutland and Peyton Gin near Rundberg can both get flooded easily.
- East Austin: Immanuel Road, east of I-35 off Wells Branch, has two crossings; 3101 Delwau near the track on 183 has a crossing; 3700-4500 blocks of Manor Road east of Airport near Mueller flood quickly, and there are two crossings on Cameron Road near Parmer Lane.