Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Soaked Cycling

As a four-season, all-weather commuting cyclist I am occasionally caught in the rain while riding my bicycle. Sometimes, coworkers and friends openly express their incredulity as I arrive from my bicycle ride in a non-dry state by calling me "insane" or "hardcore."

"You have no common sense at all. What are you trying to prove? Do you think you are too cool to take the bus?" one coworker asked me, shaking her head in disapproval.

I am not sure what constitutes "hardcore" these days, but I am willing to go out on a limb and guess that I do not qualify.

Furthermore, while my sanity may be debatable, I hardly think riding a bicycle in the rain is crazier than relying on the manic MBTA bus drivers careening haphazardly all across the road for transportation.

Plus, it is very unlikely you will ever encounter any smells on a bicycle that will hold a candle to that booze-saturated hobo who just wet his pants sitting next to you on the 39 bus, murmuring angrily to no one in particular while you do your best to avoid eye contact.

Somehow, people have gotten to the point where rain is a terrible and unfortunate thing to be exposed to. Simply getting wet is just unthinkably awful. Shielded from the house to the car with an umbrella, they scurry hastily to avoid getting a single drop on themselves.

Is the rain so bad, though? Once you get over the simple fact that you will probably get a little wet and acknowledge that it's not going to kill you, I would argue that it's not.

I would go so far as to say a ride in the rain can actually be an enjoyable experience--if you have properly prepared yourself and your bicycle. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Fenders. These are an absolute must. If I could offer only one piece of wet-weather gear to a cyclist with none, I would choose fenders without hesitation.

Not a rain jacket or some oversized poncho, not waterproof shoes, and definitely not some stupid handlebar-mounted umbrella. Fenders.

"Why fenders? They don't even protect you from the rain!" you might be saying to yourself.

That may seem like a valid point, as they most certainly will not shield you from the rain falling out of the sky. However, a worse offender than rain is the water in the road.

In the road, the rain pools together with dirt, gasoline, road salt and whatever other surprises lie in the street. Your two spinning wheels pick up the offensive mixture and hurl it into the air.

This road grime, deployed as a spray from your wheels, shoots all over your rear end and back (resulting in the unfavorable "skunk stripe" which is a tell-tale sign of a fenderless cyclist), and onto your shoes from the front wheel.

Even worse, this wheel spray can sneak into the bottom bracket or even the headset, encouraging what could be a long-lasting and expensive bicycle component to corrode and fail much more rapidly.

Somehow, fenders have fallen out of favor and are largely considered uncool to have on your bike. This is likely due to bicycle racing and it's influence on cycling culture (either that, or the fenders clutter up the stripped-down look of your sweet minimalist fixie conversion).

Some people even use detachable fenders, because the sight of fenders on their bike is so unbearable that they would like them removed for all situations save those that actually necessitate protection from the wet.

However, in my opinion once it starts raining the fashion show is over and no one will think you look cool because your bike has no fenders on it. You will just look wet.

Fenders are made out of all kinds of materials. Beautiful hammered stainless steel or aluminum fenders are available, as are fenders made of polished wood or bamboo.

The best fenders these days are probably the plastic ones. With a thin layer of aluminum sandwiched between two layers of tough thermoplastic material, the modern plastic fender is stiff, durable, cheap, and available in pretty much any color.

Also, a good set of plastic fenders won't rattle noisily as you ride over rough patches in the road like some of the old metal ones can.

Put a set of mudflaps on your fenders (commercially made of rubber or leather, although homemade mudflaps can be crafted out of empty beer cans, used inner tubes, or pretty much anything made out of plastic).

A good set of mudflaps helps completely eliminate the spray from your wheels, while being flexible enough to bend out of the way if you go over a curb or hit a sizable pothole.

To keep you dry from water coming from other directions (the sky, for example), a plethora of gear is available. Specialized jackets with high-tech membranes and bicycle-specific shapes and colors are sold everywhere.

The cycling rain jacket market is saturated, in fact, with all kinds of jackets and pants that claim to be waterproof and breathable.

Cyclists have long found that the aerobic workout they are getting makes them sweat, and their waterproof jacket denies them the breeze that normally serves to cool them off a bit as they ride.

This creates a sauna-like effect inside the clothing, rendering the rider a wet and salty mess as they arrive at their destination.

Ironic, considering the garment is intended to keep you dry.

Modern technology has produced cutting-edge fabrics that supposedly repel water, but still allow the vapor from your body to permeate the jacket.

The idea is that the pores of the jacket are too small for a giant-sized liquid molecule of  water to pass through, but just big enough for a tiny vaporized water molecule to get through.

This only works in theory, however. Unfortunately, the waterproof/breathable combo is a myth. It is the holy grail of cycling apparel--forever sought after, but never found.

This is because of a strange thing called "science". While a waterproof/breathable jacket may in fact allow some evaporation to occur while you are wearing it in dry conditions, once the jacket is wet the water-coated pores of the jacket can no longer allow vapor to pass through.

It's one way or the other. Water cannot be traveling freely through the material one way while simultaneously being repelled on the other side of the fabric. As far as the fabrics that man has created so far are concerned, it's impossible.

I have tried the technological wonder-fabrics myself--GoreTex, eVent, Schoeller c_change, blah blah blah. They all make you sweat just as bad as if you were wearing a trash bag as you ride through the rain. Keep this in mind before you drop a cool $400 on that magic jacket at REI.

Obviously, if you are a backpack-wearing cyclist, the garment will not breathe through the backpack. Even a cotton t-shirt cannot breathe underneath a backpack, or it's straps.

In colder weather (too cold to sweat much), rain jackets are typically much more comfortable to use. Also, a lot of these jackets have massive cut-outs under the armpits which you can unzip to allow some air to flow in.

Most of these jackets, however, do not provide you with any coverage for your legs. While rain pants are available, they can be cumbersome to put on and remove (especially if you wear big shoes or boots that can't slip through the pants), essentially requiring a full-on outfit change just to ride your bike.

Worse, rain pants typically cause a magnified version of the sauna-effect you might experience with your jacket. It's more severe in rain pants because your legs are doing all the work when you ride a bike. They get sweaty in no time.

If you wear rain pants over your regular ones only to get wherever you are going with sweat-soaked trousers, what's the point?

I've seen these Rainlegs things available, which are basically waterproof cut-outs for your thighs. They seem like a pretty good idea to me, but I've never tried them myself so don't consider that an endorsement.

Apparently people use them for riding horses in the rain also, in case you or someone you know loves riding Ol' Trigger in a downpour, but hates having wet thighs afterward.

My personal choice for wet weather riding is the famously awkward and impressively ugly bike poncho (or rain cape, for those who prefer to perpetuate their delusional pretense of being a superhero).

While tremendously stupid-looking, a bike poncho is quick to put on in case of a surprise downpour, and actually breathes a little because it's completely open on the bottom. Also, because they hang over the handlebars, they keep your hands and thighs dry without gloves or special waterproof pants.

Besides, once it starts raining, the fashion show is over. Who cares if it's ugly? It's raining!

Bike ponchos are available in that ubiquitous yellow-vinyl raincoat-type material, or in waxed canvas for the pretentious.

Speaking of catering to the pretentious, the Brooks saddle-making company sells a waxed-canvas rain cape at the uniquely insane price of $230, in case you are pretentious and eager to divest yourself of way more money than you need to in order to ride a bike in the rain. Nice!

As a disclaimer, these ponchos are very awkward and unwieldy, especially if you end up wearing it off of the bike.

They will get in the way of every single thing you can possibly do off of your bicycle, ever, with the exception of standing perfectly still.

They do not work well with backpacks. Also, they are designed with a more upright posture in mind; if you have a racing-style bike, the awkwardness of the poncho will be quite enhanced.

The poncho is obviously worthless if you do not have fenders. In that unfortunate case, you would probably be better off without the poncho, because road spray will just soak the inside of the poncho and make you abjectly miserable (and filthy) as you ride.

Rain poncho or rain jacket and pants, when you ride in the rain your shoes are going to get wet. Water sneaks past those mudflaps sometimes, and every time you splash your way through a puddle, it gets on your shoes. Plus, it's raining, so...

There are waterproof shoes available, but unless you really like the shoe I think it seems a little silly to have a special pair of shoes only for riding in the rain. Do you just carry them around on days it might rain, and change shoes when it starts coming down?

Far more practical is to find some way to deal with the rain with whatever shoes you already wear normally. If you have a well-constructed pair of leather shoes, you can apply some Sno-Seal every once in a while and you'll probably be fine.  Some canvas shoes can also be beefed up with Sno-Seal, but you have to be okay with them looking pretty messy.

A pair of galoshes or waterproof boots will certainly do the trick if you don't mind wearing them all day. Just make sure they cinch up at the top (or have laces), or slip under your pants, so you don't have water trickling in through the top.

Alternately, you could get a pair of splats, neoprene "booties", or some other waterproof shoe covers. They slip on over your normal shoes and keep them dry while you get where you are going. They are ugly as heck, but again: once it starts raining, the fashion show is over.

Really, if you want to be dry when you get to your destination then the easiest, cheapest, and most effective solution is to bring a change of clothes with you. Stick some dry pants and another shirt in a plastic bag or something, and arrive five minutes early to change. Simple as that.

Lastly, visibility on the road is limited during rainy conditions. I don't mean it's harder for you to see (although it might be). I mean it's harder for motorists to see you.

If you have lights for your bicycle, put them on for the rain--even if it's the middle of the day. If you don't have lights for your bicycle, well what's the matter with you? Go get some lights, for goodness sake!

With the gray conditions and water pelting their windshield, drivers won't notice you as well in the rain. Anything that boosts your visibility is a big plus.

All in all, riding in the rain isn't so bad. It is not recommended for the many people who cannot conquer their aquaphobia enough to permit being slightly wet for small periods of time (and there is no shame in being one of those people).

If you are brave enough to endure the moisture, you will probably agree that it's not that bad, and can actually be a fun ride. Just remember:
  • Fenders.
  • No matter what you do, you will not stay perfectly dry. The most you can realistically shoot for is pretty dry. Choose your clothing based on how rain-wet you are willing to become versus how sweaty-wet you are willing to become.
  • The waterproof/breathable combo is a myth. Spend good money on a rain jacket because you like it, not because it claims to do the impossible.
  • Your shoes are going to get wet. If you hate standing around in wet shoes all day (I certainly do), then you need to do something to deal with that.
  • Fenders.
  • Bring a change of clothes with you if it seems like the most realistic way to be comfortable after you reach your destination. There is no shame in sticking an extra pair of socks in your bag (although there may or may not be some shame involved with actually changing your socks, depending on how offensive your personal foot situation happens to be).
  • Fenders.
  • Visibility on the road is limited for motorists when it is raining. Turn your lights on (cars should be doing this too).
  • Once it starts raining, the fashion show is over. No one looks glamorous in the rain, whether or not they are trying to ride a bicycle. Bicycle riders look at least as ridiculous as people getting soaked because their cheap umbrella popped inside out from the wind. Be okay with making some style concessions in the name of practicality. Spending a lot of money on stylish rain-cycling gear is a lost cause, because no matter what you do you will look foolish. You will look foolish and wet, and no one will care at all because it is raining and they are probably concentrating all of their mental focus into trying not to get wet themselves.

Don't worry about finding a magical jacket to wear while it's raining. Focus on finding something comfortable, that you like to wear (or at least don't hate).

Get something that repels water somewhat, even if it's not a completely waterproof cycling-in-the-rain-specific jacket. A decent canvas jacket or a even a windbreaker should be fine.

If it eventually soaks through, so what? It beats getting drenched with sweat inside of a rain jacket that makes you look like a Power Ranger.

Besides, you brought a dry shirt with you, right?


  1. You can tell I'm not a cyclist, i.e., when you mentioned early in this blog that "spray can sneak into the bottom bracket or even the headset," by "headset," I thought you meant the spray can leap as high as your head and get on your headset, as in your iPod, your music listening device! But, although I'm not a cyclist, what I walk away from this blog with is this: Fenders! As I'm out and about, I see bikers and cyclists here and there but now I will be looking for the real hard-core cyclists. How? By seeing if they have fenders on their bikes! Thanks Jeremy, I really enjoyed today's "Waxed Word!"

  2. best/most helpful article I've read about riding in the rain yet.

  3. best/most helpful article I've read about riding in the rain yet.

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