Bicycle Commuting in Seattle Rain

About mid-September, friends and coworkers start looking more skeptical than usual when I get ready to bike to or from work. "It might rain!" "Do you need a ride?" "Don't get too wet out there." Thanks, but believe it or not, after riding more than 20 winters in Seattle rain, I'm ready for it.

If you're about to start your first winter of bike commuting, or if you want this winter to be a bit more pleasant than last, here are a few ideas on making your wet weather commuting more pleasant. First, a couple of important distinctions:

Warm vs. Dry

In warmer rain, staying dry while cycling isn't really an option unless you are willing to ride very slowly. If you're riding even moderately hard, your real choice is between rain and sweat. Wearing enough rain gear to keep all the rain off your body will reduce airflow enough that you'll get damp with perspiration instead. Rain is clean and refreshing in moderation; sweat is sticky and starts to smell during the day. Block enough wind and rain to avoid getting chilled, but not so much you're riding in your own personal sauna.

Rain vs. Spray

Freshly falling rain is clean, clear water. That stops when it hits the road and picks up the chemical stew of car drippings and whatever else ends up on your local roads between rainy days. Thinking back to an unpleasantly wet ride in childhood, you may have vivid memories of an icy rooster tail of road spray draining down your back and filling your shorts with black grime, or of your mother's reaction to what that rooster tail had done to your good clothes. Mom was right -- avoid road spray.

With those two distinctions in mind, let's get ready for the rain.

The Rain Bike

If your bike came from a mainstream bike shop in the U.S., there are probably a few simple, practical, inexpensive items it lacks. To be fair to the shop, they can't afford to stock what people won't buy, and most bicycle buyers in the U.S. want to look like they're competing, not commuting.

In general...

Specific suggestions

Fenders, or "mudguards" if you're British, will do more to make your bike comfortable in the rain than any expensive jacket. Fenders don't trap any sweat against your body, and they don't stop any clean rain from hitting you, but they block nearly all the road spray from your tires. If you have never ridden a bicycle with full fenders, you may be amazed at the improvement. Not only will you stay cleaner and dryer, so will your bike. Fenders make your chain and brake pads last longer, keep your lights and reflectors cleaner, and block those little bits of slime that stick to your shins after you run over a banana slug in the darkness.

SKS Chromoplastic fenders have been around a long time, they're quite durable and come in many widths for either 26" or 700C wheels.

Planet Bike also makes some excellent fenders these days in a wide range of widths.

Mudflaps were common when baloon tire bikes ruled the roads, but they're now uncommon even on bikes that do come with fenders. Mudflaps distribute the slop that's running down the inside of your fenders, and block the heavier elements of road spray, like mud or horse manure. They're a worthwhile addition to any set of fenders unless you really can't stand the slight increase in wind resistance.

I use Hunt Wilde mudflaps on my commuting and touring bikes. They look like something out of the past, with checkered flags molded into the black vinyl mud flap, and a red center reflector that weights the flap so it doesn't blow around as much. Not surprising, they've been making them about the same since the 1950s.

Instead of a reflector, the Electra Streamride mudlfap uses chrome trim at the bottom of the flap to add weight and stiffness.

Tires for the rain do not need heavy tread -- hydroplaning is essentially impossible with tires as narrow and high-pressure as bicycle tires. But rain tires should be a bit heavier than racing tires. Wet rubber cuts more easily than dry rubber, and water makes small bits of glass, radial tire wire, etc. stick to the tire so they get more than one chance at cutting through. Heavier tires aren't as fast, but I would rather ride a little slower than spend my time changing flat tires in driving rain.

On my Bianchi Milano, I run red Kenda Kwest 26x1.50, 100psi tires. Black ones would roll just as well, I confess I bought these because they look good on the bike. But it does seem people notice them more, and bump into them less, when I'm carrying my bike up the stairs at the train station every morning.

My other commuter/touring bike has IRC Metro tires, a bit narrower, not quite as comfortable going over ballast rock by the train station, but still beefy enough for brick streets and curb hopping in Seattle.

Waterproof panniers allow you to carry dry clothes and keep your other cargo dry. It's surprising how many panniers are at most mildly water resistant – I've actually heard company sales reps say that you should just pack your contents in plastic garbage bags if you're going to ride in the rain.

Fortunately, there are some bags designed for year-round use, or you can make your own using commercial pannier mounting hardware. My own favorite commuting pannier is a Pelican case with Kickfix mounting gear.

REI has a good selection of weatherproof panniers and bags. I can't recommend a specific bag, it depends too much on what your cargo needs are. They also sell spare parts, like the mounting kit I used on my Pelican case.

Clothing for Rainy Riding

Clothing for rain is more than just rain gear. It includes wind-resistant fabrics that stay warm when wet, and fabrics that dry quickly between rides. Layering is also useful, to help you fine-tune the balance between rain and sweat.

Tights are the first layer of rain protection, for light drizzle. While they do get wet, they keep your legs warmer.

Cold legs mean aching joints -- add tights whenever the weather is damp enough to chill your legs, and let the rest of your body dissipate the heat from your legs.

As the weather gets cooler, windfront tights or more insulated ones cost more but keep leg muscles and knees warm. The few weeks of the year that it's really cold in Seattle, nothing beats my Sugoi 220 tights.

Tights don't have to be expensive to be good for commuting. If you're a racer, you either need team-logo tights, or tights that are comfortable worn under your shorts so you can still show your team colors. For the rest of us, running tights over shorts are fine for warmth.

On the other hand, cycling-specific tights are cut to fit better on the bike, so they can chafe less if you have sensitive skin.

Long sleeves come after tights. When it's barely cool enough to need long sleeves, separate arm warmers help tune your protection.

As the weather gets colder or wetter, a long-sleeve jersey or long-sleeve undershirt under your regular jersey gives better protection.

Personally, I only own a couple of long-sleeve jerseys. Most of the year I ride in sleeveless jerseys, adding a short-sleeved undershirt when temperatures drop into the upper 50s, and a long-sleeve undershirt in the 40s and below.

For reasons I've never understood, many cycling companies seem to think stealth black is a great color for cool-weather clothing like arm warmers. Riding in traffic, I like to be seen, especially when I'm signaling a turn. Luckily, Pearl Izumi makes a high-viz yellow arm warmer, seamless, at a reasonable price.

For undershirts, I prefer lycra compression shirts, they block wind well and don't feel bulky under a jersey. As with tights, you don't need to go for expensive name brands if you're just after comfort -- Eastbay makes a good long-sleeve compression shirt in bright colors for around $15.

A light wind-breaker jacket blocks wind when the rain isn't very hard or cold. In 60-degree drizzle, an actual rain jacket will be too warm if you're riding hard. A windbreaker will get wet, but traps warmer air against your body without trapping perspiration.

As with long-sleeve shirts, I have this funny idea that windbreakers should be bright, visible colors that make it easier for motorists to see a cyclist on a gray, drizzly day.

Some good bright options include:

  • Sugoi Helium

  • Pearl Izumi Barrier Lite

A rain jacket is the first piece of rain-specific clothing to add. There are many varieties and brands, here are a few points I'd look for:

  • Storm flap over zipper. An exposed zipper leaks wind and rain.

  • Fleece-lined collar. No matter what you do, your jacket collar will get wet. A collar lined with light polyester fleece won't be nearly as unpleasant against the skin as one made of hard shell fabric. Some more expensive jackets have neoprene collars; that's even more comfortable than fleece.

  • Long tail. When you're bent forward riding, does the jacket still shelter your rear end? Or does the rain it keeps off your back drip between your cheeks?

Sandals, unlike shoes, generally don't hold water. (I absolutely hate putting on cold, wet shoes.)

In most weather, I ride with just sandals on my feet. In mild temperatures, a little rain on my skin isn't bad, certainly not as cold and clammy as riding around in wet socks. And skin dries much faster than socks.

When temperatures get cold enough, I put on waterproof fleece socks that keep my feet warm.

I currently wear Adidas SPD sandals that fit a lot like road shoes – narrow, stiff soled, but with a decent walking tread. Unfortunately, they seem to be discontinued.

Keen makes a nice looking Commuter sandal that I've tried on in REI but haven't ridden yet.

Helmet covers mostly seem to come in black these days, which is unfortunate, since your head is the highest, most visible part of your bike while riding in traffic. Most of the time I don't bother with a helmet cover for shorter rides, but if it's a cold, hard rain, a helmet cover can keep your head quite a bit warmer, and stops some of the runoff that trickles down into your eyes.

(These suggestions are all from my personal experience. If you think you have the greatest rain riding product since the invention of fenders and wonder why it isn't on these lists, most likely I've simply never used it. Feel free to email me.)

Office Adaptations for Rainy Riding

A frequent complaint of bicycle commuters in rainy areas is that offices don't provide convenient places to hang wet clothing, which means damp, clammy, smelly clothes for the ride home. Some companies provide showers, locker rooms, and indoor bike parking. Most don't. Here are a few ideas for maintaining a professional office while commuting comfortably in the rain.

  • A small fan on the floor under your desk can provide enough airflow to dry helmets and clothes during the day.

  • A shallow, open-mesh plastic basket turned upside down under a desk makes a flat drying rack that allows air flow on both sides of whatever you're drying.

  • If you have an unused file drawer, weaving string between the file-hanger bars makes a convenient drying rack.

This page written by Josh Putnam. Please feel free to email questions, comments, corrections, suggestions, etc.

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