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
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.
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.
have been around a long time, they're quite durable and come in
many widths for either 26" or 700C wheels.
also makes some excellent fenders these days in a wide range of
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
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
uses chrome trim at the bottom of the flap to add weight and
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
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.
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
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
Long sleeves come after tights. When it's barely cool
enough to need long sleeves, separate arm warmers help tune
As the weather gets colder or wetter, a long-sleeve jersey
or long-sleeve undershirt under your regular jersey gives
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
makes a high-viz yellow arm warmer, seamless, at a reasonable
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
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
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:
- 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
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.