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Urban Bad Weather Commuting

by Josh King


Josh King in his commuter armor
Josh King lives in Seattle, where he commutes by bike every day, rain or shine. Earlier this year he switched to full-time single speed commuting; you can read his thoughts on going gearless at www.singlespeedseattle.com


Start commuting year-round, and you’re going to have to make some adjustment for crappy weather. When I first started riding to work, my rainy day adjustment was simple: catch the bus instead. And when I finally decided to try riding home in the rain, it was, in a word, terrifying. Seattle is very dark in the winter, and dark plus rain equals some seriously suboptimal riding conditions. But as I gradually geared up and got used to riding in the rain, I grew to enjoy it – and even occasionally look forward to it.

Twisted, I know. Anyway, a few thoughts on city riding in inclement weather:

Visibility is Key

Being visible and predictable is never more important than when riding in the rain. Driver visibility is limited. Pedestrians are hard to see, and often scurrying. And to people emerging from parked cars – often in a rush to cover – you might as well be invisible. So, getting lots of lighting is key. But being comfortable taking the lane is equally critical. You’ll be out of the door zone, which makes you much more visible across the board. Plus, you’ll have room to maneuver when someone runs helter-skelter across the street for the sanctuary of an awning. Getting a powerful rear light did wonders to make me feel confident that I wouldn’t get hit from behind when taking the lane in the rainy darkness.

Anticipate and be Defensive

Because it’s hard to make eye contact in the rain and the dark, I tend to ride slower and a lot more defensively when it’s raining. Most of my commute runs through pedestrian-heavy areas, and drivers will often dart between packs of peds to make right turns or left turns into parking lots. I always watch for slowing traffic (because many cars don’t signal) and make sure I have stopping room or a way out. Passing on the right, even in bike lanes, is dicey, as it’s really hard for drivers to see you through dark and rain-soaked windows. I try to avoid it unless there’s nowhere for the car to turn (including parking spaces).

There’s No Bad Weather – Just Bad Gear

In addition to effective lighting, a number of simple gear choices have made riding in the rain a whole lot easier to manage:

  1. Basic gloves. My cold weather gloves would still be sodden when it came time to ride home, but I found that basic non-waterproof microfleece gloves with windstopper material were fine for my short commute. Sure, my hands get a little wet, but they never get miserable. And the gloves are lightweight enough to dry off by the time evening comes around.
  2. Helmet cover. Not only does it keep the rain off, but getting one with Illuminite fabric turns your head into a beacon whenever a car’s headlights touch on it. Brilliant stuff. And because it goes on and off in seconds, you can easily remove it for longer rides (it does negatively impact ventilation).
  3. Shoe covers. Like a lot of urban commuters, I ride in work clothes. Finding shoe covers that would fit over something other than cycling shoes is hard to do – but two years ago I found these, made by Oregon’s J&G. They’ll cover the clunkiest of shoes. You’re not going to win any cycle fashion prizes with these mini-Hefty bags on your feet, but they’re durable and effective. My original pair is still going strong.Josh King's Rain Bike
  4. Pack cover. Lots of people in Seattle favor the waterproof Ortleib bags, but I’m partial to my pack that offers more organization and laptop protection. This simple cover from Camelbak (usually available for less than $10) goes over my bag in seconds AND increases visibility.
  5. Rain bike. Getting a bike with full fenders can help a lot, keeping the road grit off and lessening maintenance. That said, my first attempt at a rain bike was a disaster. I bought a 1966 AMF Hercules three-speed. It looked great, and the price was right . . . but the steering was unmanageable and the ancient brakes flat-out failed the first time I rode it in heavy rain. That’s when I sold it and bought the Beast, a Marin single speed 29er. Which brings me to. . .
  6. Consider single speed. My adoption of single speeding riding was born of frustration dealing with weather-related derailler issues. Slipped and broken chains and dodgy gearing are not only annoying, but they can be downright dangerous when you need immediate power. Single speed requires very little maintenance and you never need to worry about slipping gears or derailing when you apply power at the wrong time. Plus, it’s incredibly fun – like when you first rode a bike as a kid. I’ve put together some thoughts (and charts) on choosing the right gearing for single speed.

Respect your limits. It took a while before I felt at ease riding in the rain, particularly at night. I wouldn’t advise anyone to push it. And I still won’t ride if it’s snowy or iced up. That’s partly because my ride is so steep, but mainly because drivers in Seattle have no idea how to navigate in these conditions. It only happens every couple of years, but when it does, the streets are a free-for-all. You’re not safe on the sidewalks, let alone in the streets. On those days, I’m happy to ride the bus again.

 
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24 Responses to “Urban Bad Weather Commuting”

  1. Peter says:

    Nice guide Josh, very comprehensive. I’m also part of that “twisted” crowd that likes to ride in the rain, usually on my Brompton folding bike through New York City.

  2. AdrianQ says:

    Pretty nice in Seattle this morning! :) I love riding in the rain too, especially once I get to the homestretch across the water; Bainbridge is darker and less crowded.) In addition to a bright taillight, I’d definitely recommend at least a strong front blinky as well so oncoming traffic turning left can see you. Not as applicable in downtown Seattle, but if you’re riding in a place without streetlights, a high-output front light (in addition to the blinky) is a must. If you want to go overboard, clipping a low-watt rear blinky to your helmet is useful, and if you really, REALLY want to go overboard, a Monkeylectric monkey light makes for GREAT side visibility. (And makes every 6th grader you pass tell you you’re awesome. :) )

  3. Jon Wasserman says:

    Great advice on commuting in winter. I also go the single speed route, 42 x 16 in summer 42 x 17 in winter, but have geared bikes with studs as back up when the ice & snow hit. I love to pass all the cars slipping up the hill! I also go with a VERY bright rear light, the Dinotte and am well lit in front with 2 flashiing, 1 amber and 2 steady + 1 bar & 1 helmet. The helmet light was a revelation a must when on dark roads with no street lights. When coming up to a red light, I always stop 2 or 3 cars back when there is a line of cars. This allows them to see me pass them, but not piss anyone off! It also gives a buffer to any of the 3 cars that would make a quick right!

  4. BluesCat says:

    Most of the time, the rain in Phoenix is so warm it’s an absolute joy to ride in.

    The high-wind-driven dust/rain in the late summer monsoon season will keep me off the bike, but otherwise I have found the perfect warm-rain-gear for my commute: a swim suit, an old t-shirt and a pair of Crocs on my feet!

    In the colder times of year, if it is raining I wear a sweat shirt under a windbreaker on top and a pair of tights on the bottom. I eschew my SPD shoes and wear a pair of athletic shoes covered in plastic grocery bags.

    I stuff my work clothes, and other gear, into plastic garbage bags and into my Jandd panniers and rear rack bag. (Backpacker’s method of keeping your stuff dry, and being able to access it, in even the worst weather.)

  5. Andy says:

    Funny how the guy that advocates for visibility today is the same one that advised running red lights before.

  6. Sean says:

    I highly recommend Sealskin socks and gloves for the wet. I run the socks inside a one size bigger Shimano high top MTB boot. In the winter I add a thicker felt & foil insole for added warmth.

    +1 for the helmet cover as well.

    I also cannot agree more about lights – helmet mounted and bar mounted Dinottes for me, plus two Kng bullfrogs on the back, and a Cactus Creek reflective vest and reflective triangle on the back of my backpack.

  7. Andy says:

    So if I’m driving a car, and slow down and all looks clear, it’s okay to just pass through the red light right?

    For cyclists to be treated better on the roads, we should deserve that respect. Making up our own rules is a really bad way to do that.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      I’m not addressing the right or wrong of what King said. I’m addressing what he said.

      There is a difference between these three things:
      * Run red lights. (What you said Josh King advised.)
      * Exercise caution and judgment before running a red light. (What Josh King actually advised.)
      * Never ever run a red light. (What a strict vehicular cyclists might advise.)

  8. BluesCat says:

    Andy, Andy, Andy. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

    Don’t you understand that unless a motorist is also a bicyclist it doesn’t matter one little bit if you slavishly obey traffic laws (some of which are totally irrelevant to bicyclists)?

    Non-cycling drivers HATE YOUR (bleep)ING GUTS BECAUSE YOU ARE OUT THERE SMILING ON YOUR WAY TO WORK. They DESPISE you for your joy on two wheels. They DETEST you because THEIR commute is utter pain.

    No amount … I mean NO AMOUNT of you being a Good Boy out there and obeying the traffic laws, and yielding the right-of-way, and staying on or off the sidewalk (according to the level of their redneck, SUV, stay-outta-MY-road quotient) is gonna change their minds about you ONE … MICROSCOPIC …IOTA!

    Even motorists who ARE bicyclists sometimes have a problem with bicyclists. Take me, for example, I’ve had to use the car all this week because I’m on Grandpa Watch: expecting the arrival of a new granddaughter. I saw a fellow bike commuter the other morning, and I was SO tempted to roll down the window and call out to him.

    Was I going to praise him, and shout words of encouragement? Heh, heh …

    “Hey! You! Git a (blank)ing better blinking rear taillight, (blip)HEAD! I almost ran over yer sorry … BUTT … when you appeared in front of me riding so sedately and stoopidly happy on yer (expletive deleted) HYBRID!”

  9. Duncan says:

    I have the same bicycle from Marin and have made many, many rain rides on it. I recently added an 8-speed internal hub and while upping the weight really like the gearing range for the few hills here in Toronto.

    Does anyone know the name of the front rack on the bicycle pictured?

    Also, to expand on this post here are a few more ways to become comfortable riding in wet weather: http://bikingtoronto.com/duncan/how-to-keep-riding-your-bicycle-on-rainy-toronto-days/

  10. Michael M. says:

    Two words: Disc brakes. :-)

  11. Me says:

    What if one has front disk brakes that vibrate nastily in the rain until one pumps the brake and shakes the excess water off?

  12. I also use the 8-speed hub for my bad weather bike, here in Portland Maine, where we also have hills. I put on a larger front ring, but still max out the top end on downhills. But I would do that on a single speed too, so I still consider it an improvement.

    Re: wet weather riding, there’s a temperature point at about 60*F, above which I’ll plan on getting wet and bring a change of clothes in a plastic bag, but below which I’ll use rain gear with a varying number of layers depending on how cold it is. This system seems to work very well.

    I always wear something fluorescent and use plenty of lighting front and rear in the dark and/or rain, and I do not notice any additional problems over riding in daytime nice weather. Once, I think possibly in a light snow, a motorist actually complimented me on my visibility! :-)

  13. rodney says:

    Duncan, looks like a Cetma rack from http://www.cetmacargo.com

  14. Penny says:

    What great advice, I wish I would have read your article before today. I rode to work in the snow and ice and shouldn’t have. I ended up having a wreck and am incredibly sore. My new rule, snow and ice forget it.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      Awww. Sorry about your wreck. I know how discouraging that can be. I fell hard on my butt two years ago and swore off biking in the snow. It took me until now before I was willing to try again–but this time with lots of preparation. I ordered my studded tires yesterday, and should be ready by the next freeze.

  15. Great article! I myself do a 25km single speed commute regularly in Lisbon, Portugal with some parts along the Atlantic Ocean and Tagus River, others in the centre of hilly Lisbon and despite the amazing weather from May to October, it rains lots here from November to April…

    Being visible is a definite must; and for this city with quite a few slopes and some nasty cobblestone pavement in the older areas contrary to popular belief, single-speed is great help (learnt from Swiss army techniques – climbing the Alps in single speed). No chain falling off in pot-holes or quick shifts, less maintenance, and with a 28″ wheel quicker speeds at a lower cadence. I arrive at the office no sweat after 9kms from 0m above sea level to 115m above sea level.

    On the other hand, I’m not so sure about the need for a helmet or a helmet cover. I´ll look for the shoe covers, but usually I opt for all-weather boots that can be used in the rain or in the office, it’s worked quite well.

    Keep up this great site, and if in Portugal, let me know!

  16. Leo Horishny says:

    As for traffic signals, has anyone bothered to contact your road department to find out if you can trigger a signal and how to go about doing that?
    Reading a thread on another website, I found out that most bikes can trigger signals, if you set yourself in the right spot; generally, if you park on the parallel edge of the inground signal sensor mark usually at the front of intersections just before the crosswalks.
    Or if you live in an area with video detection, just stop in the center of the lane and the camera will pick you up.
    I’ve rarely read anyone commenting on the fact that they don’t trigger lights, whether they bothered to contact their local public works department to find out if they can or if they can’t, why not?
    If we’re expected to be vehicles, then the infrastructure should accommodate us!

  17. Me says:

    I think I figured out why I’m having trouble with my disk brakes in the rain.

    Based on what I’ve noted before, I have “wavy” disk brakes.

    The entry on disk brakes has a subheading on brake judder that has given me some ideas on how to deal with this. I hope this proves useful for yourself and others, since the vibrations were severe enough to convince me to stop riding in the rain for bit.

  18. Jim says:

    Good tips here. I’m in Edmonton, Canada, and into my fourth year riding through winter. I ride a single speed 29er (belt drive) with disc brakes and front suspension. The disc brakes are a big improvement over my cantilevers. And the singlespeed goes about as fast as I ever want to in winter. Fun, too! And simple. I’ve found things go wierd at more than minus 25, and if it can go wrong, it will.

    I always put on studded tires. I’ve found the Schwalbe Winter Marathons work very well. Lobster claw gloves, a thin toque and balaclava, shoe covers, wicking layers (don’t wear cotton – when you need to stop, you can freeze up fast on a cold windy day).

    Most of my commute either way is in the dark, due to the shorter days. I have a L&M Stella 200 on my bike, pointed about 5 feet in front of me, and a 150 on my helmet. I also use a blinkie on the front. On the rear, I have two solid red lights up high on my pack, and a bright blinker on my seat post. Good lights make all the difference in winter, but I admit I take it too far, as I also wrap a couple of strings of festive Christmas lights on my frame. People can see me, and it puts them in a good frame of mind, I think.

    You’d think riding on the streets in winter would be more dangerous, but in some ways it’s safer. Drivers really watch out for the cyclists. The seem to give some begrudging respect. And drivers, generally, drive slower. That said, it’s common to see cars with their windows frosted over, and there’s still many people without proper winter tires. On really slippery days, I stay off the roads. I can still ride fine, but I don’t want to be the meat in some slow motion automobile sandwich.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      This is my first winter of bike commuting. I just put on a new pair of Schwalbe Winter Marathon tires last week, and am really liking them too. I’m still reveling in the novelty of riding on ice with a little more confidence. I squeeze my rear break almost every time just to hear those studs scratch it up.

  19. Me says:

    Sorry, I meant to say that the info on brake judder can be found at Wikipedia.

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