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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. . .
- 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.