Cycling in the winter rain — tips from a year-round bike commuter in Portland, Oregon
This story has also been published on the Bicycle Times Magazine website.
The bicycle has been my preferred mode of transportation since the Fourth Grade field trip when Benjamin Gray barfed up beef jerky and chocolate milk in the back of the school bus.
I learned how to ride a bike when I was five years old. Impatient after weeks of holding onto the bike’s banana seat as I wobbled around the block, my father (who can ride a horse but not a bike) took me to the top of a grassy hill, threw caution to the winds, and gave me a firm push downhill. I remained upright and pedaled hard — Charles Darwin would have been proud.
Fast forward to college in Portland, Oregon: I rode my Trek 800 all over the city, thrilled to be away from Indiana, enjoying the mild, rainy winters. My bike gear consisted of an itchy alpaca sweater that stank like a wet dog, a Gore-Tex jacket (no pit zips), heavy leather hiking boots, and baggy striped cotton pants from Guatemala that soaked up water like a sponge. As I pedaled up a busy street late at night, a policeman pulled me over and said he wouldn’t ticket me if I promised to get bike lights the very next day. I did, and I am still grateful to him.
Portland’s public transportation system has a fine reputation, but I can’t get past the sour smell of dirty laundry and halitosis that is the hallmark of every bus I have ever ridden. I live three miles from work, and the fastest, cheapest, and most pleasant commuting option is my bicycle. I ride an eight year old Trek Soho commuter year round. On barely snowy days the city shuts down and I work from home.
In the elevator at work many people are astonished that I ride in the winter rain, unconvinced that I don’t melt in the water, incredulous that I am comfortable, safe, and dry on two wheels in a downpour.
In order to cycle in the rain, all you need is a bicycle and the desire to ride it. In over 20+ years of commuting, I’ve found a few extra things that make riding in the dark, damp winter months even more pleasant.
Hey motorist, here I am!
Some cyclists say that wearing bright colors puts the onus on the cyclist to be seen, and diminishes the responsibility of motorists to look for bikes. Although I empathize with that point of view, on the rare occasion that I drive a car, I‘ve noticed it is much easier to see cyclists dressed in bright or light colored clothing. Since I prefer to remain alive on Portland’s imperfect roads rather than be dead right on the issue, I wear a yellow rain jacket with reflective accents.
A helmet can help in a pinch
Wearing a helmet is a choice for adults to make in Oregon. I have no illusion that my helmet will save me from the beer truck (or the Fiat 500) that rolls over my head. I wear a helmet because if I crash onto the road, it could help prevent a serious head injury. I‘d be less inclined to wear a helmet in a truly cycling-oriented city like Amsterdam or Copenhagen where there are many more bicycles and fewer expectations that cyclists keep up with the speed of motorized traffic. Cyclists in these cities ride more slowly, which reduces their chances of crashing. My helmet also serves as a useful platform for a rear light and a camera.
Eye protection for visibility
Clear plastic glasses keep the rain and road grit out of my eyes while still allowing me to see suicidal squirrels, potholes and other people on the road. Fancy cycling glasses are not necessary — for $7 the local safety supply store will sell me children’s shooting glasses that fit my narrow head (also available in adult sizes).
Oregon law requires a front white light visible from 500 feet away, and a red reflector or light visible in low car headlights from 600 feet away. On gloomy days and at night I use a blinking white light on my handlebars, pointed toward the ground so it doesn’t get in the eyes of oncoming cyclists and motorists. I also use a couple of blinking rear red lights, one on my bike rack and another on my helmet.
Ears are the eyes in the back of my head (approximately)
Even though I use a bar-mounted mirror, nothing beats my ears for awareness of motorized vehicles coming up behind me. Although I would enjoy listening to music while I ride, I would rather have my ears available to alert me to what I cannot see. Rear-end collisions are responsible for 40% of cyclist fatalities.
Treat your bike right
In any weather, a bicycle with a clean, lubricated chain and reliable brakes is more enjoyable to ride. The wet weather and road muck are hard on chains and brakes. I check mine regularly, along with making sure my wheels’ quick release levers are tight and locked in place.
Slick tires aren’t slippery
Slick soled shoes are sketchy on wet surfaces. Slick tires are a different story. I used to think that a healthy tread improves traction and now I understand that the opposite is true. My tires are closer to slicks than knobbies, with a tiny tread. Tires do wear out; I check mine for baldness and tears periodically.
Fenders are gutters for bicycles
Houses without gutters get flooded basements. Cyclists without fenders get wet feet, inverse skunk stripes up their backs and dirt stuck in their teeth. Bike frames, chains and saddlebags enjoy the protection of fenders too.
Waterproof top to bottom
A waterproof jacket with a breathable membrane and pit zips keeps me dry and comfortably ventilated. I add waterproof pants in a downpour, but in a warmish, light rain I would rather have slightly damp legs than the annoying friction of rain pants against my knees.
Cyclists who carry anything they want to keep dry should invest in a waterproof bag. There are lots of options these days — backpacks, saddlebags, trunk bags, bar bags. I’ve had my Ortlieb saddlebags for over a decade and they’re still going strong.
I cannot find waterproof cycling shoes that I like, so I use neoprene shoe covers. They are not completely waterproof, but unless it’s raining biblically, they keep my feet dry enough. Wool socks keep my feet warm even if they get wet. Polyester fleece socks are warm and dry out quickly. Cotton socks are a disaster — they get soggy and take forever to dry. I keep an extra pair of socks in my desk drawer at work.
How to appear vaguely respectable after a rainy ride
Cold wet weather chaps skin, so I use moisturizer on my face and lips before I set out in the morning. I keep extra deodorant at work because I tend to run cold and overdress for winter riding. Waterproof mascara keeps me from looking like a raccoon on downpour days. Speaking of wildlife, I cultivate the “hair as bird sanctuary” look, but for those who do not, I recommend keeping a comb or brush handy for the end of the ride.
There are many, many options for staying dry and safe on a bike in wet weather. I’ve seen people with capes, plastic bags over their shoes, and even umbrellas attached to their bicycles. Not all bicycle gear is expensive, and not all expensive gear is good. Find what works for you and use it. If you’d like more details about what I use, add a comment and I’ll be happy to share more information. Enjoy the ride!