October 2, 2007

From the Archives: Commuting in the Rain

The Rain

For every dedicated commuter, there will come a time when you will ride in the rain. It can be a harrowing experience the first couple of times, but you will find that – like anything else – with a little planning and forethought, you can ride with confidence when the clouds open up.

Keeping your clothing dry is probably the paramount concern, so the first thing you should plan for is how to keep your backpack or messenger bag. I have used everything from trash-bags covering the outside of the pack, to having everything IN the pack encased in some sort of plastic container or baggie. The latter of these two works well, but requires extra steps of you each time you want to access your equipment – not to mention the backpack itself gets quite a soaking and may take a while to dry after the rain stops. The former trash-bag option is cheap ($4.00 for a roll of 100 ‘rain-covers’ at any grocery store) but can be cumbersome on the fly. For example, I often check the forecast before I leave work, or home in the morning. If there is rain imminent, I can prepare the backpack by wrapping it up before I go – to keep flapping and leaks to a minimum, there is a fair amount of masking tape involved in the rain-cover process. If you get CAUGHT in the rain mid-ride, your gear may be nice and soaked by the time you get the cover attached properly.

Something to keep in mind when purchasing a backpack or rack trunk, unless you intend to use the one you currently own, is the weather resistance of the material from which it is made, or whether or not it comes with a rain cover built in. Most better, and larger, backpacks do offer a rain cover, and some still are completely waterproof without adding anything – packs like these (one company is Ortlieb) are expensive, but versatile in any weather condition. Imagine the rain starts and you don’t have to stop and attach anything, or worry about the contents of your pack – that luxury has a price, but the superior stitching and fabric composition nearly guarantee a pack that will last for a very long time with proper care. As far as rack trunks are concerned, you will notice that even the most inexpensive models are very water-resistant right off the shelf – you may not need to add anything to them when the rain starts falling. Some of your better rack trunks are completely waterproof, and of course cost more – look at the Carradice ‘Super-C’ label – hand-crafted in England, these rack trunks, bags and panniers are SERIOUS.

Going back to backpacks, another option I have discovered of late solves three problems, one of which we haven’t discussed. Keeping YOURSELF dry is also paramount. Although a downpour may be a welcome bringer of relief during the summer months, drop the temperature to the mid 40’s and staying dry becomes VERY important. If you already bike, you may own a rain jacket of some type, but if not and you plan to commute, consider buying your first rain jacket about 2 sizes too large. WHY? You can fit your backpack UNDER your jacket while you ride. Although you will look a little “Notre Dame-ish” as you move down the road, you are keeping yourself and your gear & clothing dry, PLUS you did not have to take a lot of extra steps to do so. One jacket, and everything is protected.

Speaking of keeping yourself dry, the jacket is a given but you should also consider (for colder commutes) a pair of rain pants. These can be had for very little change, but offer protection from road spray and soaked leg-warmers when it gets colder. Most models that are inexpensive are simply rip-stop nylon pants with taped seams – very effective at stopping water, but poor at releasing perspiration. As a result, you will likely STILL have wet legs, but the moisture will be warm, not icy cold. It’s a compromise that can greatly improve your commuting comfort level. For ultimate comfort, you can always spend more money, just like with anything else. Fabrics such as E-Vent, GoreTex, XALT and others are available from a variety of clothing manufacturers as both jackets and pants, and are breathable while remaining waterproof – the trade-off besides price includes less pack-ability. These high-end fabrics do not fold as neatly or compactly as cheaper nylon-based materials.

If I find something that works well, yet remains cheap, I’m certainly going to tell you about it – in this case, that product is the O2 rain jacket from Rain Shield. It’s surprisingly cheap – so cheap that your first instinct might be “this can’t possibly be good” – WRONG. I was simply amazed by this jacket. Constructed entirely of “ProPore” fabric from 3M, this jacket simply does what it says it does: it’s completely waterproof, and yet allows sweat to evaporate. I rode in a THUNDERSTORM with rainfall exceeding 2” per hour, and I stayed DRY. This thunderstorm occurred in late May, and it was already HOT outside, with the added pressure to get home before conditions worsened, I was pushing the pedals hard --- and I stayed DRY inside, too. Astounding, especially considering I paid around $35.00 at a local bike shop. Jackets made from hi-tech fabrics that boast this same ability cost about $200 MORE. These pricier jackets DO have their place – they are heavier for colder conditions, they have pockets, reflective material, and will handle a lot of abuse, but if you are looking for a simple, effective rain jacket that will actually keep you dry, consider the Rain Shield.

Although your primary barrier to the elements will be your rain jacket year round, regardless of temperature, your needs will change greatly when the temperature drops in the fall, or in the early Spring. Keeping your core warm and toasty and dry is paramount to overall comfort in these conditions, but your extremities will need special attention as well. I’ve already mentioned a good pair of rain-pants will help your comfort level greatly, but your feet may need some love, too. Depending on the type of shoes you ride in, you may not need much more than a shoe cover with some water repellency – however, it should be noted that nearly all shoe covers currently made are designed to fit onto TRUE ROAD SHOES – as in smooth-bottomed racing soles that wrap seamlessly into the upper. If you ride on any type of casual shoe with a recessed cleat, the rubber outsole will likely give you seam-splitting fits when you try to stretch a cover onto it. It is also notable that although the most current shoe covers boast excellent water repellency, I have found that many designs on have this magic fabric on the UPPER portion of the cover – the lower section is usually something reinforced for abrasion resistance, with a CUTOUT for the cleat (read: hole in the floor) and the seams that join the upper and lower are generally NOT taped. So, when it REALLY starts coming down, or coming off your front tire, your feet will eventually still get wet – the cover still does a good job of holding in warmth, so you’re less likely to suffer like you would with no cover at all.

I personally commute on Shimano’s SH-SD60 SPD-compatible sandal, (there is an updated three-strap model currently in production) which with its open-toe design doesn’t offer much protection from road spray – besides not having a narrow enough profile to accept a shoe-cover. Super comfy in the summer months, and acceptable with a wool sock in the cooler seasons, add in water and I’m talking fully-chilled tootsies. My solution to dry feet lies with Gore-Tex socks. Granted, Gore-Tex is not cheap, but socks have much less square-footage when compared to a jacket – so they are not as expensive as a full jacket made from the stuff. They cost me about $45.00 for the pair, but are worth EVERY cent when it’s raining hard (and considering they offer better water protection than similarly-priced shoe covers) – my feet stay bone dry in the sandals, and sweat evaporates nicely – plus, the other great thing about sandals: they dry faster than full shoes when the rain stops – there is nothing worse that sliding your foot into a wet shoe for the ride home – if it’s still raining, no big deal.

The socks don’t offer much in the way of true insulation like a cover, but they do block a lot of wind, which helps – however when it gets much below 40 degrees, I’ve already switched over to my winter riding boots (Lake MXZ-300, more in the ‘snow’ section), which are quite waterproof and warm in their own right. You can add Gore-Tex socks to your riding arsenal, and ride confident that you’ll stay cozy in the cold rain – For warmer (above 60º, depending on tolerance) rain rides, leave them at home. For the most versatility with a true road shoe, get BOTH – use covers for when it’s just cold, Gore-Tex socks for when it’s just wet, and use both for when it’s cold AND wet. Bingo.

Okay, we got your toes counted – what about yer digits? Phalanges? Pinky and friends? Your HANDS! Well, that’s an easy one: GLOVES. And just like anything else cycling related, there are dozens upon dozens to choose from – just from scouring the internet, catalogs and the local bike bin, I have discovered over time that you can just about own one pair of gloves to handle ANY 10º swing in temperature you can ride in, from 110º, down to well below zero. There are triple-insulated lined mittens, lobster-claw gloves, full-finger vented gloves, fold-back mitts, thin full-finger gloves, half-and-half/full finger gloves, half-finger gloves, crotchet gloves, neoprene, Gore-Tex, PowerStretch, PolarTec, HydraFleece, ThermaTec, 3M Thinsulate, etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum. There are SO many to choose from, and they are all well suited for whatever comfort mark they happen to hit for your hands. It’s as individual as cycling shorts – very hard to recommend anything, but one thing I have found that is very handy, above all else: In heavy rain, gloves get wet. Gloves have TONS of seams – water WILL get into them eventually, even with sewn-in waterproof barriers – there are still seams. Very few glove manufacturers tape these seams, to prevent a loss of dexterity – after all, having completely dry hands does you no good if you can’t operate the brakes! The sole purpose of most cool/cold weather gloves is keeping your hands warm, even if wet – the weight and construction of the glove depends on your personal tolerance for cold/wet. For those that MUST have dry hands at all costs, buy a box of latex gloves and wear them underneath a pair of long-finger gloves – when it rains, the rain water will not touch your fingers – but, just like the rain pants discussed before, you will still get wet – latex gloves will not let moisture pass from either side, so you’ll likely end up with sweaty palms, which can be almost as distracting as cold, wet hands. Take your pick! Regardless, I keep a pair of latex gloves in the seatbag – if I get caught in a cold rain without my ‘rain gloves’, I’m covered, and I’m equally covered if I have to make some unexpected drivetrain repairs on my way to work. Here, again, however, I remind you of wool gloves for rain riding – they work marvelously, as nature designed them to.

We’ve got your torso, legs, feet and hands considered now – how about your head? You will find that those nice, big helmet vents will catch a fair amount of rain as you rush thru the air. Depending on the type and breathe-ability factor of the jacket you happen to be using, this may not be a bad thing – remember that nearly 80% of all the body heat you generate escapes through the top of your head. Depending on how cold it is during the rain, you may or may not need, or want, to cover yourself much. Certainly when it’s warmer and raining you’ll want to keep your helmet vents open to balance the heat you are likely generating under your jacket. When it’s colder than approximately 50º, you can run into chilling and hypothermic problems if your head gets too cold, when cold moisture on your head starts to pull needed heat away from your torso. Assuming you care little about your helmet’s appearance, a few strips of clear shipping tape over the vents will effectively shield your head from moisture and keep a cushion of heat where it is needed – leaving a couple smaller frontal vents open will allow a little air to come in, to avoid overheating. The appearance problem arises when you try to remove the tape – sticky mess, anyone? If you have an extra helmet, this might be a viable option – especially when it gets colder & you can use it as a primary winter helmet, but there is a better way: the helmet cover.

There are several models and styles to choose from, but make sure the fabric will accomplish what you need – some helmet covers are for aerodynamics only and don’t offer any moisture protection at all. Look for good stuff from Louis Garneau, Carridice, and several other ‘no-name’ models marketed by major retailers. These are waterproof, often are striped with reflective material – your bare helmet should be, too, incidentally – and pack away neatly in the bottom of your pack or seatbag until needed. Throw one of these onto your helmet, and the combination of water rejection and heat retention will keep you comfortable about 20º cooler than if your helmet was left uncovered. They are also a great layering piece when it’s dry and just plain COLD – at that point you’ll probably be wearing some sort of thermal head-cover, or full face-mask, but the additional step of keeping air from flowing thru your helmet will make a huge difference, and you’ll stay toasty well below the freezing mark. If you get too warm, it removes easily and stows in your back pocket in a snap – no helmet removal required, which is perfect for cold winter mornings when it’s important to keep moving, but also important to release excess heat before it turns you into a sweaty and chilled mess.

You can tell most of your rain strategy will have to be run on a trial-and-error basis. It really depends on your personal preference, how much prep-work you want to perform before or during your ride IF it rains, and how much extra stuff you want to carry. If your commute is short, you could probably choose to pack light and suffer a little the few times it does rain on you, leaving heavier and bulkier items like rain-pants at home for longer weekend rides. I personally commute with a Camelbak H.A.W.G. backpack, with the hydration bladder removed (don’t need 100 oz. of water during daily commutes) – in that rear pouch where the water normally lives, I have a neatly folded rain jacket at the ready. If it rains mid-ride, I simply reach behind my head, unzip that pocket, pull out the jacket and pull it on while rolling – this can be a bit tricky in traffic, however, so if you plan to jacket yourself while rolling, practice it a few times in an empty parking lot or other safe haven – balance, quickness and patience is key. What this affords me is simplicity, but protection for me and my backpack in one quick step. Rain pants usually come along for the ride if it’s below 40º, where leg warmers alone will not harbour enough heat to stave off icy-cold water on the legs.

After all this talk of clothing there is one piece of gear than can make the difference between enjoying a rainy ride, or loathing the weather: FENDERS.
We really don’t have to go much deeper than that – get a good set, like Esge(SKS), Headland, or the like, and you will find that you get a LOT less wet than without them. 80% of the water that a cyclist has to deal with comes from the TIRES, not the sky. If you have a bicycle that will accept them, invest in a pair and ENJOY the rain rides.


Planet MarTay said...

I don't know if you covered this in another post - if you have, sorry - but, do you have any tips on keeping upright in the (potentially) slippery conditions that rain produces? I avoid riding when rain is even a blurb in the forecast. However, I know it's inevitable that I'm caught biking in the rain one day.

kG said...

I apologize that I didn't get to this until NOW -- ugh... so much for post notifications! Staying upright is a legitimate concern, yes: there are a lot of varying approaches to this. Partly, consider your tires: I have found some tires (Michelin) to be a little better suited to completely DRY roads... when I rode in the rain with them years back, I was surprised how slippery things became. So, that can be part of it - check your tires. If rain is in the forecast, some of this can be helped by dropping your tire pressure a few PSI... this depends on how large your tires are, of course -- 23c, be careful... you have to leave enough pressure to maintain sidewall strength and avoid pinch-flats. But, dropping the pressure slightly can increase the rolling contact patch on the road surface, and keep you stuck to the road. Other simple things: tender your speed, corner carefully, brake early - all help. although sometimes not intuitive, rain is a good excuse to slow down. Hope this helps!