Bike Commuting: It’s Raining!

Rain, rain, miserable rain.  Nothing can ruin plans for a good bike ride more than rain!  But the secret is: riding in the rain can actually be fun!

Okay, I’ll admit it’s not always fun, but it’s pretty easy to make it a tolerable experience, and I’m here to give you some tips on staying dry, warm, and safe if you commute in the rain.

Keeping Dry vs. Keeping Warm

Thanks to the wonders of modern fabrics, you could dress yourself head to toe in gear that is essentially completely waterproof and arrive at your destination completely dry (well, except for that outer layer!).  However, if you are riding in temperatures warmer than your gear is designed for you may end up sweating up a storm inside your jacket and end up wet regardless!

When the temperatures are really warm – say, 70 degrees Fahrenheit and above – I simply suck it up and accept that I’m going to get wet.  I’ve tried a rain jacket in warm temperatures before, but it just makes me sweat and I end up just as wet, yet less comfortable, than if I wore no jacket at all.  Cycling clothes are good here, as are polyester shirts and shorts.  Cotton is a big no-no unless you want to feel miserable and smell terrible afterwards!

As the temps get cooler, all the way down until it’s actually snowing rather than raining, rain jackets and pants are a wonderful way to keep you dry.  Great rain gear certainly isn’t cheap, but if you expect to ride in the rain frequently it will be worth every penny.  You don’t have to go out and buy a top of the line Gore-Tex jacket for hundreds of dollars, but keep in mind that really cheap gear won’t necessarily breathe well and may end up with a limited useable temperature window before you start sweating.  Keep an eye on end-of-season sales in the spring to find the previous year’s jackets on clearance – I was able to save quite a bit of money buying my stuff that way – or check stores that sell quality bikes but aren’t strictly bike shops, such as REI.

Rain Jacket

Gloves can be a little trickier as the temperatures drop, as many are made of materials that will simply soak up water.  Try to find gloves made of a neoprene type material that will keep your hands warm even when wet, or gloves that have a waterproof coating just like a rain jacket. These ones from Pearl Azumi are ideal. Wool is also a great alternative since wool – unlike cotton – can keep you warm even when wet.

As for your head?  I always make sure to wear a cycling cap under my helmet when it rains.  I never understood the point of cycling caps until I tried one in the rain, and it did a great job of protecting my glasses from a lot of the rain coming down which previously made it difficult to see.  In heavy rains I also appreciate a helmet cover like this one. (which also doubles as a wind shell for the helmet in the winter!).

Hat and Cover

Protect Your Feet

Keeping feet dry is probably one of the hardest parts about riding in the rain, but I’ve found the options are drastically different depending on the weather.  In warm weather I actually found I enjoy riding in sandals the best, as I don’t have to worry about trying to keep socks and shoes dry.   My commuter bike has SPD pedals so I use sandals made by Shimano that clip into my pedals, but if you are using normal flat pedals then any sandals except flip flops should work fine as long as they securely strap to your feet.

Shoes

In cooler or even cold temperatures, you can buy waterproof shoe covers, make your own waterproof shoe covers, or buy waterproof shoes.  Unfortunately, most of the cycling gear related to waterproofing your shoes is intended for use with “clipless” pedals and cycling shoes rather than sneakers or regular boots, but you can find some help at a local outdoors store or hunting store where non-cyclists are certainly concerned about keeping feet dry.  Just make sure you roll your pants over the tops of your shoes and/or shoe covers.  You can have the most waterproof shoes in the world but that doesn’t mean anything when water runs down your legs and into the cuff!

I’m at Work, But What Do I Do with My Clothes?

When you get to work, something is going to be wet whether it’s your outer layers or everything you wore.  Letting clothes sit in a ball all day will lead to a gross mildew smell very quickly, so it’s best to take care of them right away to eliminate the smell.

If you are wearing a waterproof jacket then chances are it isn’t actually holding much, if any, water, so hanging it up like you would any other jacket would be fine.  As for other clothes, you want to hang them in a place where they can air dry, but definitely do not just let them sit in a ball or in the bottom of your bag.  Lockers are a great place to hang clothes, or see if you are allowed to install a hook next to your desk to hang a hanger.  If you don’t have a place to hang clothes to dry, then I would recommend putting your wet clothes in a bag that you can seal or close (like a trash bag or grocery bag) and wear something else on the way home, as those clothes sitting in a ball will smell pretty bad by the time you are heading home!

Tips For Riding in the Rain and Wet

Besides dressing for the weather, you’ll need to adjust your riding accordingly to deal with wet roads just like you would driving.  Braking distances will be longer, roads will be slippery, and visibility could be poor.

Bikes with rim brakes, especially road bikes with caliper brakes, will have the hardest time in the wet.  Bikes with disc brakes will certainly perform better in the wet, but you’re still limited by how well your tires can grip the wet road.  Make sure to give yourself plenty of extra stopping distance when riding in traffic or approaching stop signs and red lights.

The biggest hazard you may face when riding in the rain may actually be the paint on the ground.  A lot of paint used on roads today is thick “thermal” paint, and that paint can be as slick as ice when it’s wet. Be extra careful when crossing stop lines, crosswalks, or changing lanes, especially when you are making a turn.  This is even more apparent when temperatures drop below freezing as the water on the surface turns from “slick as ice” to quite literally ice.

Finally, if you have lights on your bike – use them!  Visibility in the rain is typically pretty poor thanks to the rain itself, cloud cover, and the disturbingly large number of drivers with dirty windshields and ineffective wiper blades.  Make yourself visible with blinking lights and bright clothing or reflective vests if you can.  Additionally, depending on how laws are written in your state or country, lights may actually be required in the rain.  The law may not explicitly mention bicycles, but if bicycles are classified as vehicles under law and vehicles are required to use lights in the rain, then the bicycle is certainly required to have a light in the rain as a result. (Here is our article on biking at night where we cover lighting and making yourself more visible)

Stay Visible

What About Snow?

Dressing for the snow isn’t much different than dressing for the rain, except you’ll need to account for the colder temperatures.  Honestly, the hardest part about riding in the snow is the actual riding in the snow.  The road conditions may differ depending on where you live – in Massachusetts where I grew up, 12 inches of snow meant you better not be too late for work, whereas in North Carolina simply 2 inches will shut the entire city down for a day or two.  Furthermore, the bike you ride will drastically affect how well you can ride.  I would avoid any bike with rim brakes, and if you have a mountain bike with fat tires and good tread you’ll fare far better than narrow slick tires.

Snow

Coming up next week: Picking Out a Bike.  Have you made it this far but don’t actually have a bike yet, or have you been commuting a while and want to make your current bike a little more suitable?  Perhaps you just want to build a purpose-built commuting machine!  Next week I’ll break down the features that matter when picking out a new bike or upgrading your existing one for commuting!

Rob is a New England native who has been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 2012. Upon learning how to ride at the age of five he quickly found that everything is better on a bicycle, and hasn’t stopped riding since.