Monday, October 20, 2014

Thoughts on Cycling in Oregon’s (or Anyone Else’s) Rain

Hugo in the garage: ready for the rainy season.

It is time, I think, to talk about utility cycling in the rain. This is, after the questions of safety and physical preparedness, one of the most frequent dissuasions to day-to-day cycling for those used to driving. Let’s think about it in practical terms.

Cycling is on a fundamental level a much more outdoor activity than driving. One needs simply to accept this from the start. Good raingear helps, and having the right sort of accessories for your bike will go a long way to making things better, but there is no way around the fact that traveling by bike puts one in much more direct contact with the elements. This is part of the charm of cycling, but it can be pretty un-charming, as well. Enclosed cars were developed for a reason.

Getting Real: How much rain really falls?
What has surprised me a great deal over the years is how often—even in the rainy Pacific Northwest—the rain either pauses or diminishes to a pretty light level. There are some days when it is coming down all day long, but very few. So, the first thing I would suggest to someone contemplating moving to bicycle commuting or utility cycling is to pay attention more  closely to the weather and note the actual reality of rain in your area. It may not be quite as bad as you think. Just coming to grips with reality can help. Cycling in a heavy, cold rain is not terribly fun (though it is can be surprisingly enjoyable if one is well-equipped), but doing so in very light rain is not difficult at all.

Fenders/Mudguards, Mud Flaps
Essential to cycling in the rain is protection from wheel splash. Fenders (also known as mudguards) come in a wide variety of styles and forms. I prefer year-round fenders that are sturdy and relatively attractive, but that’s just my opinion. Both wheels need fenders. Generally speaking, the longer the fender the better, as more of the spray is contained and less gets on the rider or other parts of the bike.

Mud flaps are very helpful, too. The one on the front wheel protects the rider’s shoes far more than you would guess, as well has helping keep the bottom bracket area (the place where the pedals and crank arms connect with the bike’s frame) clean. A flexible mud flap will take various kinds of abuse (curbs, striking from branches and other road debris) very well.

The rear fender can also use a mud flap. This helps with spray shooting out onto anyone behind you. Together, mud flaps really help keep one’s bike cleaner and assist in keeping the lower part of your clothes and other biking gear a little neater.

Rain Gear: some essentials & possibilities
There are a great many possible ways to dress for rain when cycling. I’m just setting out some approaches I have tried, or have known about from others’ experiences.

For many riders, the beginning of rain cycling wisdom is the rain pant and jacket combo, as well as the right footwear. I use a Columbia Sportswear bright yellow coat that is billed as waterproof and “breathable,” along with some rain pants I found on Amazon that make the same claim.

In the narrow sense, they are in fact both waterproof and breathable. However, a well-known fact of cycling is that the only moisture we encounter is not what falls from above or splashes up from below: there is moisture that is generated by the act of cycling itself (at whatever fitness level), and that adds up pretty quickly. No matter how “breathable” one’s rainwear is, it won’t be able to keep up with sweating a good deal.

On more temperate, dry days, I can cycle along and know that I’m generating some perspiration that will dry off pretty quickly after I arrive. On a rainy day, that perspiration can really drench my clothes. There are a couple of strategies, at least, to deal with this.

The first is to look into having a cycling outfit that one will change out of upon arrival. Some employers even have shower facilities for cycling commuters. I have heard of cyclists just wearing a very breathable set of clothes that they know will get wet on the way (wool being one such option in the winter…it stays warm even when wet), then changing into their work clothes.

I am less excited by this option because of the work and time it takes to manage. I do occasionally wear a different shirt while cycling, and (often) detach my clergy collar (a starched linen affair) when traveling on my bike,  and do wear waterproof shoes when it is going to be really wet, but other than that I try to wear my regular clothes when biking.

I have heard of some women who wear a special cycling skirt as a solution. I gather that a mother-and-daughter team of designers in Dublin have developed such an article of clothing that works well for those so inclined. Combined with the right kind of footwear and a rain cape (see below), this could be very good rainy weather kit for the ladies.

I have also heard of raincapes as a good solution, and am actively looking into this. This could be the best approach to the ventilation issue (it does mean one has to have good fenders, though).

There are a seemingly-infinite number of approaches to gloves, shoes, and headwear for the rain. I prefer quick-drying but thin gloves most of the time (with something reflective or at least higher-visibility in the dawn and dusk hours, to help people tell I am signaling). For footwear, I have tended to use my tired-but-still-waterproof walking shoes along with rain pants. There are various versions of cycling shoes and what amounts to rain spats out there. The cape + spats idea sounds like a good one for the kind of cycling I do. I'll have to look into it a bit more.

As to a hat, some people put a waterproof cover over their usual helmet. Others prefer to dispense with the helmet (especially on upright bikes) and just wear a rain-resistant or waterproof hat of some kind. I’ve tried both. The question about what to do when one wears spectacles is a real poser. I just pedal slower and occasionally wipe the lenses if needed.

Another point to make in this section is to remember that the harder one pedals the more one perspires, and thus the wetter one becomes from the inside out. I have found that just slowing down a bit helps a great deal. And this leads to my next thought…

Brakes and Rain
Depending on the type of brakes you have, your slowing distance may change in the rain. Roller-type brakes, as well most disc brakes, will remain pretty unaffected by rain. Rear axle brakes won’t be affected, either…but rear-only brake setups in the rain are more vulnerable to going into a skid, so be careful in applying them quickly.

Caliper brakes are the most affected by rain. Road grit combined with water takes more time for the brakes to get a purchase on the rim and also wears the pads down pretty quickly with use. Keep a watch on your pads and adjust your brakes as needed. Most modern brake systems are far better than the ones of years gone by, but if it is raining and you are using some form of rim brake, water is going to cut down on breaking efficiency, and this means biking differently. I have found that it isn’t an enormous issue, but must be taken into consideration in situations where timing really does matter.

One other road-related matter to consider when getting ready to cycle in the rain: metal surfaces (manhole covers, railroad tracks, &c.) can become as slick as ice and need to be approached with care. Don’t try to turn on them, or you could be experiencing Newtonian physics in an entirely new way.

Two for the Road: Bike bags
Much of the year my front basket and one rear pannier bag is enough for my daily cycling storage needs. I use the front basket for items I might want to get to while travelling, as well as a good place to stuff a coat that has grown too warm or my gloves when not needed, or a letter that needs posting, &c. The rear bag (attached to a sturdy rear rack) holds what my wife calls my “man bag” with computer and various other articles contained snugly within, as well as a few basic tools and other supplies I like to keep there in case of need.

During the rainy season, however, I make it “two for the road,” adding the other rear pannier bag to my regular cycling routine. That bag is for various articles of clothing which may or may not be needed along the way. Sometimes I have to stop off under a tree and put on my rain wear, changing shoes as well. That isn’t really too common. Normally what goes in the second bag is either those items I know I will not be needing while cycling (sport coat, sweater, dress shoes), or my raingear that I will likely not be needing for one leg of the day’s travel.

I try to avoid putting wet rainwear in my bag, simply because I don’t want to get the inside of the bag wet and run the risk of forgetting about it, letting it go “sour.” I put the wet stuff in my front basket until I get to my destination and then let it air-dry. The bags I purchased (Ortliebs) are so water-tight that any moisture that goes in will stay in if the bag is closed up. For this reason, I tend to leave both bags open when not in use year around. I haven’t had a problem thus far. Some other types of bags have built-in drains or ventilation.

The bags need occasional cleaning, but not too much (that’s the beauty of good fenders and flaps, again). Though they cost a fair amount, getting cycling bags with a quick-release feature really has helped in making them much more convenient to use, as well as making sure they are not removed without my permission or damaged by malicious persons.

Having the right cycling bags is very important, and I would suggest you look long and hard at this part of the equipment. I knew of one ingenious fellow who made his own waterproof and sturdy panniers using square five-gallon plastic buckets (with their lids) attached to the rear rack via hooks and bungees purchased at the hardware store. They worked very well and cost a fraction of what the “official” panniers would.

Final thoughts…for now
Biking in the rain has its limits. When it is very cold and “raining ice water” hard, I tend to cry uncle and give up my bike for my car. But, I have that option, and many don’t. 

In our city, public transport has been so cut back that it is very hard for many to use it in place of a car when the weather turns. It is an unfortunate part of our economy that so much of the money and infrastructure goes to the preservation of the Autoist culture at the expense of options for those who cannot afford a car or do not want to buy into the car-centric life.

Cycling in less driving rain is, however, much less unpleasant than you would imagine if adequate preparation can be made. The point is that this is not something that only die-hards need do.

Indeed: I have occasionally found myself very delighted while pedaling along in a light rain and taking in the refreshing air that often comes with a rainstorm. On top of that, perhaps the coziest feeling I know is the final approach to my home on my bike in the rain. The thought of changing into some comfy clothes at the end of a day’s work and ride and padding around the house while the rain falls is delightful. Provided that one is working/giving to help in some way or other with those who have no access to safe lodging, I think that indulging in that feeling of cocooned pleasure is another way that cycling contributes to a life of gratitude and enjoyment of the simple blessings.

May yours be a rainy season of at least occasional cycling pleasure!

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