Commuting 101: Riding in the rain

Umbrella riding

Several options are available for the bike commuter who rides in the rain. They include:

  • Getting wet: If the weather is warm and if you shower and change at work, this isn’t an unreasonable option. The major drawback is water can get driven into some bearing surfaces, especially the bottom bracket. Even sealed bearings are vulnerable. Wet socks and shoes kind of reek, also.
  • Fenders: Full front and rear fenders are very effective in limiting splashing onto feet and lower legs. A front fender protects the bottom bracket as well, while the rear fender prevents the dreaded “swamp butt.” I have not had much luck with the cheap, quick-release partial fenders that hook to seat posts; those are useless and I can’t recommend them.
  • Rain capes: Rain capes or ponchos are popular in perpetually rainy location such as England and Seattle. They keep your top dry while providing plenty of ventilation.
  • Rain suits: They keep the rain off, but they also trap your sweat and create a sauna effect even in cold weather. I’ve found that even breathable fabrics such as Goretex don’t “breathe” enough to ventilate the sweat. I prefer jackets with lots of real ventilation — a vented back, big pit zips, and leg vents for rain pants.
  • Bike covers: A roof and windscreen contraption such as the Veltop might be an option for windfree areas. I have no experience with these devices. Here’s a review of the Velotop in French.

These days, I ride with full fenders and a lightweight, vented rain jacket and rain pants, though in light rain I may skip the raingear. I also ride with lights in the rain because of reduced motorist visibility, and I bring a small towel to wipe my eyeglasses dry. I also realize that conditions vary wildly around the U.S. and around the world. The light, misty rains in California are nothing like the monstrous downpours of the U.S. Midwest or the muggy, swampy showers in the U.S. Southeast. For those who ride in the rain, how do you deal with the wet weather?

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28 thoughts on “Commuting 101: Riding in the rain”

  1. Richard says:

    I don’t have a shower at work, but I do have a change of clothes as I commute in lycra and a jersey. That along with a towel should do it, as while it is a heavy downpour in Texas, it certainly isn’t cold as well.

    I do have the advantage that no one in my office really cares if I look like a drowned rat wearing shorts a t-shirt and sandles.

    That being said, I have skipped riding in the last 2 office days because it ‘looked like rain.’ 🙁

  2. BikeCommutr says:

    Riding in 15C driving rain is no fun. Rain Suits as a sauna are appreciated. Maybe in the Bay Area a nice drizzle is appreciated. Riding in New England blustery storms forces you to keep the pace up to stay warm. Or maybe I’m just grumpy because it’s cold, wet, and windy today. I can’t wait till winter hits and I’m riding in -5C weather.

  3. Mark says:

    I live in New England, offering plenty of chances to get wet. With a 15+ mile commute, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is just no way to stay dry in the rain. I have waterproof paniers, haven’t let me down yet!, so my clothes are dry when I get to work. If the weather doesn’t get me wet, my workout/clothing combination certainly will. I have yet to find clothing that can provide enough ventilation and keep me warm. These days, I just focus on keeping warm. By far, the worst weather to bike through is just above freezing in the rain.

    As for the bike, full fenders are a must. They are the difference between just getting wet and getting dirty as well. The bike certainly takes a beating on wet days and I try to hose it down after a day in the rain. I’m not as rigorous as I probably should be about post ride maintenance, but I only have so much time. I’m the type of guy who always gets scolded about not keeping my bike clean whenever I enter a bike shop. Those that know me realize I ride working bikes and don’t bother anymore, in time the others will learn. I certainly go through drive train parts and brake pads faster because of the crap I ride through. The way I figure it though, going through bike parts slightly faster is still cheaper than even the most trivial car repairs.

  4. Drew says:

    This subject was on my mind today, as I commuted in the rain this morning. My rain jacket is just a water repellent windbreaker, so it had turned into a sauna about two miles into my ride. I was torn as to whether I would be wetter with or without the jacket. Rather than stop, I kept the jacket on and paid the sweaty price. By the time I arrived at work I was thoroughly drenched (from both the rain and my steam bath).

    As for dealing with commuting in the rain, I have a few necessities. First, fenders are a must. Not only would I have been much wetter, but I also would have been covered in sand from our Cape Cod streets. Second, my Trek 7500fx is my dedicated foul weather ride. Having a bike that I am not worried about getting wet is a plus. If I were riding one of my other bikes I wouldn’t have the same peace of mind or the comfort level. Last, but not least, waterproof panniers are a lifesaver. My Serratus Aqua-Not panniers have served me well over the years. They are now sold under the MEC name and I highly recommend them.

    Once at work, the key to drying everything out is having someplace with a little ventilation to hang it all. While all my duds were hung out for all to see (I did get a remark today on the “nice display”), they were dry (aside from the socks) by the time I was ready for the trip home. Keeping extra clothing and socks at work is also a definite must for me.

  5. Mike in Florida says:

    I have a lot of chances to ride in the rain here. here’s what I use.

    Helmet cover
    Rain jacket(if cool weather only)
    RAINLEGS–I can’t speak highly enough of them. Much better than rain pants, IMHO.

    Of course, full fenders. Switching to Kool Stop salmon pads makes a huge difference in the wet. Nothing you do will keep you from getting wet and grimy. Just part of the game.

  6. Tristoche says:

    Hello !
    I receive a lot of visit from this funny website.
    I have tested Veltop accesorie on my french website (link on top).
    My wife is englich teacher. So, if you want, She could traduct it !

  7. T says:

    I drive when it’s raining.

    What can I say, I’m not that hardcore!

  8. I have a pair of Planet Bike Freddy Fenders that work great, though they do rattle a bit when you go over bumps. I just bought a pair of TransIt waterproof panniers but haven’t had any rain to test them with yet, so the jury is still out there.

    For unexpected rain showers, I carry a rain cape with me and that has worked very nicely, even in a freezing-rain storm that I got caught in on the way home from work. If I KNOW it’s going to be raining hard when I leave home, I wear a cheapo rain suit from Columbia that I bought several years ago – it has some vents but it’s not perfect. But it’s bright yellow so I don’t have to worry about wearing my reflective vest over it.

  9. Mike in Florida says:

    Re: the rain cape. I’ve thought about one but it would obscure my lighting, both helmet mounted and bar mounted. What do cape wearers do for lighting?

  10. Tim Pierce says:

    I agree with Mark on New England biking: for longer commutes, when the weather is not cold, it’s just not worth it trying to stay dry. Rain jackets and pants trap perspiration, leaving me both wet and a lot crankier about it than if I just let it rain on me. Wearing synthetic fabrics (i.e. quick-dry) works a lot better for me than trying to keep the rain off.

    In a cold rain I’m more likely to put on the rain jacket, but even then it’s a hard sell. I have not yet found a rain poncho that works well for me, but your comments in favor of them make me think I should look harder.

  11. Paul from Minneapolis says:

    Having lived in the south (N.W. GA) and now the midwest I still love my cycling rain cape, helmet cover and leg covers.

    My bike has full fenders and headlights mounted on the forks, taillights on my fender, rack and seatpost. The seat post light is covered by the tail of my cape. And my headlights and one taillight is powered by my front wheel generator so I tend to use my lights a lot.

    I don’t mind my face getting wet and the cape has great ventalation, so I don’t work up too much sweat since I slow down to around fifteen mph on wet pavemnet.

    It is a sure fire way to make the rain quit. All I have to do up put on my rain cape and the rain quits.

    In colder weather I have a cycling jacket that I will wear in light rain. It has lots of ventalation.

    Mike, can you mount your lights on the forks?

    OT- I moved to Minneapolis because of it being such a bike friendly city. It is nice not being the only one who parks their bike in the back room…. : )
    As far as winter goes, I think I can deal with it as people up here say it is also warming up (not because of me) and others do it.

  12. doug says:

    back in november/december/jamuary/february when it was raining every single day, i wore my full gortex suit every day. i wore it so much it’s not very waterproof anymore (i guess). also, some cats peed on it. how or when, i know not, both the legs and jacket smell strongly of cat piss, unfortunately. i resigned myself to showing up to work soaking wet from my own hot sweat, which is pretty profuse even without the portable sauna. i also wore heavy rainboots (stupid, carrying extra shoes and socks is MUCH better) which where a royal pain.

    now that it is the “summer” of coastal northern california, when most days consist of little more than heavy misty fog and ominous low-hanging clouds, i forgo any rain preparation equipment. my new bike (a bridgestone RB-1) rides like a dream but is lacking any sort of fender-attachment eyelets. the fenders on my old bike are so battered and bent from months of hard everyday use, they had to be removed because it was impossible to keep them from rubbing my pitifully out-of-true wheels.

    now that the average number of sunny days per week has decreased from four to about two, i’ve been thinking about how i’m going to deal with the next rainy season. back to a fendered bicycle for sure, but i might just do the “get wet and change when i get there routine” though when the weather drops into the thirties, i might have to figure something else out.

  13. Jack says:

    I’m with Mark. I just wear “disposable” (as in, I don’t care if it gets wet) clothes and soak it in. Sometimes I ride to work in my swim trunks, a t-shirt and canvas tennis shoes. I have fenders and Arkel panniers to keep my stuff dry. But, in general, I just soak it in.

    My officemates often ask me how I can ride in the rain. Honestly, I love it. I’m 40 yo, have a couple kids and don’t climb mountains or jump out of airplanes – inclement weather is about all the adventure I get anymore! 🙂

    @Paul from Minn. (and anyone else riding with a cycling cape)
    What kind of cape do you use?

  14. Anonymous says:

    I use the Carradice Pro Route Cape, Pro Route Spats and Pro Route Helmet Cover. selles them but I bought mine from Carradice directly as Peter White was out at that time.

    I also saw someone else using one on flikr so I am not the only one who likes them.
    Others may be as good but this one I have no complaints about mine other than the helment cover can get in the way of my helmet mounted mirror.

  15. Senrik says:

    In seattle, its fenders, and light waterproof jackets….. and medical insurance cards….

    because you never can tell

  16. Dan says:

    I ride whatever the weather. My colleagues think I’m nuts. In Sydney (Australia) it never gest too cold (coldest mornings around 10 degrees C), so I just go with lycra and get wet, relying on my energetic riding to keep warm! I don’t even have fenders.

    One thing I would add though is about the way you ride. A lower gear helps to both keep speed down, and gives better feedback on how good the traction is. It gets very slippery in the wet – on a bike your stopping distance is greatly increased (much more, proportionately, than in a car). Take care not to lock up the back wheel going around corners – it can very quickly slide out from under you.

    The other major hazard I find in wet weather is pedestrians. They tend to have their heads buried in umbrellas and can’t see a thing around them. That doesn’t stop them stepping off the curb into the road though…

  17. Tristoche says:

    If you ride in the rain, come to my new english Veltop test :
    THE bike accessorie !!

  18. GW Rider says:

    I am looking for a great product to keep my cleated cycling shoes dry in the rain. I am a 365 day commuter in New York. I don’t mind getting wet anywhere but my feet. The shoes take so long to dry and the squish is disgusting. I have resorted to plastic baggies under a pair of regular booties and this will help 80-90% give or take a minor amount of condensation. I reuse them as many times as I can, but I would like something a little more permanent.

  19. SF Commuter says:

    I wear a good rain jacket and keep rain pants on hand for the commute to work. I do not have a shower at work and it is easier to store dry cycling gear than wet for the day at the office. On the ride home I only use the jacket and only if it is raining, drizzle does not count. Getting wet when heading home is not too big a deal unless it is cold.

    My jacket and rain pants are by Shower Pass and I can’t recomend it more highly. Yes they are expensive but they keep you dry and have venting to keep you from becoming wet with sweat.

  20. Framex says:

    I commute for just 5 km to work in urban enviroment and always have a rain jacket and pants with me, if its raining hard I even use an umbrella, it’s a good exercise to drive with just one hand.
    My biggest problem it’s to find a good water resistant shoes that I can wear when at office (so, casual dressing), i’m trying some goretex trekking shoes and it seems that will work well, but I’m waiting for the next storm…

  21. Cheryl says:

    Alternative to rain suits/ capes: Horseback riding jacket and pants.

    I ride horses and makes an excellent BREATHABLE waterproof jacket and water doesn’t come in through the vents because of the construction. Ditto for the pants.

    I love it because rain/snow + 0 degree weather in upstate new york = icle on bicycle.

  22. Fritz says:

    Good suggestion, Cheryl — I don’t ride horses but know people who do and have asked them about their gear — a lot of it looks ideal for cold weather cycling. Some of it’s even reasonably priced.

  23. Johanna says:

    I have loved my Showers Pass raincoat too. But then I read this article: and it makes me really worried. I’m trying to be GREEN here by biking, and instead I’m contributing to the dioxin in the air. Does anyone know of other options for rain gear?

  24. These are great tips. I like the first option of “Get Wet”. Sometimes on a nice hot day, a rain shower on a ride is welcomed! One important thing to mention is safety while riding in the rain. Here are some tips on safety while riding on a rainy day!

  25. Sir Randall says:

    I ride 23 miles each way in South Florida. On a clear day, I will end up drenched from sweat anyway. I ride in full cycling kit and have a shower at work. I typically carry my clothes to work for the week on Mondays on my “commuter bike” and a small camelback for rides in on my road bike (2nd cycling kit and bring work clothes home).

    I do have an option of taking my bike on the train if the weather is really nasty which cuts out 16 miles of riding but that is typically a last resort. I don’t mind getting wet but I do think I will be investing in rain booties for my shoes.

  26. Casey says:

    Up to now, I have avoided riding in the rain unless caught unexpectedly. But I’m determined to do it this year. I have tried three different rain outfits, and all of them trap too much steam & sweat, even on the coldest day. That’s one feeling I cannot stand! So I’ve ordered a bicycle poncho (from Cleverhood–painfully expensive). I plan on leaving my favorite skinny tire road bike home, and riding my fatter-tire hybrid bicycle on the next rainy day, to give me more traction. I’ll just put my work clothes in a plastic bag in my backpack and let my legs and feet get soaked. I keep shoes at the office.

  27. Alex says:

    Johanna, PTFE is one of the most chemically stable plastics ever made. It does not emit gasses, which is why it is used in high-vacuum systems. The article does have a point but they need sources and citations- some water repellants are toxic, but they are nearly all chemically bonded to the fabric if only because they otherwise become useless after the first wash. A bigger concern is the mordant dyes used in dying cotton and wool, as these are metal salts and they are often quite toxic.
    My rain gear consists of shorts and a tshirt, both nylon/ployester. Sometimes a jacket too if its really cold.

  28. Amanda says:

    Last time I didn’t ride because it looked like rain, I broke my foot trying to catch the bus. I couldn’t ride for six weeks and couldn’t move my bike to a safer long term storage location. The bike was stolen. Moral? Ride your bike if it looks like rain. Otherwise it will get stolen.

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