OK, I’ll admit to being a bit over the edge. I’ll even admit to going to extremes just so I can ride every day. Hell, that’s why I bought studded tires for one of my bikes. Winter can be so much fun, and it can be such a great challenge to force yourself to ride every single day, no matter the conditions. Once you’re on the bike, the rest of the world and its problems just sort of fade away. Inclement weather riding forces us into a much closer relationship with our surroundings and being encompassed in the harshness of it all can make us feel very much alive. As long as we are prepared, that is. I often think that anybody can get out there on a nice sunny 70 degree day and ride south for a while with a 10 mph wind pushing them along from the north. But can you look out the window, see the puddles getting deeper and say to yourself “Oh BOY!!! What a great day for a bike ride?”
Often, the question arises about what one should use to ride in the rain (and I get asked frequently for some odd reason). I've only ridden 4,000 miles in and around the Seattle area since January 1st this year, so I'm probably only minimally qualified to discuss it, but when I hear somebody from the Midwest talk about buying a $10 clear plastic raincoat and chop the arms off of it so you won’t become too warm, I tend to scoff just a bit. Some folks just don’t understand what it is like to ride in the rain day in and day out, year after year.
If you plan to ride on any kind of a regular basis in the northwest, GOOD equipment is essential to being successful. I gauge “success” as the ability to look out the window on a cold, dark morning and not shudder in fear that you should probably just stay home. I’ve spent considerable time and energy finding out what works for a guy like me and thought maybe I should share that. Your comments and suggestions, of course, are welcome (even encouraged).
First of all is wool, of course. All we have to do is look to the east, and I’m not talking about Chicago and New York. I mean across the Atlantic to Ireland, Scotland, England and other places like that. What are the old timers wearing? Quite literally, they are wearing the same thing they’ve been wearing for centuries. WOOL. Why? Because it works! I won't be without it. I can get wet but not be uncomfortably cold. Also, unlike the synthetics, I can ride all day long and not end up smelling like I haven’t bathed in a month. There are a lot of “new” wools out that even a guy like me with very sensitive skin can wear. Some wool makes me itch like crazy. But this merino wool stuff! OH BABY!!! I’ve become a true believer.
REI has a great selection of heavy wool kneesocks - check out their snowboarding section for the Smartwool line. Best damned investment I’ve made, I think. Those and my Ibex wool knickers keep me pretty well taken care of downstairs. I also have some merino wool long johns for really cold days. Of course, our rain patterns here are such that we quite frequently have days where it will rain a little and stop; rain a little and stop. Rain pants don't work well, other than for 5-10 mile commuting purposes. For commuting, I have a pair of “Illuminite Intrepid” rain pants that have a mesh lining so they at least breathe a little bit. The ankle zips are worthless, but with ankle straps, I’ve found they work pretty well. They also have reflective material and sometimes I’ll use them on a cold, wet night as an added layer and added visibility thing. What I’ve found, though, is that once my legs are wet (from either rain or sweat) and inside the rain pants, they simply never dry. Then I end up chilled, especially when I stop for any more than just a few short minutes. In wool knickers and knee socks, when it stops raining, you'll dry out some. I also use good neoprene shoe covers. If you're out for more than 3-4 hours in the rain, you're going to get wet. I've heard about the Lake MXZ series winter shoes and am thinking of getting a pair for next winter to do product testing on them. At about $250, though, I hesitate just a little bit. For now, I use my good SIDI Dominator shoes, wool socks and a good pair of shoe covers. I like the Potenza booties I have, and another one made by Perlizumi. The Potenzas tend to keep me warmer in cold weather, the Perlizumis keep the water out for a little longer. Both have Velcro closers at the back instead of zippers, which have always seemed problematic to me.
OK, that's south of the border stuff. Now let's talk about upstairs.
I just completed a 400k last weekend of which 240k of it (approx. 150 miles) was in constant rain. OUR kind of rain. That constant, misty, penetrating, drizzling rain that has a way of increasing from time to time into a downpour and saturating us from head to toe and skin to bone. That kind of rain that just sorta settles in over the horizon, making the hills disappear, and making it difficult to see anything around you. Yep 150 miles of THAT kind of rain. It was between 41 and 51 degrees for the entire time. I had my new Showers Pass rain jacket on. It is a product that is developed IN the northwest BY northwesterners and FOR northwesterners. We know rain. And this company (I have absolutely no affiliation and am not a stockholder) knows what we need because they live and ride here. This jacket is simply the gold standard. I'm on my second one, having worn the other one out. I ride a lot and am hard on my equipment. Yeah, yeah, I know. I should be more gentle on my gear. This new one ("elite 2.0") is incredible. With an Ibex wool undershirt, a long-sleeved Seattle Randonneur (I'm sure you've seen our blue jerseys around as you are out riding) jersey and that jacket, I was totally comfortable, never cold and clammy and when I arrived at the finish line at 2:45 a.m., my jersey was DRY! Granted, it had quit raining about 8:30, but I never got more than lightly damp even at the height of the rain. My feet? Yes. My legs? Yes. My upper body? No. And I was never either too cold or too warm. Mama bear might have been too cold and Papa bear too warm, but like baby bear, I’d found a combination that was just right.
Yes, you can cheap your way through. But why would you want to if you’re going to be out in the rain for extended periods? Why not try to be comfortable? If this is a sport you love and you are going to do moderately and regularly in OUR climate, do yourself a favor and invest well in your future. Riding in the rain doesn’t have to be intimidating or scary or something to be avoided. It is a part of cycling in the northwest that should be embraced and relished. We live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet and I try to make myself get out there right in the middle of it just a little bit every day.
Now let’s talk about gloves!
This is one of my favorite topics, and I made a really cool discovery a year or so ago. Remember that I ride daily and I ride long distances often.
I have two pair of Ibex Kilometer gloves - one medium, one large. ($60/ea)
I have a pair of Ibex wool glove liners ($25/pr)
I have numerous pairs of fingerless gloves. ($25 - $45/pr)
I also have a couple other pairs of long finger gloves, one Novara and one Specialized. Compared to Ibex they're JUNK. Especially when wet.
So here's my trick. When I'm going out on a long ride and it is raining, I wear a pair of my Ibex K's with glove liners or a pair of fingerless w/ glove liners (if it is above 50F). I carry my other pair (the smaller one) in a ziplock bag. IF it stops raining, I remove my wet gloves, wring them out as best I can, fold them neatly in half and put them in my jersey pockets. There, they stay warm and I am not even aware they are there after a couple of minutes. IF it starts to rain again, I remove my dry gloves, which have now been keeping my hands nice and warm, replace them to the safety of their ziplock and put the wet gloves (warm, remember?) back on. I have been doing this successfully all winter and never had an issue with cold and uncomfortable fingers.
I also have a pair of cheap $8.00 wool fingerless gloves I got at REI. In really cold weather, I pull these (extra large) OVER my long finger gloves and though it is bulky, I'm warm. Some folks like Lobster claws, but I found them very unwieldy and it is impossible to layer with them (at least for me).
In case of emergency when you're out on a long wet ride and the temp drops and your hands are soaking wet and getting really chilled and you've got a long way to go to get home, stop at the nearest mini-mart and buy a pair of extra large dishwashing gloves. Pull them on over whatever you're riding. It looks really, really dorky (sorta like the rest of me) but it works!
See ya on the road, folks. I’m not difficult to recognize. I’m that geeky looking guy with a grin from ear to ear, riding along with a smile from ear to ear, singing in the rain. Wave when you go by. And don’t forget to smile. Let those folks in their cars know you’re out here because you WANT to be.