It’s inevitable that year-round bike commuters will have to deal with rain at some point. The good news is that riding in the rain doesn’t have to be a miserable experience, and with a little preparation and the right attitude, it can actually be quite enjoyable.
Any bike that will be ridden in the rain on a regular basis needs fenders. Long, full coverage fenders are best, but if they’re not available, mud flaps increase the effectiveness of short fenders. Unlike the rain falling from the sky, water coming off of the road is oily and dirty, so complete fender coverage is a must, particularly for commuters riding in work clothes.
Visibility is dramatically diminished in the rain, so it’s a good idea to run lights even during a daylight downpour. Fortunately, most lights today are water-resistant, if not completely waterproof, so a standard nighttime commuting set-up is usually sufficient for riding in the rain (read more about lights for commuting here).
Most commuting bikes come standard with tires that are appropriate for rain riding. Just about any touring or city tire at least 28mm in diameter with a bit of tread will work fine. It probably goes without saying that small diameter racing slicks are not ideal for commuting in the rain.
For short commutes in light rain, it’s possible to keep dry using a cape over street clothes. Capes are nice because they allow air flow underneath and they’re easy to take on and off. The downside is that they may not keep you completely dry in a heavy downpour, and they can act like a sail in a crosswind. Chaps are sometimes used as additional protection in conjunction with a cape.
Longer commutes in heavy rain call for full rain suits made from waterproof, breathable fabrics. Cycling-specific rain suits aren’t necessary, though they provide a better fit on the the bike than standard, all-purpose rain suits. To get the most from any breathable rain suit, layer underneath with wicking garments made from wool or modern technical fabrics.
For footwear, I’ve had good luck with lightweight, waterproof hiking/walking shoes. I like the fact that they can be worn all day, eliminating the need to carry an extra pair of shoes. For those who ride in clipless cycling shoes, various neoprene and Gore-Tex booties are available.
Most good quality, bike-specific panniers and bags are either waterproof, water-resistant, or come supplied with rain covers. In the case of simple nylon bags and panniers that provide no protection from water, delicate items can be placed inside ziplock bags before placing into your bike bag.
It’s important to reduce speeds while riding in the rain to compensate for slick roads and reduced visibility. Brake early, accelerate slowly, and corner gingerly. Keep a particular eye out for paint stripes, grates, manhole covers, and leaves, all of which are extremely slick when wet. It’s best to avoid riding through large puddles, but if you must, slow to nearly walking speed since there’s no way to know their depth or what lurks under the surface.
There are two opposing approaches to maintaining a rain bike. One is to set-up a rain-specific “beater” bike that’s only given minimal attention, the other is to carefully maintain a nicer bike to keep the water exposure from causing damage. I’ve used both approaches and I can’t say one is necessarily better than the other.
The frequency and depth of maintenance required varies depending upon the bike and the person’s approach. At a bare minimum, the chain should be lubed well enough that it doesn’t rust and squeak. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for rust on other areas of the bike. If rust shows up, a little oil or grease will keep it from turning into something major.
Rain accelerates wear on brakes, and water has a way of working itself into bearings, so it’s a good idea to check a rain bike’s brakes and bearings on a regular schedule. If you don’t maintain your own bike, it’s a good idea to drop by your local bike shop mid-season for a quick once-over.
Wiping down a bike with an old bath towel after a rain ride will help stop corrosion before it starts. A quick rinse with fresh water before towel drying and lubing provides even more protection. Waxing the frame also helps repel water and road grime. This full-on approach certainly isn’t necessary, but it’ll help keep a nice bike in good condition.*
Snow and Ice
I live in a place where the weather is mild most of the year, so I’m going to ask the members of our community who live in cold, harsh climates to help us out with advice on how to deal with snow and ice. If you regularly ride in frozen conditions, please share your experience in the comments below.
Have Some Fun
Wet, winter bike commuting isn’t necessarily for everyone, but if you like the idea of riding year-round, rain-or-shine, you should definitely give it a try. Just a few adjustments to your regular routine can turn what could be an unpleasant ordeal into a fun adventure that adds another dimension to your bike commuting experience.
*I rode an expensive, handmade bike year-round when I lived in Seattle. I had a quick routine in which I rinsed the bike and wiped it down before rolling it into my basement for storage. It took less than 5 minutes per day and helped keep the bike in excellent condition for many years.