Prepare for Rain
Southern California people might laugh at the notion, but it’s about to get really wet up here in the PNW. Still, the percentage of riders who do it year round in Seattle and Portland is among the highest in the country. I mean, we’re not as hardcore are Minneapolis people, but we do OK in a climate that would outwardly appear to be incompatible with riding. It’s actually pretty easy to stay on the bike through the dark, cold, wet months if you spend a little time getting ready. You might be asking yourself why you’d want to bother riding all winter. Well, it’s because I’ll be the one you see in spring during those first few weeks when you’ve emerged from your winter hibernation. You’ll be in your full team kit, wondering why the pedals are so hard to push, and I’ll be passing you on the hills with a 30+ pound touring bike and a full load of groceries. Neither of us wants that, really. To avoid this scenario, take some tips from a slow guy who spent 6 days a week on the bike (outdoors, duh) last winter and learned some pretty good stuff along the way.
You need these, and I mean it. This is the first, and most important, thing that you’ll need to keep you and your bicycle happy when it’s wet outside. The front fender keeps water and grit away from your feet, your chest, and your expensive drivetrain. The rear fender keeps water and grit off your ass, your back, and the guy behind you. Get the ones with the most coverage. SKS Longboards are the best, but these ones from Planet Bike are super nice too. I have both. If you only have a road racing bike, these little guys are way better than nothing. Attach some long flaps to them and you’ll be pretty well off.
Your life will improve dramatically if you get a strong, fat tire that is almost impossible to flat. Strong because you can’t see road debris as well when it’s dark and wet. Fat because you’ll be better off running a higher volume tire at lower pressure when you do hit something nasty (changing a tube in the rain is pretty miserable I hear). A safe bet would be the fattest Schwalbe Marathon you can fit under your new fenders. Lastly, you’re not going to hydroplane, so get that right out of your head.
I don’t use one, but I can bring my bike inside at the office. If you leave your bike outside while you’re working, just cough up the $12-$15 and get a cover. Or, you know, just put a plastic bag over your saddle. Either way, don’t let it soak in the rain.
You’re not as visible when it’s raining, and you’re certainly not particularly visible when it’s wicked dark outside. If you have lights, great. If you don’t, just go get the best ones you can afford (front and back). What “best” means is up to you and your preferences. I personally use a B&M dynamo headlamp and a 1 watt battery taillight from Planet Bike.
The obvious choice (but the one I think it wrong) is to get a rain cover for your helmet. OK, yes it’ll keep the rain off and yes they’re usually bright yellow which is good for visibility. The problem is that they just sort of overheat your head in the winter and that isn’t fun or enjoyable. Things that make my ride less fun are things I’m against. My preference is to go with insulation rather than full-on waterproofing. I got a thin wool beanie and swapped out the big pads in my helmet for the thin ones. Wool is good because it retains its thermal insulation properties even when wet, but it’s also extremely breathable. That way you keep your head temperature regulated, your ears protected against cold, and you end up with rain in your hair instead of sweat. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s the much better option. You should also strongly consider wearing something around your neck to keep the rain from dripping down your back. Fleece works pretty good for this.
Even though I don’t think “waterproof breathable” is really a thing, this is what the high-end rain jackets say they are and that’s fine. You’re still going to sweat unless you unzip it a little and get some air flowing. I leave my pit zips open at all times. There are numerous real features that a cycling jacket has and a regular rain coat doesn’t, so it’s tough to get cheap here. The most obvious difference is the long tail that prevents you from collecting water in your ass crack. Anyway, the choices are numerous, but a safe bet is getting something from Showers Pass. They’re based in Portland and they have a great reputation. Want something a little more up-market? Rapha is the thing for you. If you want something extra-up-market and don’t mind the idea of bankruptcy, Brooks has you covered.
Honestly, I just wear my regular pants and suck it up. I hate rain pants because they’re too hot, they’re wicked bulky, and I find my legs are less exposed to water than almost any other part of me. If you don’t mind changing at work, a pair of wool tights would probably work great. The tights would be for riding, not working. You’d bring regular pants for that.
I have three condition-dependent solutions for this; if it’s a little cold and a little rainy I use glove liners, if it’s really cold and really rainy I use glove liners and cheap wool gloves from the Army surplus store, if it’s really-really cold and horribly rainy I just wear snowboarding gloves. Easy.
If you don’t mind looking extra awesome, pick up your feet when you go through big puddles. As for actual footwear, I just wear old sneakers with big wool socks and put on my work shoes when I get to the office. I’m thinking about trying out gaiters this year though, because they seem like a great choice for staying a little drier and for keeping my pants cuff out of the chain.
You’ve got some options when it comes to getting your stuff from point A to point B without it getting wet. I like a nice waxed canvas saddle bag. Most people go with Ortlieb panniers, though. Handlebar bags are popular as well, but they don’t have the carrying capacity some people need. If you can help it, don’t use a backpack. Nothing again backpacks; they’re great, but they have some serious drawbacks when it comes to cycling. The worst of which is the fact that you’ll end up with a sweaty back, and you will end up with a sweaty back. The combination of a waterproof jacket and a backpack pressing it against your body can only end in sweat. No way around it.
Your fenders will do a lot to keep your bike running nice and smooth, but giving the drivetrain a regular light cleaning and lubing will do the rest. Keep the rim walls clean as well, because your brake pads will end up grinding that grit right into them if you don’t.