Bike clothes for winter riding (especially when it rains)

Dressed for WinterAt 4:30 this morning the temperature in Portland was 51, a little soft rain was coming down, and the gusty wind that had hit the city during the night was dying down. Best of all, the eight inches of snow, sleet, and ice that had shut things down for four days and kept me off my bike for eight were almost gone.

Clearly, I had to get out, but the challenge of how to dress needed to be resolved.

Knowing that there was no need to be presentable at some meeting made it easier. All that I had to do was wear an outfit that would keep me comfortable for twenty-five miles even it if rained along the way.

During the snowy days I had read Jan Heine’s column on how to dress for rain. As a Seattle-based randonneur cyclist, who rides most of the year in all kinds of weather and on all kinds of roads, his opinion is based on thousands of miles of experience.

His recommendations can be summarized easily.

First, equip your bike with full fenders and mudflaps. This protects you from road spray and the drenching streak of water that unprotected wheels throw up.

Second, wear wool. In chilly, wet weather Jan wears four layers on top and one below the waist. He finds that the heavy outer jersey absorbs wetness but that it doesn’t soak through because perspiration caused by his vigorous cycling is working its way to the surface and thus repels the water coming in. He wears water protective booties over his cycling shoes.

I too have long been a devotee of wool cycling clothes. In addition to the four layers that Jan recommends, I add a wool scarf that adds more protection to shoulders and chest. It can be removed or put on easily. After a hard climb without a scarf, this simply garment can transform the comfort level on a fast down hill.

What about a rain shell and rain pants? Jan doesn’t wear them because, he reports, when cyclists ride hard the sweat builds up inside. Riders are more comfortable, he believes when they wear only wool and allow themselves to get a little wet.

My practice has been to wear a rain shell on top, especially if I’m riding in the dark. If the rain is coming down at a steady rate, I usually put on Rainlegs, water repellant chaps that cover the part of my legs that are most exposed to the rain.

At the end of the ride, both garments are wet inside and out, and my four layers of wool are damp from perspiration. Maybe Jan is right and I should leave the rain gear at home.

For twenty-five years, one of my most versatile garments has been a light weight, long sleeved, vented wind breaker that I wear over however many layers of wool the temperature requires. Perspiration doesn’t build up. It doesn’t keep the rain out. When I get hot, it rolls up and slips into a water bottle cage. I was going to wear it today, but at 54 degrees, the temperature when I got started, four layers of wool was plenty warm.

The point of it all, of course, is not sartorial elegance. Rather, it is maintaining the consistent practice of cycling all of the time, rain or shine, hot or cold, windy or calm. The clothes we wear help us deal with the vagaries of weather, which for someone in the Pacific Northwest means riding in the rain.

So off I went into a surprising winter day. No wind, no snow or ice, no rain, not even a sprinkle. Fleeting glimpses of blue sky lightened my spirits during the ride, and as I crossed the Columbia River on the ancient I-5 bridge near home a bright flash of real sun brightened my way and warmed my shoulders.

That’s a lot better than riding (singing) in the rain.



2 Responses to Bike clothes for winter riding (especially when it rains)

  1. I’ve got to agree with Jan’s advice, everytime I’ve worn the full waterproofs I’ve ended up wet from the inside anyway which somewhat defeats the object!
    The other trick that I use is using plastic carrier bags for your feet as a last resort on really wet rides, the booties (or mine do!) eventually let the water in unfortunately.

  2. jacbikes says:

    Thanks, Keith! It is always a debate within myself exactly how many layers & of what type to wear when the weather is pretty cold or wet. I, too, like a wool first layer, then a long sleeve bike jerseys, then a fleece. For rain, I have a very light weight rain jacket that is quite breatheable but also repels the rain & serves as a wind break. I have a heavier rain jacket, but don’t use it much except when the temperature is pretty chilly. Thursday I went out in 33f cold & used my heavy jacket plus the layers mentioned above, except for the fleece. I was quite warm except for my feet! Even with wool sicks, neoprene insulated sox, & booties over my shoes, by the end of 26 mi. my feet felt like icee blocks! Friday it got up to 48f & I used the layers above without the jacket & again was plenty warm. As for rain, I don’t mind getting wet if it’s not too cold, but the old garbage bag trick you recommended for those of us who didn’t want to spring for a gortex jacket 35 years ago, are thankfully long past! Talk about getting soaked from sweat – that’ll do it!
    Happy cycling as the weather warms!

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