Dodging raindrops on your bike

While rain may make some riders think twice, it didn't affect the demand for bike repair earlier this month at Dudley Town Common, where the Boston Cyclists Union stand was set up.

By Dan Pugatch

September 1 is known as D Day around here. It’s the day college students pour back into town in their moving trucks, wheeled carts, and alma-mater promoting sweat pants. On this day the full-time residents of Boston are harder to find, as they tend to avoid all shopping centers, restaurants, and schools of any kind. If they do go out on a bike, the rule is to steer at least 100 feet clear from any rented truck or car on the road.

But this mass of confusion heralds other things, such as apple-picking season, Halloween costume planning, and of course sheets of rain for days and days. Now is the time to gear up for the deluges to come. Here are a few tips that should help you stay dry and warm, as well as keep your bicycle from disintegrating into a pile of rust and pedals.

What you wear is going to be the key investment when it comes to keeping the bike commute going into the fall. The first rule is to avoid cotton by all costs: it takes forever to dry, and while wet it irritates the skin and does not keep you warm. Me, I tend to swerve around the high tech fabrics that sound like an ingredient from a bag of Extreme Cool Ranch Doritos, and stick with the original technical fabric: wool.

Wool naturally wicks away moisture, and unlike poly-whatevers and cotton, wool will keep you warm even when sopping wet. For slightly warmer days, I recommend sticking to a wool base layer under your shirt, jacket and pants. They come in various thicknesses so once winter creeps in, you can continue to layer on the wool until summer arrives. Wool socks are also a must have for cyclists. I wear them even in the summer.

The rain gear you choose can also make your commute pleasant or exhausting. For the coat, I like a hooded lightweight shell with lots of breathability. Don’t be fooled by the tags in the shop, you do not have to have the best 5 star waterproof jacket—because it’s likely the same jacket will have only 1 or 2 stars of breathability and you will end up sweating rivers even when the temperature dips below zero. Go for the higher breathability. The better raincoats are in the $150-200 range and have armpit zippers that can be open pretty much whenever you are riding. The hood should have draw cords for a more skin-tight fit that will also allow you to wear a helmet.

Rain pants are worth the investment but can be just as pricey as the raincoats. Wool military surplus pants will do just fine until you can save up for a nice pair of cycling rain pants. The nicer models zip off into shorts as well. Booties go over your footwear and keep your feet dry, but tend to fall apart quickly. If you have an old pair of sneakers just wear a few plastic store bags over you socks before you put your new “wet weather” shoes on, it’s an old trick from my days of hiking as a Boy Scout that came in handy later in life when I was a bicycle courier here in Boston.

Now that you have a sense of the right clothing to wear while riding in the rain, it’s time to protect your bicycle from the deluge and make the ride more comfortable as well.

Fenders are a must of course, they come in all forms from clip on plastic to bolt on metal, and even hand carved ornate wooden ones. The rear fender will keep the skunk stripe off your backside, and the front fender will keep your feet cleaner and your drive train in better shape. The bearing system for your pedal pushing is inside the ‘bottom bracket’ that connects the pedal crank arms to the frame. With the bottom bracket constantly taking a spray of salt, sand, and water it is not unusual for a daily year round commuter to go through one or two of these a year. But having a front fender will help keep this splash back to a minimum.

It’s also important to lubricate your chain a few times a month, but don’t do this the day it rains or before. The newly lubricated chain will collect even more gunk than normal on a rainy day, especially sand, which will make a grinding noise when you pedal.

Speaking of sand, it’s also a good idea to keep a ratty towel around to wipe off your rims after riding through the rain. Sand can collect there and embed itself in your brake pads, which can eventually grind down your rim a little faster and reduce your braking power.

It’s also very convenient to have waterproof panniers, backpacks or messenger bags to save your stuff from the rain. These are available in a huge variety at most bike shops, but not all are completely waterproof so check the label. And if you don’t have a waterproof bag or don’t want to spring the extra cash it takes to buy one, make sure to put books, laptops, cell phones, and other valuable items in plastic bags.

Last but not least, be extremely careful when riding in the rain. It’s a good idea to go slower because your braking power is usually not as strong, and make sure you are extra alert. Resist the urge to put your head down by keeping your eyes wide open to all the normal hazards. Situations where you’re riding through traffic jams become particularly dangerous when visibility is low, as neither you or a driver cutting through stopped traffic to make a left are likely to see each other through the deluge. To this end you should always use lights, the brighter the better. It’s harder for drivers to see you out there on rainy days even when it’s daytime.

Despite all the hazards, if you’re well prepared, riding in the rain can be an empowering and even joyful experience. And along with a little luck, the above advice will help you stay warm, dry and safe out there. Enjoy the autumn season on a bike!


  1. Peter Furth on September 16, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Any suggestion of where to buy wool underclothing?

  2. Dan Pugatch on September 18, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Yes Peter! I highly recommend Smart Wool which you can get at Eastern Mountain Sports its super thick and soft like a tshirt. There’s a brand that is much thinner and just as warm called IBEX and you can special order their stuff from any local bike shop tell them to order it from QBP (its a distributor.) That would be for base layers, gloves, and socks. I use DeFeet brand socks (again order from a bike shop.) For wool pants an army/navy store is perfect, and I get my wool sweaters at Good Will.

  3. Dan Pugatch on September 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    The brand IBEX I recommended in the article, they just opened a retail store on Newbury Street. However, they are having a tent sale Columbus Day Weekend at their HQ in Vermont 80% off… worth the drive

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