The Davis Enterprise: Jan. 20, 2009
Davis Bicycles! column #008
Title: It’s raining? Get out your bicycle!
Author: Mont Hubbard
It’s been a relatively dry winter, but Davis bicyclists have nothing to fear even when it’s wet, says avid cyclist Mont Hubbard. Just be prepared, with adequate rain gear, a well-tuned bike, and a heightened sense of safety.
“I’m biking in the rain, just biking in the rain
What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again
I’ll bike down the lane, With a happy refrain
‘Cause I’m biking, Just biking in the rain.”
(apologies to Gene Kelly)
Davis’ yearly precipitation comes in the winter, so wet usually means cool and sometimes downright cold. For serious cycling aficionados, though, rain needn’t be a show-stopper. Only careful preparation and a rosy attitude are needed. Indeed, rainy weather cycling can be more fun than summer biking when one is properly prepared.
Who among us didn’t relish mud puddles as a child? Splashing through random pools on our way to work or school can tickle the child within. Rain biking is also more fun because paths are less crowded in rainy weather so we have them more to ourselves. Furthermore, it increases our sense of independence and self-reliance if we can take all that the rain gods can throw at us with a smile.
Predicted rain often doesn’t come and drizzles dissipate. Slightly delaying your trip during a downpour can mean evading rain altogether. And a mere threat is rarely a reason not to bike.
The main motivations for biking still pertain. Other than walking, it’s the most environmentally friendly and cost-efficient transportation method (low carbon footprint and zero pollution). In small, bike-friendly cities like Davis, it’s the fastest, least-hassle way to get around. And biking has well- recognized fitness benefits that automatically accrue.
But we do need to stay safe and dry. This means acquiring special clothing and equipment to deal with the moisture. A waterproof breathable (Goretex-like) rain shell is certainly item No. 1, preferably with underarm and/or side ventilation. Close behind are breathable rain pants. Nonbreathable versions retain more perspiration inside than the rain they exclude. (Outdoor Davis or REI are good sources of both.)
An alternative to the shell/pants is the rain cape/poncho often used in the United Kingdom, essentially a small, bottomless tent covering both seat and handlebars with you inside. It’s especially breathable and a good alternative for long-distance, high-exertion rain cycling.
Dressing in layers is good. Easily dryable fabrics (wool and polyester) beat cotton, which stays damp longer. Relatively inexpensive neoprene step-in boots (google “neos rain boots”) quickly and easily cover normal shoes and provide warm, dry feet at your destination. Helmet covers are optional.
Hard-core rain-bikers prefer inexpensive plastic safety goggles to keep drops from their eyes but eyeglasses work just as well. Leather gloves provide both hand warmth and increased grip on otherwise slippery handlebars.
To change or not to change; that is the question. Rain-savvy cyclists differ on the answer. Personally, I find a good shell, boots and pants protect my clothes so well that changing at the office isn’t essential. Of course, it never hurts to have spare dry clothes on hand in case of unavoidable torrential downpours.
Falling rain is pure as driven (melted) snow but surface splash isn’t. It’s important to shield our selves from grit and grime tossed up by the tires. Essential winter bicycle modifications include front and rear fenders, removable for the dry season.
Additional periodic lubrication controls rust and maintains a high-efficiency drive train. When parking outside, a plastic bag with rubber-band seat cover saves a wet crotch on the next trip.
Wet conditions demand enhanced safety awareness. Rain decreases visibility for both cyclists and drivers, especially at night. We should dress for visibility even more than usual with high-visibility front/rear lights and reflectors. Keep a wide distance from parked cars in the bike lane and bike smoothly and predictably. A bell helps warn pedestrians and other cyclists of your decreased controllability.
Wet conditions increase stopping distances markedly for cars and bikes and require extra vigilance and slower speeds. Well-adjusted brakes and good tire treads are vital. Using both brakes together means less likelihood that either will slip.
Lower wet road friction applies equally to turning forces. Realize that most roadway surface markings don’t have friction enhancers embedded in the paint. Wet patches can be extremely slippery and too-fast, too-tight turns result in quick falls.
The best advice is not to turn or brake hard on them at all and to avoid leaning too much into turns. Railroad tracks, man hole covers, storm drain grates and wet leaves are even slipperier. Avoid them.
Careful attention to clothing and equipment means we can bike in the rain as snug as a bug in a rug, while enjoying the rare experience of catching the raindrops on our tongue. Life doesn’t get any better!
– Mont Hubbard has biked in Davis since moving here 35 years ago. He advises three Ph.D. students studying bicycle dynamic theory and often secretly pines for his massive chrome Schwinn Roadmaster equipped with three batteries, two lights and a horn, on which he delivered newspapers as a boy.