The challenges to winter cycling in the Northwest are primarily copious amounts of a) rain and b) darkness.
For the past fifteen years, my solution to the rain has been the usual one: a bicycle-specific “breathable/waterproof” rain jacket, and, when necessary, rain pants. In recent years, I have amassed a wardrobe consisting almost entirely of wool, so that when I do get wet from rain (or sweaty from wearing rain gear), at least I stay warm. But while full rain gear works for certain situations, it’s often more than I need, and it’s almost always uncomfortably warm in our temperate climate. While the technological advances of Gore-tex and the like have doubtless improved things somewhat over plastic ponchos, I still don’t find most of my waterproof/breathable gear to be breathable. Sometimes it’s not even waterproof. And it’s hard to find a pair of rain pants that doesn’t bind, leak, or otherwise seem like a cumbersome waste of money.
We’d been meaning to try rain capes for a while, and this summer, while in Eugene, we finally picked up a couple from the Center for Appropriate Transport. They make their own rain capes, right there in Eugene. The capes are simple affairs, like a small tent with a hole in the top for your head. There is a buckle around your waist to keep the cape from flapping too high, and there are little slots for your hands to fit in, or to hook into, or something. The idea is, you hold the cape onto your handlebars, so that it provides rain protection to your upper body as well as your legs. And in practice, it works remarkably well. I’ve used the rain cape several times in heavy rain, from short rides to commute-like trips of 5-7 miles. On the longer trips and in heavier rains, my knees and shoes get damp, but frankly no worse than they did with rain pants, and less dramatically. Meanwhile the comfort level is considerably higher: Since the cape doesn’t have to provide breathability in its fabric, it can be completely waterproof; and since the cape is not snug-fitting, there is ventilation aplenty. I also appreciate how it fits easily over all manner of coats and jackets, regardless of their bulk or length.
The disadvantage to the rain cape is that one has to hold it in place on the handlebars, which gets in the way of various activities like signalling for turns, shifting with downtube shifters, and ringing a bell. For short rides, this is not a big problem, but it gets tiresome over several miles. I am thinking I will sew on a few velcro loops to the front, so that I can attach the cape to the handlebars and not have to hold it with my thumbs. For the meantime I am holding the cape onto the bars with big binder clips, which sounds a little crazy but works very well.
The rain cape really shows its advantage on warmer rainy days, especially on short rides to an appointment or meeting. It’s perfect for most urban cycling.
The other major improvement we’ve made this year is to finally figure out a solution to the rainy-glasses problem. We got contact lenses! It’s the last thing I would have thought I’d do for winter cycling, but last year we got very weary of dealing with wet spectacles mile after mile in the rain.
If you wear glasses and cycle year round, you know what I am talking about. Rainy days are low visibility to begin with. Cover your lenses with hundreds of tiny refracting droplets of water and you begin to wonder if you can see at all. At night it’s even worse, as the droplets refract the headlights of oncoming cars into disco-ball-like explosions of light. The solution I’ve traditionally used is to stop as often as necessary to wipe my glasses dry. But after a few stops, my handkerchief would be soaked, and worse, my hands would be wet and cold from constantly removing my gloves.
By the end of last winter, we were actually thinking about Lasik surgery, but contacts are a more sensible solution for us right now. Holly and I both got fitted for lenses just in time for the rains, and we’ve been using them for rainy bike rides. The difference is amazing! I don’t much like contacts for the rest of my day — reading, working, and so on — but for rainy bicycling, nothing else will do.