Saturday, June 04, 2005

All weather biking (1): don't wear cotton

Here’s what you need to bike in the rain (and this list is in order of importance):
1) have fenders.
2) don’t wear glasses.
3) don’t wear a cotton t-shirt.
4) wear a hat (or helmet with that little “visor” thingy).
5) have rain gear.
6) bike slower.

Get fenders. I mean, hell, you can even bike with an umbrella. They do in Amsterdam. But even that won’t protect your blue-jeaned legs from getting wet.

Biking in the rain ain’t ideal. But, as always, biking beats not biking.

So tonight I’m on the Lower East Side meeting an old high-school friend who used to go by the old-school hip-hop name of Disco B. He pointed out that I’m more hard core than any Lower-East-Side lip-pierced mohawk wearing punk/hipster (sorry to put together punk and hipster, but anyway...). Why? Because I’m biking back home to Queens in the rain after a full night of eating and drinking. And all those “posers” live around the corner. Well, perhaps. But I’m not here to debate my harcoredom.

I don’t bike to be hardcore (the denial of which, of course, could just make me even more hardcore). But hardcore or not, the fact is I am biking home on a Friday night through the rain all tipsy and happy, dodging traffic and feeling all the better for it.

While some might say that anybody who bikes in New York is hardcore, what really separates the biking men from the boys is biking in bad weather. But, as they also say, there is no such thing as bad weather, only those inappropriately dressed. I think I’m much better at dressing for the weather than I am at being hardcore. If that makes me soft, so be it.

I bike in rain, sun, clouds, hot, cold, snow, even ice. The only thing I hate biking in is hail. Luckily, it doesn’t hail much. But when it does, just take the subway. Trust me, that shit hurts.

Why bike in bad weather? Well, to be smug, biking doesn’t make the weather worse. Why is biking the rain worse than walking in the rain? And when you’re biking in the rain, you're in the rain a lot less than if you're walking in the rain.

Biking in bad weather isn’t better than biking in good weather. But biking in any weather is better than not biking in that same weather. Take a cab? If you want. Take the subway? Perhaps.

Here’s the dirty truth about biking in bad weather:

I don’t like biking in bad weather, but bad weather doesn’t happen very often. You’d be surprised. To me, bad biking weather is hail, ice covering the streets, temperature above 95 or below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or rain hard enough so that cars have their windshield-wipers on continuous rather than intermittent.

For most places, rain is the only real issue. And unless you live in Seattle or Amsterdam, it really doesn’t rain very often. Don’t think about days when it rains (but even those are few). Think about times when it rains. How many baseball games are rained out every summer? Maybe two out of 162.

I teach college. How many times was it raining hard enough that I didn’t want bike to school this year? Zero. What that means is that between 11 and 11:30AM Mondays and Wednesdays from September to June when I needed to go to work to teach, not one time was it raining so hard that I chose not to bike. Not once. The moral? Bike.

If you can look at free on-line weather radar such as, all the better. This website can tell you with close to 100% accuracy if it’s going to rain in the next few hours. How can you beat that?

But sometimes, like today, it does rain and you’ve got to bike. What does it take to bike in the rain? Very little. My raingear is simple. I have a cheap lightweight pair of rainpants and a cheap rain jacket. Both are from Amsterdam. Such simple gear may actually be hard to get in America. But I’m sure you can find it. My rain gear doesn’t “breath” and it doesn’t glow in the dark. But I wear it and it keeps me dry and I bike in the rain.

My rainpants are always in my bike bag. They just sit there 99 percent of the time. But they’re so light it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes I wear them when it's raining really hard and I'm walking. My rain jacket I bust out only when I need it. I brought (and wore) mine today for the first time in probably a year. And I bike everywhere.

Here’s the real secret for rain biking (or any biking): don’t wear cotton t-shirts. This is the only real sacrifice that you have to make if you want to bike.

I sweat a lot. I don’t want to be all sweaty. You simply have to buy hi-tech wicking polyester t-shirts. They’re not expensive. Around $15 mail order from Campmore in New Jersey (no fabric softener and don't dry them hot! Just line dry them, they dry in no time).

Biking or not, if you’re wearing wicking t-shirt, you won’t get the sweaty wet-armpit look. I can get wet armpits biking or not. So these t-shirts are really wonderful for me. The secret to these shirts is they don’t hold water. When you sweat, they transfer the moisture from your body to the air. Wear these shirts and you can get soaked in the rain. Then go inside and your t-shirt will be dry in no time, maybe 20 minutes at most.

Coolmax and the like really are true wonder fibers. If you bike in the rain, these shirts dry almost as fast as rain can wet them. Just wearing a long-sleeve wicking t-shirt is almost as good as wearing a rain jacket. At least in all but the hardest of rain.

On top of these t-shirts (which come in all the colors), you can wear whatever you like, fancy or simple. Bike in a white t-shirt and just slip on a hipper shirt when you get to where you’re going.

I still wear cotton underwear (boxer briefs, not that you asked, but they're the best for biking). And I always wear blue jeans (even though the worst thing in the world are wet blue jeans, if you ask me).

Almost always I wear black cotton socks. If I think it might rain, I wear wool socks. Cotton sucks when it’s wet. That’s the moral of this post.

When it rains, my socks get wet. Despite all my talk and bike building, my bikes don’t have good fenders (shame on me). So I bike in the rain and my feet get wet. But you don’t care so much when your socks are wet if they’re wool. That’s what wool is for. And it’s easy to get light-weight wool for socks for the summer.

Biking in the rain has a few other considerations. Bike slower. Cars see you even less. Though this isn’t a big deal, as you should always bike assuming that cars don’t see you. But caliper brakes don’t work as well and tires get less traction (this is another reason to buy expensive tires).

Glasses also suck. I can see well enough that I can bike without my glasses. But realistically speaking, you can’t bike in the rain wearing glasses. A hat (or helmet) is also good to keep rain off the head and fact.

And get fenders! This point is so obvious I almost forgot to mention it. But then I see all these bikes without fenders and I just think, “that’s why people don’t bike in the rain.” A rear fender is the most important. But all fenders are essential. There’s nothing cool or hardcore about a wet streak up your back.

And you need fenders even when it’s not raining. There are always puddles. Even my road bikes have at least half-adequate fenders (they protect my body buy not my lower legs and feet). Good fenders costs $45 for the pair. You can get perfectly adequate fenders for cheaper. But you just have to have them. Consider that part of the cost of a bike.

Does this sound like too much to deal with that it’s not worth biking? I hope not. But you have to remember, you make sacrifices for the weather if you don’t bike. And if you bike, you never have to carry and lose an umbrella, for instance. And once you get used to biking, biking for the weather doesn’t seem like a sacrifice at all. Biking always beats not biking.

I’ll talk about biking in the snow and ice when that comes around again.


Anonymous said...

fenders made of plastic bottles=free.

Fotaq said...

True true. I'm not sure how you can easily get full fender coverage with plastic-bottle fenders. But you can't beat the price.