Neither Rain Nor Gloom of Night

by Kent Peterson, Commuting Program Director, Bicycle Alliance of Washington


Note: This is an approximation of the content of seminar that took place on September 18th, 2006. The actual seminar was a more interactive discussion.


Today I'm going to talk about bicycle commuting in the rain and the dark. I'm going to talk about safety and comfort but I want to make it clear that I'm not going to promise that you'll be perfectly safe or perfectly comfortable when you are out riding through a dark and rainy night. There are no guarantees in life but I hope that some of what we talk about here will prove useful.

Safety at Night

First off, let's look at the big question: are you really running a greater risk by cycling at night (or in the rain) than you are in broad daylight? I've looked at the numbers and I've ridden lots and lots of miles in all kinds of conditions and the best answer I've come up with is "I don't know." Here's the thing, if  you look at cycling accidents after dark and factor out the folks who fail to do two simple things, you can actually make the case that it may be safer to ride at night than in the daytime! Again, I don't know this for certain but at the very least you do decrease your chances of an accident by doing these two simple things:

  1. Have working lights and reflectors on your bicycle.
  2. Wear light colored and/or reflective clothing

OK, You'd think that both of these things would fall in the "well, duh!" category but most after-dark cycling accidents involve riders who fail to do these two simple things. Now obviously drivers and cyclists have decreased visibility in the rain and the dark, but lights, reflectors and light colored clothing can make you stand out against a dark background and that contrast is the key to safety.

Lack of contrast can be a real problem twice a day -- dawn and dusk. Morning and evening glare from the rising and setting sun can make these times the most hazardous for commuting and I try to be extra vigilant when I'm riding through sunrise or sunset. I often try to flex my schedule earlier or later to avoid riding at these times.

I commute to work every day, rain or shine, summer or winter and I get to see a lot of cyclists riding at night. Much of the advice I'm going to dispense today is based on what I've figured out that works for me and what I've seen working for other cyclists.

Let's talk for a bit about the bike. Riding through the winter is hard on your bike. Rain plus road grit puts a lot of wear on your bike and many riders in this part of the world have a "rain bike" and save their "go fast" bike for the nice days. I don't have any "go fast" bikes. All my bikes are "rain bikes."

Fenders

The main thing that distinguishes a rain bike is fenders. Fenders keep most of the road spray off you and if they are properly designed they keep a lot of the grit off your bike and your fellow riders as well. Unfortunately many "go fast" bikes these days suffer from what I call "California bike syndrome" and lack adequate clearances for mounting fenders or the ability to run fatter tires. If you do want to equip your fast bike for rain riding there are some clever local shops that can do amazing things when it comes to fitting fenders. If you are frugal, have a do-it-yourself nature and a less than refined sense of aesthetics, I've prepared a page describing how to make a set of lightweight bike fenders from recycled coroplast campaign signs.

http://www.carsstink.org/peterson/FendForYourself.html


Tires

Flat tires are no fun anytime but they can be really miserable in the rain. As fate would have it, you really are more likely to have a flat tire when it's raining because of a variety of factors. First off, it's harder to see debris when it's wet, so you are more likely to run over something nasty. Secondly, the water can help the crud stick to your tire for more than one revolution giving a nasty object more chances to puncture your tire. Finally, water acts like a lubricant on the cutting surface so sharp and pointy things are have an easier time penetrating the rubber of your tire.

There are several things you can do to decrease your chances of punctures including things like using Mister Tuffies (thick plastic belts that you place between the tire and the inner tube) or you could use a device called a tire-saver which is a small, flexible wire that rides just above the surface of the tire and theoretically skims the nasty things away before they have a chance to penetrate the tire. Another option is to use self-healing Slime tubes. Slime tubes still puncture but they are filled with a liquid goo that can seal small punctures. The downside with Slime tubes is that if you have a big puncture, the Slime can't seal it and the slimy mess makes it almost impossible to apply a standard patch.

I've used all the above items and basically I've figured out that the best thing is to just run tough tires. Probably the toughest tires on the market today are Specialized Armadillos. Armadillos have a very thick rubber casing and an Aramid belt. Kevlar is Dupont's trademarked name for Aramid fabric and a lot of folks are familiar with Kevlar because of it's use in bullet-proof vests. But stopping a bullet and stopping something sharp and pokey like a chunk of glass or the sharp end of a nail are two different things. Small sharp objects can spread between the weave of Kevlar fibers so just because a tire has a Kevlar belt doesn't make it impervious to flatting. In the Armadillo tires, the Aramid belt is denser than most other Kevlar belted tires and that, coupled with the thick rubber casing makes the tire so tough. The downside is that Armadillo tires are quite heavy and slow. Some people absolutely cannot stand the ride of these tires. Also, the stiffness of Armadillo tires makes them hard to mount on some rims. But in terms of flat resistance, they are definitely among the best. In my experience Schwalbe Marathon XR tires ride a bit better than Specialized Armadillos and are also extremely long wearing and flat resistant. Continental used to make a tire called the Top Touring which was quite good and rode quite nicely but that tire has recently been replaced by the Continental Contact. A lot of folks in the Seattle International Randonneurs swear by Continental Gatorskins. Avocet also makes some very good touring tires but Avocet has an odd distribution system which makes it hard to find bike shops that have them in stock. I'm sure there are other good tires out there but in general for wet weather commuting I look for the fattest, toughest tire that will fit on my bike.

Brake pads, Rims and Disk Brakes

Your stopping distance will be greater when it's wet out but good brake pads can make the most of your braking. Also the combination of rain and road grit can  wear away your brake pads and your rims at an alarming rate. The best brake pads I've found for wet weather are Koolstop Salmon pads. The salmon refers to the color of the pads, a reddish orange like the flesh of a salmon and the color comes from the iron-oxide that is used in the rubber in these brake pads. Koolstop salmon pads stop better and wear longer than any other brake pad I've used, so that's why I recommend them. Also, they tend not to get as much grit embedded in them (I don't know why) so they help your rims last longer.

Speaking of rims, rims do wear out in this part of the world. My friends from California and other sunnier climes are amazed when I tell them this but it's true. If you ride year-round and use rim brakes, keep an eye on how much your rims are wearing. If your brakes start telegraphing a pulsing sensation as you come to a stop, don't ignore that. There is a good chance that your rims have thinned to a dangerous level and few things are more exciting than having a bike rim blow out at speed. It's more excitement than most folks prefer, so I like to warn people about the danger. These days you can get disk brakes on some bikes and if you are looking at getting a new commuter bike, it is an option worth considering.

Lights and reflectors

If you ride at night, you need lights and reflectors. What kind of lights, how many and how powerful are subjects we can debate, but you do need lights. The law requires it and a basic sense of self-preservation mandates the use of lights as well.

Bike lights serve two functions, they let you see where you are going and they let other road users see you. Both functions are vitally important and one really good thing you can do is have someone ride or drive with you at night to see how your lights are reflective gear are working in the real world. Your own eyes will tell you if you have enough light to see by. Other peoples eyes are needed so you know how well you are making yourself seen.

There are some tremendously high-powered bicycle headlights on the market these days but these may or may not be the best choice for commuting. First off, the strongest light in the world is useless if it has a dead battery. Second, a light that is great for navigating dark, single track in Capitol Forest may absolutely blind your fellow commuters on the Burke Gilman trail. More isn't always better.

While more isn't always better, I am a fan of having redundant lighting. I have a headlight and tail light on my bike, a headlight and tail light on my helmet and a third tail light on my waist pack. Lots of lights. When we talk about clothing I'll go into more detail about the lights I wear but for now lets talk about bike lights.

You need a front white light. This can be an HID light, a halogen light and these days white LED lights are getting better and better. I mostly won't get into brands here, things are changing really fast in the light world and different people have different needs. I will say that Watts are a stupid way to measure lights. Comparing lights by comparing their Watts is like deciding which car is best solely by how fast it sucks down gas. Also different lights have different beam patterns. I've seen great 3 Watt lights that put more light on the road than some other 10 Watt lights. And LEDs in general run at much lower power than halogen lights.

One thing I have noticed on my commute is that riders who use white flashing LED lights are very noticeable. The part of our eyes responsible for night vision, the rods, are also used in our most sensitive motion detection and our peripheral vision. The flashing is simulated motion and it draws our attention. The downside to the flashing is that it makes it harder to judge the distance of an object, so it is harder to estimate the precise location and closing speed of a flashing object. Also there is a theory that flashing lights draw the attention of drunks, like moths to a flame, so proponents of that theory favor solid, non-flashing lights. I split the difference and run multiple lights, some flashing and some solid. The inexpensive red tail light has really improved in the past few years. LEDs are going through a price/performance evolution similar to what is happening with computer chips so the current lights tend to be brighter and last longer than the best lights from 18 months ago. 

A very neat lighting solution is the dynamo hub. Unlike the cheap, high-friction rim generators lights you might remember from your youth, modern hub generators are nearly frictionless, always ready and basically trouble free. About the only downside is that they can be kind of pricey. The Schmidt Dynamo front hub (also known as SON) is a wonderful piece of equipment and Shimano makes a cheaper (but not quite as nice) generator hub as well. In this area, Sammamish Valley Cycle has probably sold more SON systems than anybody (I used to work there, so perhaps I'm biased). For more info on hub dynamos as well as info on other nice lighting options, check out Peter White's page at:

http://www.peterwhitecycles.com/lightingsystems.htm

One more easy, cheap and effective thing to do to your bike is to add reflective tape to various surfaces. I have red reflective tape on my rear fender and various bits of white reflective tape elsewhere. I try to have tape that will reflect from all directions, including the side. Reflective tape on rotating surfaces, like cranks and the inner rims of wheels is highly visible. I also have various strips of reflective tape on my helmet. Finally, I have a 6 inch reflective yellow triangle that hangs on the back of my left rear pannier. It seems like, day or night, that reflective triangle sends a signal to passing motorists to leave me a bit more room.

Clothing for Commuting

There's a saying that "there is no bad weather, just bad clothing." As someone who commutes on nice days and crappy days, I really can't agree. The best clothes in the world won't make a rainy night in December as nice as a morning in July but the right clothes can make a bad day better. And the wrong clothes can make a bad night really nasty.

Helmet

Starting at the top, I wear a helmet. As I've said on more than one occasion, I'm not going to go into any helmet debates here. If you want to debate helmets, I can point you to some heated helmet debates that are happening on the Internet right now. But today, we're not going to debate the issue. The law in King County is that cyclists wear helmets and I'm a law-abiding citizen. I also have found on a couple of occasions that my helmet has helped me keep my skull intact. And it's a handy place to attach a mirror and lights. So, if you are riding on the streets of King County, get a helmet. All bicycle helmets have to meet the same crash standards. They vary in price based on things like fit, venting and style but the main thing I look for in a helmet is that it fits securely and comfortably on my head.

As I mentioned, my helmet has reflective tape on it and I have a headlight zip-tied to the front of it. My headlight is a Princeton Tec EOS and it's weather-proof, bright, lightweight and wonderful. It cost about $40 at REI and it's one of those things that I really, really like. If you want to read more of my ravings of how wonderful this light is, check out my blog at:

http://kentsbike.blogspot.com/2006/01/my-new-helmet-light.html

I also have a tail light attached to the back of my helmet and the two lights kind of balance each other out.

Cap

I'm also a big fan of the classic cycling cap and I wear one under my helmet all the time. On rainy days the brim of the cap helps keep water off my glasses and on sunny days the brim keeps the glare out of my eyes. At night I find that by tilting my the cap brim works well to block the worst of the glare from oncoming headlights.

Eye wear

I wear my normal prescription glasses for all my riding and most cyclists prefer riding with some kind of eye wear. I don't have much to say on the subject other than the "well duh" advice that clear or light colored lenses are best for riding at night. Also, some cyclists believe that Polarized lenses are not good for cycling precisely because they filter out glare. A cyclist often uses glare to spot broken glass or a wet spot on the road and Polarized lenses remove this data.

Ear Band

A lightweight ear band can really add a lot of comfort on a damp or cold day. For most of the winter I use a little tube of  Coolmax polyester called a Buff. I roll it to varying thicknesses depending on the temperature. If it's really cold, I may replace the buff with a fleece headband.

Gloves

My favorite winter gloves are wool knit gloves. Even when they get wet, they stay warm and I can wring them out and keep riding. I've tried various waterproof gloves and they either leak or get wet from sweat and then I get cold. With the wool, I'm damp but comfortable.

Over the wool gloves I wear a pair of GloGlovs

GloGlov

I first saw GloGlovs being used by Washington State Ferry workers. A nice lady named Lynette Waneke Gray makes GloGlovs down in Oregon and you can go to her website at:

http://www.gloglov.com/

to find out more.

Base Layer

For my base layer I tend to favor thin wool jerseys or wool t-shirts. Some folks prefer various wicking synthetics, although some synthetic fabrics like polypro have a nasty tendency to retain odors. For years climbers have sworn by Patagonia's Capilene and the Patagonia folks worked hard to make Capilene into a "stinkless" synthetic. The one fabric that I really try to avoid for cycling wear is cotton. A cotton t-shirt is fine for warm summer days but in the winter it just gets wet and clammy and sucks all the heat away from you.

For pants I wear lycra cycling shorts under Suplex nylon shorts or pants. I also use lycra arm and leg warmers depending on how warm or cold things are. In the spring and fall, it's often cool enough in the morning for long sleeves but much warmer by the time the evening commute rolls around. Arm and leg warmers take up much less space in a pack than full tights and a long sleeve jersey.

Shells and Pants

When it's wet or cold I wear a shell layer, either a jacket or a vest. My rain jacket is yellow. My vest is yellow. I'm not particularly fond of yellow but it is a very noticeable color. Bright orange or lime green are good as well but I always advise people to get rain gear in bright colors. I see people commuting in dark blue or black jackets and they just blend in with the rain. If you do have a favorite dark jacket (and I have a black Marmot windshirt that's just great!) wear it with a bright vest or a reflective sash.

As for specific jackets, I really like a very cheap, light jacket called the Rainshield O2. Their $35 jacket works surprisingly well and it's about the lightest rain jacket on the market. I also have their heavier, pricier jacket and it's also quite good. A company called Burley just restructured and won't be making rain wear anymore but their jackets are very good and many commuters swear by them. So if you want a Burley, get 'em while you can. Showers Pass makes good stuff as well and so does Jackson & Gibbons. If you get up to Canada, check out some of the jackets at MEC and locally REI has a pretty good selection of jackets.

I really haven't found a true rain pant that I like. The problem is, it's mostly too warm hear and most rain pants get to clammy. Goretex may be waterproof and breathable if you aren't too active but I find that for cycling it tends to get overwhelmed trying to vent sweat and so I get clammy. For jackets I prefer things that are more breathable (or have big vents and arm-pit zippers) and for my legs I either just use lycra leg warmers or warmers together with nylon chaps called Rainlegs.

I reviewed a few items for the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association, including the Rainshield O2 and Rainlegs and you can read those reviews here:

http://www.ultracycling.com/equipment/foul_weather_gear.html


Feet

I wish I could tell you the secret to keeping your feet warm and dry on a wet commute, but I don't have a perfect solution. As I've found with gloves, I can be fairly happy albeit somewhat damp by using a layer of wool. I wear wool socks all the time. Depending on conditions I may over layer the wool with a Sealskins sock or some kind of over-boot but ultimately water seems to seep. I have friends who swear by the combination of  Shimano sandals, wool socks and a Goretex over sock.

Probably the best advice I can give you is to have a spare pair of socks. Few things match the luxury of slipping into a pair of dry socks at the end of a wet commute. And I figure you've already worked out that it's best to leave your work shoes at work, right?

Finally, reflective ankle bands are another cheap but very noticeable addition to the cyclists wardrobe. The flash of yellow or orange draws the eye and the spinning motion helps drivers identify that flashing thing up ahead as a cyclist.

Final Advice

Remember that everyone's visibility is lowered in the rain. Even if it's daylight, I tend to turn my lights on in the rain. When it's wet, slow down. Not all your fellow riders may be as well lit as you and wet roads can be treacherous. Watch out for man-hole covers, railroad tracks, metal bridge decks, painted fog lines and leaves. All these things can be wickedly slippery when wet. Be careful out there.