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Here comes the rain: Oakland North’s tips for biking in wet weather

on November 20, 2010

It’s time to break out the fenders. As last week’s balmy weather changes to winter rain, people who rely on their bikes have to switch gears, sometimes literally, and prepare for drenched roads and clothes. This means not only pulling out the waterproof gear, but also knowing the dangers of a wet road and how to take care of a gritty, soggy bike.

Many two-wheeled commuters start hanging up their bikes this time of year and begin looking at BART and bus maps.  Or, if they have cars, they resort to burning fossil fuels. But there are those fanatic die-hards who ride on despite the wind, water and cold temperatures. They tout certain perks to riding in the rain, like having the whole bike path to themselves, or proving they’re hardcore, or sharing a bond with the other crazies who won’t let a downpour stop them.

“We’d love to see more people out biking in the winter,” says Rebecca Stievater, the outreach coordinator for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, which is preparing winter riding workshops that will include tricks for safer rain biking and also launching “1000 New Cyclists,” a campaign aimed at encouraging 1000 more people in the East Bay to start biking. “But we know the drop in temperature and the weather is a deterrent.”

Stievater, herself, keeps riding through the winter. She has a three-mile commute and rides every day, but admits it wasn’t easy in the beginning. Once she bought the necessary gear—rain pants and jacket—it got better. “It’s good to feel like I can stay committed to something I support,” she says, “such as using cycling as a means to everyday transportation.”

Biking in rainy weather does come with specific dangers, along with having to use different gear and taking special care of your bike. When you’re riding, rain comes from all directions—down from the sky, up from the bike wheels, and sideways from the wind and car splashes.

“Many of our riders are commuter riders, and that’s how they get around,” says Richard Oelerich, owner of North Oakland’s Tip Top Bike Shop. “They ride no matter what the conditions are, because that’s their transportation.” On Friday, he spoke to customers primarily about lights, he says: “Just like a car on a rainy day, you should be using light.” He also helped people pick out waterproof clothing, “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” Oelerich says.  “There’s just badly dressed.”

For those tough enough to brave the forces, here are five essential tips:

1. Know how to deal with road conditions

Just as car drivers must watch for hydroplaning, cyclists need to control their bikes on rainy streets. Mundane things like manhole covers, white crosswalk-marking paint, steel-grid bridge decks, railroad tracks and leaves can become treacherous obstacles, slick as ice, when it’s wet out. If you have to ride over these objects, go in a straight line and don’t brake. Also, beware of puddles. You never know what’s underneath; it could be glass or a deep pothole that could give you a flat or even a broken wheel.

Turning corners and braking in the rain become trickier. If you round a corner too quickly, you can slide out. So, when cornering, shift your weight to the outside pedal and avoid sudden sharp turns. Brakes don’t work as well when they are wet, so when braking, feather the brakes slowly, and give yourself more distance to stop.  Don’t ride too close to other cyclists – it’s hard to tell when they will stop.

2. Be visible to cars

Car drivers can’t see cyclists well in the rain. Dewy windshields and glare from other auto headlights can obscure people on bikes. The EBBC recommends that bikers have front, rear and side lights that stay turned on even during the day. “The brighter the light is, the more people will see you,” says Stievater. “We recommend getting things as bright as possible.” Set your rear light on flashing mode—this makes it easier for drivers to see you.

3. Gear up the bike

Tires and fenders are key. Kevlar tires work best on wet pavement, while also helping protect against flats. Fenders will save you from a face full of street grime, mud and sand. There are all types of fenders, from the quickly- removable plastic kind to metal fenders that must be screwed on.  Both work well. It also helps to carry along a plastic bag to cover up your bike seat so it doesn’t get soggy and moldy.

4. Gear up yourself

“It’s all about being prepared,” says Stievater. “I leave the house prepared, so it’s not a big deal.” Bright, visible waterproof clothes, like yellow rain jackets, are crucial.  It’s important to dress in layers, and many people also wear rain pants, shoe covers and shower caps under their helmets to keep their hair dry. It’s also essential to be able to see—clear glasses can protect your eyes from rain and flying mud. Wearing a cycling cap under your helmet, or a helmet with a built-in visor, also helps with rain dripping into your eyes. “We had a bunch of commuters who were in today,” says Oelerich. “They were wet but they weren’t suffering because they were protected.”

5. Protect your bike

Bikes suffer considerable damage in the rain, so take diligent care of yours during the winter. Brake pads tend to wear down more quickly when water and road grit get caught between them and the rim. Every day, you should wipe down your rims and brake pads. Also, bikes exposed to water rust very quickly, so drying off the whole bike can keep it rust-free. Bike chains can rust within just a few hours. So it’s important to keep them lubricated, putting on chain lube at least once a week if not daily. Dripping lube into your brake and shifter cables also helps avoid rust.

The EBBC plans to schedule several winter riding workshops over the next few months.  Check their website for dates and times. “We know biking at this time of year is difficult—it’s wet and cold,” Stievater says. “We want to make it as easy as possible to get people biking.”

Lead photo is by jrodmanjr via Flickr Creative Commons,



  1. Processor Blog on November 20, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Geared For Easy Everyday…

    […] Oelerich. “They were wet but they weren’t suffering because they were protec […]…

  2. Kymba Khan on November 20, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Riding in a plastic poncho not made for biking is a good help to keep dry if caught out, but they do billow and don’t necessarily stay down when you need them to. Not to worry; bike specific ponchos with a long front and clip for the handlebars are only $10 to $15 dollars, if your LBS doesn’t have one eBay does! I just got a massive purple one and I’m a very happy monkey.

    • Kymba Khan on November 20, 2010 at 1:46 pm

      And or also; a big hair clip or two can help keep a not-bike-designed poncho down, they just don’t tend to reach far forward enough.

      Don’t let the drizzle stop you! <3

  3. Lexica on November 20, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Good rain gear makes all the difference. I love the rain pants and bright (BRIGHT!) fluorescent yellow rain jacket I got at Tip-Top and have been surprised by how enjoyable riding in the rain can be.

    Plus it’s a pleasant little ego boost when I get to work and the other people in the elevator look at me and say, “You rode in this? Wow! You are hard core!” Heh.

  4. Autumn showers » Cyclelicious on November 22, 2010 at 11:05 am

    […] Oakland North wet weather cycling tips. […]

  5. prinzrob on November 22, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Cleaning your brakes and wheel rims regularly after each ride is a great idea, but putting too much lubricant on your chain actually increases the amount of grit that will stick to it. Even in the winter months lubing the chain once a month or so will do the trick, but also make sure to thoroughly wipe down the chain afterwards to remove the excess lubricant.

    In addition to fenders, some other good, more expensive additions to a wet weather bike would be disc brakes and an internal gear hub. Put it all together with some fat tires and you will have a reliable bike in any weather, and will need almost zero cleaning or maintenance.

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