How to ride in the rain – Your guide to weathering the Alaskan Way Viaduct Closure

By: Anna Walters, Bikes Make Life Better

If you work in Seattle, you may be dreading your commute in January. Transportation planners are crying “period of maximum constraint,” and pundits are predicting a “carmageddon” when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closes for three weeks, starting this Friday, January 11.

“We are going into the worst traffic period ever in Seattle,” Mayor Jenny Durkan told told King 5 News.

There’s one group of commuters who aren’t feeling Viadoomed though: Cyclists. Given the options, maybe it’s time to try biking to work, especially if you’re already familiar with riding in sunshine. Fair-weather riders often find that biking in the rain is quite doable, especially with a little determination and a positive attitude (although the right bike, gear and know-how help tremendously).

Why bike?

  • Move like water: Bikes flow through cities, taking advantage of shortcuts, paths, alleys, dedicated bike lanes, and other places cars can’t go.
  • Get there faster: Even in times of normal traffic, data shows that bikes beat out other modes, even (shockingly) air travel. Travel time data from millions of Deliveroo riders and drivers indicated that those making deliveries by bike did it faster than cars—and in some cases even scooters—on similar routes. And Top Gear fans may recall the bike beating out the car, the Tube, and a bloody speedboat during a race staged in London.
  • Feel better: Bike commuters live longer; perform better on memory and reasoning tests; feel 10 years younger… the statistics go on and on. The main takeaway is fairly simple: Biking feels good, and is good for you.

Get a bike that can ride in the rain

There’s some practicality to the “n+1 bikes” that velonerds amass: Different bikes are for different kinds of riding. Rain rides are much more enjoyable (not to mention safer) on a bike that is meant to handle the wet.

  • Tires: Riding in the rain means going slowly over slick pavement and preparing to stop earlier than usual. Skinny road tires are prone to skidding, so you’ll want tires of a thicker diameter that are grippy. The more surface area contact your tires have with the road, the better your bike will handle and stop. Check with your local bike shop for grippy tires that will fit your bike.
  • Disc brakes: Disc brakes stop faster and aren’t impacted by wet slick roads. A disc brake is a flat circular piece of metal (also called a rotor or “disc”) that sits in the middle of your bike wheel. When you brake, calipers squeeze pairs of pads against the disc to help you stop. Although, there are many recent converts to the school of disc brakes, it’s important to note that rim brakes will still function in the rain, just not as optimally.
  • Fenders: The best (the only?) way to prevent that wet skunk stripe up your back and water flying at your face are fenders. They do add a little weight to your ride, but most can be easily removed when the weather gets better.

Get the right gear

Anyone who has set foot in an REI once knows the old adage: “There’s no such thing as bad weather; just bad gear.” This theory holds water (har!) especially well when it comes to pedaling in drizzle. When you wake up in the morning to a soft pitter patter, just suit up and prepare for a splashy commute. With the right gear, you’ll arrive at the office invigorated and hopefully with a dry and warm core. Of course, it helps to have a marine-quality drying room at work for the ride back.

  • Clothes: Think waterproof everything for an outer layer and synthetic or wool fabrics for base and middle layers. An all-time favorite maker of waterproof rain gear is a cycling apparel company based in Portland, Oregon called Showers Pass. They make breathable, lightweight waterproof rain jackets and pants that are almost impenetrable by water.
  • Footwear: Regular old rain boots will do the trick for short rides. If you’re used to bike shoes with cleats, invest in a good pair of overshoes—they’ll keep your footsies dry and still allow you to clip in. Wool or synthetic mid-length socks are a must.
  • Gloves: Numb fingers will kill the enjoyment of your ride fairly quickly, and since wet hands quickly turn to cold hands, you’ll need a pair of waterproof gloves. SealSkinz seem to be the gold standard here, but Showers Pass, and Pearl Izumi also make decent gloves for rain riding. If you’re in need of a quick and cheap hack, wear regular old fleece gloves with dish gloves over them.
  • Bags: Again, waterproof is the name of the game. For saddlebags, Ortleib works great in the rain. If you like carrying your items on your back, Velotransit makes some excellent waterproof backpacks. Any dry bag-style backpack will also work fine.
  • Lights: Staying visible becomes even more critical when riding in the rain. Check out this helpful bike light guide to pick the best and the brightest.

Ride slowly and look for hazards

Riding in rain is basically the same as riding in shine, except …

  • Slow down: Riding in wet weather means you’re more prone to slipping, so take it easy. Your brakes will also be less effective, so brake earlier and lighter than you may normally in sunny weather. With rim brakes, it helps to feather them lightly, slowly removing water for a safer stop.
  • Avoid hazards: Metal surfaces (like train tracks, metal grates or sewer covers) and painted surfaces (like lane markings) can become slippery in wet weather. Slow down and ride cautiously when crossing over these hazards. To help maintain balance in these instances, first cease pedaling; keep your pedals at a 3 and 9 o’clock position; and lift your body off your seat slightly.

One last thing: Try not to feel smug while breezing by your fellows trapped in gridlock.

Bikes Make Life Better is dedicated to helping employees at large organizations use bikes for healthy sustainable transportation. They’ve helped design bike programs, facilities, and fleets for Airbnb, Facebook, Kaiser Permanente, LinkedIn, Netflix, Salesforce, Stanford, and many others.