It’s hard to avoid the rain if you’re a UK cycle commuter but don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm. Just make sure you and your bike are ready for it.
The UK’s mild, maritime climate means rain year round. While there are April showers they’re much the same as March or May’s. October through to January is statistically the soggiest period but any month can and does see rain. Fortunately, much of this rainfall is made up of showers or light rain. The are fewer days of sustained, heavy rain, and torrential downpours are uncommon. You can expect to get wet now and again while riding to work but you’ll seldom get soaked. Riding in the rain – any rain – isn’t exactly fun. With the right preparation, however, it is tolerable.
Rainproof your bike
The most important defence against rain isn’t waterproof clothing but mudguards. They stop your wheels spraying dirty water all over you when you ride on wet roads – something you continue to do after the rain has stopped. The greater the mudguards’ coverage, the better. The longest ones available now are SKS Bluemels Style, which come in various widths. If your bike’s frame-fitting mudguards are shorter than this, you can cut down wheel spray by adding mudflaps.
If you have to park your bike in the rain, a plastic bag or a shower cap over the saddle will prevent a wet bum when you get back on. The rain may also wash the oil off your bike’s chain. When you get home after your bike has been parked in or ridden through heavy rain, look after the chain by spraying it with a light lubricant to purge it of rust-causing moisture.
Bicycle tyres don’t aquaplane in the wet like car tyres but the friction between the tyres and road is reduced, making falls more likely. If you commute on a road bike – whose narrower, higher pressure tyres have less rubber in contact with the road to begin with – it’s worth switching to tyres one size wider for the wetter winter months (assuming they’ll fit in the frame/fork). A 28mm tyre run at a lower pressure will grip better than a harder 25mm tyre. A softer rubber compound on the ‘shoulders’ of the tyre will also aid traction; look for road bike tyres described as having wet weather grip, such as Continental’s Grand Prix 4 Season. If you commute on a bike with wider tyres (i.e. not a road bike), just reduce the pressure a little and/or moderate your speed.
Grippier tyres will also improve your bike’s braking in wet conditions. The brakes themselves will probably work okay. Many bikes have disc brakes, which quickly skim any water off the rotors and continue to function well. Bikes with rim brakes generally have aluminium rims, which don’t become dangerously slippery like the steel rims of yesteryear. If you find your bike’s rim brake performance lacking in the wet, fit different brake pads with a softer, grippier compound. Kool-Stop Salmon pads are particularly good.
Visibility is worse when it’s raining, especially when it’s raining hard. Cyclists are not legally obliged to turn on their lights in such conditions, unlike drivers, but it’s worth doing anyway to make yourself more conspicuous. As a rule of thumb: if cars have their sidelights on, turn on your front and rear lights.
If you commute in bike kit and change at work, it doesn’t really matter if you get damp as long as you don’t get chilled. A waterproof jacket (link to “Everything you need to know about waterproof jackets” article submitted for Feb23), cycling tights or shorts, overshoes, an under-helmet cycling cap, and gloves should be sufficient for the cycling-kit commuter.
If you’ll be cycling to work in the clothes you’ll wear at work, you’ll want to stay as dry as possible. As well as your waterproof jacket, you’ll waterproof trousers and a cap to keep rain out of your eyes; waterproof ones are available. You’ll also need some way to keep your feet dry, since rain will run off your waterproof trousers and into your socks. Either wear boots, putting your work shoes in your pannier, or get waterproof overshoes that will fit over normal, non-cycling shoes.
The other option for riding in the rain in normal clothes is an old-school cycling cape or poncho. This fits over you from your hands on the handlebar to your bum on the saddle, and functions more like an umbrella or a tent. You may still need boots or overshoes, as a cape only protects you from the knees up. Capes are harder to ride in when it’s windy and can complicate signalling but do a great job of keeping you dry without making you overheat.
Many waterproof jackets and capes come with hoods. Before using any hood, check it doesn’t interfere with your peripheral vision when you turn your head. If it does, a cap is a better option.
Riding in the rain
First of all: can you avoid it? If it’s only a shower, you might save yourself a soaking by setting off five or ten minutes later, or by waiting out a sudden downpour under a bus shelter. Weather apps can help you decide.
Rain will often start or finish during your commute. Be prepared to stop to add or remove a waterproof layer. While it’s temping to push on, a few spits and spots that turn into proper rain can soak you in short order. Conversely, continuing to ride in your waterproofs when the rain stops will make you sweaty.
Take it steady when braking or cornering in the rain. A normal tarmac road can be slippery enough in the wet but drain covers and other ironwork can be like ice. If you can’t safely avoid riding over them, ride in straight line without braking or turning, doing any braking or turning before or after you’re on top of the slick metal. Painted lines on the road and shiny tarmac sealing lines can also be very slippery. Avoid where possible and don’t try to turn on top of them when you can’t avoid them.
Try to anticipate any manoeuvres you’ll need to make in advance when it’s wet. Sudden direction changes or emergency braking are more likely to result in a skid or fall. Anticipation is easier when you’re riding more slowly, so reign in your speed. Give yourself time to react. Other road users may have their vision obscured by the rain; windscreen wipers aren’t perfect and side windows don’t have them anyway. Be ready for such drivers by giving yourself the space and time to avoid them.
Don’t ride through puddles if you don’t know how deep they are. They could be hiding potholes. Aim to skirt deep puddles in any case, first checking behind for traffic, signalling as necessary, and gradually changing your position on the road. If you can’t avoid a deep-looking puddle, slow right down and freewheel through it.