Riding in the rain, part 1: Clothing

Summer is over and the rain clouds have started knocking on our doors. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop riding your bike, though. With a bit of preparation and proper technique, you can keep riding through the rain – and maybe even enjoy it.

You can better enjoy riding in these conditions when you’re dressed for the part. Photo from the Firefly Brigade Critical Mass Ride, March 2015.

Here are my recommendations for clothing.

WARDROBE TWEAKS

A few tweaks are necessary to the standard summer outfit of close-fitting cycling jersey and Lycra shorts. In my experience, it’s the drop in temperature that is the leading cause of discomfort and eventual sickness when riding in the rain, so first and foremost, your clothing has to help regulate your core body temperature. This is especially important when the conditions are windy, or when you’re descending a mountain road at high speed.

F2P’s excellent jersey for Alaska Cycle Philippines 2015.

Pearl Izumi’s basic yet excellent Quest waist shorts.

Fortunately, the same qualities that make a fitted jersey and Lycra shorts ideal for cycling under the hot summer sun also lend themselves well to riding in the rain. Unlike cotton, their material doesn’t hold onto moisture – it wicks it away instead. Their body-hugging cut aids insulation by refusing to allow cold rushing air to enter into the gap between clothing and bare skin, so you stay warm even when they get wet. To further bolster these effects, we can complement them with additional clothing, which I’ll be talking about in more detail below.

BASE LAYER

Confused by the fancy name? A base layer is simply any piece of clothing that lies directly next to your skin, and is the foundation of all other garments. (A common “base layer” for male office workers is their undershirt, for example.) As it’s a layer of clothing, it can also help reduce skin abrasion in the event of a crash or tumble on the asphalt.

Underneath that retro NASA jersey is a denim-blue Uniqlo AIRism shirt acting as my base layer.

When cycling in the summer months, you can usually get away with your jersey as your base layer and nothing else.

My base layers of choice, both by Uniqlo. AIRism on the left, HEATtech on the right.

A close-up of an AIRism short-sleeve shirt. The material is very thin and light. Note the simple materials mix of the fabric.

Personally I prefer using Uniqlo’s AIRism short-sleeve shirts as my summer base layers. They’re very thin, so they don’t make you heat up, and they work well with a cycling jersey, wicking sweat through the fabrics and out into the air.

A closer look at a HEATtech short-sleeve shirt. You can see it’s not thick or bulky at all. The insulating yet sweat-wicking properties are down to its materials and construction.

In the rainy season or on colder days, I opt for Uniqlo’s HEATtech short-sleeve shirts as base layer. These are just as good as their AIRism cousins at sweat wicking and breathability, but the heavier material provides better insulation, yet they’re not so thick as to feel bulky when worn under a body-hugging jersey. Cycling has your body generating heat from the effort, especially when you’re continuously turning the pedals, so super-warm base layers aren’t necessary for our tropical climate.

ARM AND LEG WARMERS

Due to our unhealthy obsession with white skin, many use arm warmers in the summer to avoid getting too tanned, since sunscreen doesn’t really do much to combat the natural browning of our skins in the sun. In the cold and rain, it’s time for their real purpose. Our limbs tend to get cold first, and since our legs power the pedals, our arms will get chilled first as they usually don’t do much.

Arm warmers therefore are much more important to me than leg warmers are. When the weather turns cold, they provide a good way of fine-tuning your insulation. When things begin to heat up, you can pull them off and stow them in your jersey pockets. I’d save leg warmers for seriously crappy days, as they’re much more of a faff to put on and remove.

RAIN JACKET

In my opinion, this is the most important article of clothing you should have for our rainy season. This forms your first line of defense against the rain, and will double as an insulating windproof layer when the chance of wind chill heightens.

My rain jacket is a Sugoi Zap from 2014, with taped seams, a mesh lining, a dropped tail hem, and reflective Pixel waterproof fabric. As far as jackets go, this is considered a traditional “hardshell.”

With rain jackets, you get what you pay for. There are jackets that are meant for emergency purposes, packing into a tiny size and seeing use when an unexpected shower hits. On the other end of the spectrum are dedicated waterproof jackets that are bulky, but repel water ingress for longer. Aside from the traditional “hardshell” rain jacket, there are comfortable “softshell” jackets that provide more insulation.

It’s important to note that no waterproof jacket will protect you from getting wet forever. “Waterproof” simply means a garment has been tested to withstand a certain pressure level of water for a given duration. Eventually, given enough time and rain volume, you WILL get wet, regardless of what you wear. This is why having a close-fitting jersey and added insulation (in arm warmers and base layers) is important, as even though you’re wet from rain water, you won’t get cold – and that’s the more important thing as far as avoiding sickness is concerned.

So what should you look for in a rain jacket?

I’d put taped seams at the top of the list. It’s easy enough for the jacket’s material to be water-resistant, but water ingress starts most of the time at the seams where large pieces of this material meet. When these are taped, the garment resists water getting in for longer.

Next is breathability. Many rain jackets might as well be made out of a plastic bag – they’re waterproof, but they also don’t do a good job of handling your sweat buildup inside the garment, and you can end up feeling cold and clammy in your own sweat. To counter this, manufacturers can either make the material itself breathable, or introduce ventilating features such as additional zippers under the armpits or on the inside of the sleeves. This is an inherent compromise.

Last but no less important is fit. This is a personal choice, but many cyclists like their jackets relatively close cut, as it reduces bulk and improves aerodynamics and freedom of motion. Some cycling jackets follow this to the extent of looking ridiculous off the bike, with a short front and a long tail. Once riding though, the jacket is the correct shape for a cyclist on a road bike.

OVERSHOES

Fairly exotic to most Pinoy cyclists, these are effectively covers that pull over your cycling shoes and act as a waterproof layer. Most of them have holes at the bottom for the cleat on the sole to mate with the pedals.

Cold, wet feet on a ride aren’t pleasant. If you have the means to buy them, go ahead; they’ll make a good addition and can also improve aerodynamics. I’ve heard they generally don’t last very long, though.

Alternatively you could try investing in waterproof socks.

Packing a spare base layer kept dry in a ziplock bag is a good idea when your ride starts in the rain.

TIPS AND TRICKS

  • If you’re beginning your ride in the rain, bring a spare base layer with you and put it in a ziplock sandwich bag. Mid-ride, you could take a coffee break and change into the dry spare base layer while in the restroom, stowing away your soggy base layer in the sandwich bag after wringing it dry.
  • After riding in the rain, change out of your wet cycling clothing immediately. This minimizes growth of bacteria and fungi on your skin.
  • Chafing in the groin area is a very real danger when riding in the rain. With the repetitive motion of pedaling, and the increased moisture and wetness in the area, It can get so bad that you develop painful saddle sores. The best defense against this is skin lubrication. Petroleum jelly is your friend.

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In the next installment, we’ll look at changes required of your bike and other equipment.

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