Living in Portland, Oregon means that riding in the rain is going to happen, even if unintentionally. It can rain at any time, it seems. And, it can rain for a long time (like now!). After over 30 years of bike commuting through Portland’s winters I have developed my own methods to help ease the transition into winter riding.
First and foremost is to tend to the bicycle itself. Fenders are a must if you want to arrive at your destination looking moderately decent and relatively dry. Full coverage fenders are ideal. Even if your bike lacks eyelets, you can still mount full coverage fenders with P-clamps, but only if you have adequate clearance at the brake bridges to accommodate fenders. Unfortunately, due to the cycling industry’s recent racing-craze, many regular cyclists ended up purchasing “road bikes” which were really NOT road bikes, but bikes designed for racing, with high gearing, no brake clearance, and no eyelets or rack mounts. If you lack brake bridge clearance for fenders, then you will be stuck using clip on fenders, UNLESS you convert your bike to a smaller wheel size such as 650c or 650b, which I have fearlessly done. A conversion will not only give you the option for full coverage fenders, but you will also be able to use fatter tires, which are much better suited for riding through rain and on rough roads strewn with debris.
Next are brake pads and rims. A rainy winter can eat up a set of brake pads. It’s good to check your pads before winter starts, and replace them if they are worn. I also regularly inspect my pads and clean them with alcohol, and remove any specks of rim material from them using a pick. Bad or hard brake pads will destroy your rims, so when in doubt, buy some new (soft) pads and get them installed properly. After especially muddy rides, I hose down my brake pads and rims, using a gentle spray of water, and I also clean everything again with alcohol several times throughout the winter. So far, I haven’t had to replace any rims due to wear. That’s a pretty good track record for over 30 years of winter commuting.
The bike’s drive train will need cleaning and lubrication more often during the winter. Check your chain for wear. If it is stretched, then replace it. You may have to replace your cassette at the same time. I have seen riders break chains, often while climbing or vigorously accelerating, which can cause you to crash. Chain life can be greatly increased by using a front fender with a long mud flap, which will keep debris off of the chain and crankset.
Riding through the winter can also really mess up your bottom bracket, even if it has sealed bearings. I recently had to replace a Shimano BB that was only two years old because debris and moisture had made their way past the bearing seals. When I tried to remove the crank arms, I found that they had rusted to the axle of the bottom bracket! These were nice aluminum Sugino crank arms. After that experience, I now remove and check the crank arms at least once a year. Again, a super long front mud flap helps keep junk off of the BB and cranks. Many riders make their own out of plastic water bottles, or other suitable found objects.
Another idea is to simply use a beater bike for winter riding, such as this mid-80’s Panasonic Mountain bike that I have converted to a city commuter. The Jandd Hurricane bags pictured above are not only waterproof, but can hold just about anything. A simple 1 x 7 drive train and extra long mudflaps, makes maintaining this winter bike very easy.
If you decide not to ride through the winter, here’s a nice blog post from Georgena Terry explaining what to do to safely get your bike back out on the road again.
Now, you also have to keep yourself relatively dry and comfortable. I have a number of cycling rain jackets, but my favorites are a newer Shower’s Pass, and an older heavier weight Sugoi for super cold conditions. I usually wear rain tights for my commute and change clothes at work, but if you want to look less bikey upon arrival, then you’ll need some kind of rain overpants. The only overpants that I can really tolerate wearing are my ancient Burley rain pants. They don’t ride up my jeans, they don’t inhibit motion, and they are no more steamy than any other higher end overpants I have tried. I especially like the zippers at the seams which allow full access to my jeans pockets. I am curious to try the rain chaps I have seen, but haven’t sprung for them yet, and am waiting to see how other riders like them. If you are using them, please share your comments.
For gloves, I keep one set of fully lined waterproof gloves in my kit, shown above, but I usually wear my favorite winter gloves – Diamond Mountaineering gloves. By washing them periodically with Nikwax, the gloves will stay dry in a downpour for about 45 minutes. They have good wind protection, and keep my hands warm even when it is really cold, yet still provide full dexterity.
I would love to hear other cyclists’ winter riding recommendations and experiences!