If the rain makes you second-guess the wisdom of biking to work, you’re not alone.
Right after traffic and hills, it’s the most common reason I hear for choosing other transportation.
But, having commuted on way more drizzly Seattle days than I can count, here’s a little “inside secret”…
It’s not actually a big deal!
Yes, it requires buying a couple things you might otherwise skip.
And, yes, it requires a little mindset shift: rain is not a threat or serious nuisance, but just a part of life that you can easily and happily work with.
But that’s all. No crazy-expensive equipment nor strange riding techniques nor die-hard dedication.
So, by the end of this article, you’ll know exactly how to approach rainy bike commuting.
You’ll be ready to enjoy the year-round freedom and fitness and fresh air that you just can’t experience locked away inside some stuffy vehicle.
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Here’s how to bike commute in the rain
Bike commuting in the rain requires fenders, affordable rainwear, and a waterproof bag. Ride slower, especially around corners, since wet pavement reduced traction and increases braking distances. Otherwise, it’s not significantly different from riding in any other conditions.
Comfortable apparel for rainy rides
There’s a fundamental trade-off between ventilation and water-resistance.
A head-to-toe rubber suit would be 100% waterproof and 0% breathable. On the other extreme, skipping outwear altogether would be 0% waterproof and 100% breathable.
No matter what manufacturers claim, nothing is 100% waterproof and 100% breathable simultaneously.
So you’re actually looking for the right compromise.
In other words, it’s a spectrum, and you want the point that will shield you from the rain…but not feel like a sauna suit during exertion.
A good rule of thumb is: “What would I wear for a brisk walk in this weather?”
That will lead you close to the right cycling rainwear, too.
But what exactly are the options?
For light drizzle or very short rides
It hardly matters.
If you have rainwear, then go for it.
If you don’t, then save your money by grabbing whatever quick-drying synthetic jacket is in your closet.
For moderate to heavy rain without strong wind
This is an average rainy day.
And on such days, a cycling poncho and quick-drying (but casual) pants are optimal.
The ventilation is fantastic, and the cost can be very low (but worth splurging on). Ponchos don’t protect your lower legs, so that’s where quick-drying-pants come in.
For severe rain and/or strong wind
You’ll probably need an actual rain jacket and over-pants.
Ponchos act too much like sails in strong winds, and they won’t adequately cover your legs from torrential downpours.
If you’re curious about why I recommend these, and about their pros and cons, then visit this detailed rain apparel guide next.
Do I need gloves for cycling in the rain?
Gloves are generally a good idea for rainy bike rides. Water enhances wind chill, so use waterproof gloves if it’s even slightly chilly outside. They also help with grip at any temperature.
I use and love this pair from Showers Pass in the mid-40s to 60-ish °F. Waterproof insulated gloves are ideal below that point, and you can even add liners for sub-freezing weather.
Trustworthy bike commuter bags for rain
Now that you are dry and breezy, it’s time to think about your gear.
Fortunately, it doesn’t sweat, so we can choose the 100% waterproof / 0% breathable option.
I recommend panniers in general (but have covered other options here). They’re effortless to use and will survive many years—even decades—in all conditions.
Simple tips to (safely) ride like a pro
Now that you and your gear are dry, we’ll take a quick look at how to navigate rainy routes.
Wet surfaces do mean less traction. But only somewhat.
Slower and more cautious riding is important, but there’s no need to crawl along at a snail’s pace in fear of spontaneously wiping out.
Now, not everything requires the same degree of caution in the rain. The key to safe but relaxed commuting is to know what demands your attention—and what doesn’t particularly.
If you’re riding straight ahead, with no foreseeable need to brake or turn sharply, there’s nothing to worry about. The usual safety tips suffice.
And when corners or slow-downs loom, here’s how to navigate them safely.
Brake softer & sooner
Braking earlier but gentler is the best way to preserve traction.
Panic-braking in the rain practically guarantees a skid, so the goal is to avoid the need in the first place.
As a rule, starting braking with half the usual force but half again as far out from an obstacle. That’s just a guide, so don’t fret about exact distance or brake lever forces!
The bigger point is to internalize this gentle but early approach to braking in the rain. It’ll become instinctive before you know it.
Speaking of braking, here’s a pro tip for rim-brake users.
Ever notice how your brakes feel weak for a second or two, then start to “kick in”? That’s because there’s initially water and debris on the rim, but the pads sweep it away after a few wheel rotations.
Every few blocks, apply the brakes very lightly when you’re just pedaling or coasting along in the rain. Not firm enough to slow you down; just enough for the pads to contact the rim.
This helps clear the rims when you don’t need to brake, so you’ll have more immediate power when you do need to.
No, they’ll never be as instantly responsive as disc brakes. This is just an easy (and surprisingly useful) way to prevent that aaaahhh-no-brakes-wait-there-they-are experience.
Take corners a little gently
Cornering, like braking, is best done early and gently in the rain.
There’s no magic to it. Simply approach the corner slower than usual, turn gently, and take the straightest possible line through the corner.
This doesn’t matter at sidewalk speeds, but it’s exponentially more important as your speed (and therefore momentum) increases.
Don’t trust puddles
One of the rain’s nastiest tricks is disguising potholes as puddles.
They both look like a round-ish wet spot on the ground. But one isn’t worth a second thought, whereas the other eats rims for breakfast and spits the rider back out.
Bottom line? Avoid “puddles” unless you know the road like the back of your hand.
And even if you know it well, I’d still think twice about plowing through them. New potholes can open up during periods of prolonged rain and saturated soil.
Take care around paint, etc.
Imagine a giant “Slippery When Wet” sign by every single road stripe, manhole cover, and the like.
They’re extremely slick.
In reality, you can’t avoid 100% of those irritating hazards.
The next-best option is to treat them like little ice patches. Proceed straight and slowly, without braking, and you’ll be just fine.
Remember you’re less visible
If you’re around cars, remember they’ll have an even harder time seeing you.
This is outside the realm of riding technique, but perhaps even more critical.
Take a driver who’s only moderately attentive in the first place, spray their windshield, and darken everything. Whatever the original chance of their noticing you, it’s now much less.
Of course, this is yet another reason why bike infrastructure should not force cars and bicycles into each other’s paths in the first place.
But it usually does, which means this is a reality you’ll probably have to deal with.
I recommend assuming you’re invisible to cars in any conditions, but all the more so in the rain.
Is it bad for your bike to ride in the rain?
No, riding in the rain is not bad for your bicycle. Just rinse the drivetrain regularly, lube the chain more often, and make sure any fabric or leather accessories have time to dry every day. E-bike batteries or electronics may have other risks, so check with the manufacturer for proper use and storage.
Rain, drivetrains, and brakes
Your bike accumulates some amount of grit and grime when riding, period. But in wet conditions, it picks up much more—and it’s stickier.
Consequently, the normal wear happens faster on your chain, gears, brake pads, and brake rotors or rims. It’s always wise to rinse dirt off the drivetrain whenever you’re able—even daily—and to lubricate the chain up to a couple times per week. Your local bike shop is a great resource for lubricant recommendations.
Consider disc or hub brakes if you’ll ride in a lot of rain over the course of multiple years.
It’s not because rim brakes aren’t sufficient. They actually work decently in the wet, with the tips I suggested above.
But all brake pads slightly wear down the braking surface (rim or rotor), and that happens faster in the presence of mud and grit.
When rotors wear down to their limit, you unbolt them and bolt on new ones. No big deal!
But when rims wear down to their limit, you have to rebuild or replace the entire wheel.
It’s hard to say, since it’s a function of how frequently and hard you brake. Those, in turn, depend on weather, mileage, routes, and even rider weight.
I’ve commuted daily, with rim brakes, in Seattle, for multiple years without needing replacement. Others can barely make it a single year.
Quite literally, your mileage may vary.
How to minimize drivetrain maintenance and wear
From personal experience, the extra maintenance for frequent rainy commutes isn’t that bad.
A splash of water and a squirt of chain lube. An occasional new chain and brake pads. Once in a while, a new cassette/cog and chainrings.
Still, there are two ways to minimize even that. One is simple and old-school; one is a bit novel.
The traditional approach is with a chain case. It’s a traditional part of Euro city bikes (but rare elsewhere) which blocks the whole drivetrain from the elements altogether.
It usually looks just like the black enclosure below:
An alternative is a belt drive, which you’ll see on more modern city and hybrid bikes like the ones covered here.
It replaces the normal drivetrain with a carbon-fiber belt and a dramatically different style of cog, like this:
This whole set-up is basically impervious to weather and lasts roughly ten times as long as a chain drive. It does come at a price, but it’s sleeker than a chain case, and probably easier to find in North America.
They’re both good and proven options that I’ve enjoyed using…with one important note:
That’s not a bad thing. It just means fewer options (and a slightly higher price) if you’re eager to minimize drivetrain maintenance.
(Some chainguard variations—like these from SKS—do exist for derailleur drivetrains, but they cover much less than a full chain case. They’re more for protecting your pants from grease than for shielding the drivetrain.)
Recap: bike commuting in the rain
True, it all costs money, but keep in mind:
- It can be multi-purpose rainwear that you already own (or would have bought for daily life).
- Fenders generally belong on all city bikes, since puddles and run-off stick around after the rain (and even exist in dry climates).
- You’ll need luggage for your commuter anyhow, and the marginal cost of waterproof luggage is trivial in the long run.
As for riding technique, it’s simple: slow and steady.
Crashes happen because of sudden changes in momentum, like aggressive braking or cornering. They don’t happen out of nowhere!
Just mind the paint and manhole covers, which are extraordinarily slippery even on foot. And, as always, assume drivers cannot see you until proven otherwise.
But despite all these considerations, bike commuting in the rain is not a big deal!
We’ve covered heaps of details and finer points, which might feel like a lot to keep track of.
But it really boils down to set-it-and-forget-it purchases, plus a higher degree of the same precautions you already take. Not so bad after all!
And with a little experience, you’ll be amazed at how all that fades into your subconscious.
Rainy bike commutes become trivial, just like a rainy walk or drive.
You might even take some satisfaction in being one of the few in your town who don’t retreat into artificial comfort at the first drop of rain.
And, you know what? It’s OK to be a little smug about that!