Ah, fall. Temperatures are dropping, the sun is showing its face less and less frequently, leaves are turning brilliant shades of orange and red. With the transition of summer to fall (and fall to winter) comes a brutal realization for Seattle’s bicycle commuters: it’s going to start raining, and continue for months on end.
Don’t get me wrong, most Seattle riders can handle a little precipitation, but in the fall and winter the dark, rain and cold are relentless. The streets become slick from the increased rain; the rain also fogs glasses and stings bare eyes. In addition to your own poor visibility, the ability for drivers of trucks, cars and buses to see you is also diminished, mandating the ubiquitous neon clothing of riders this time of year.
Despite these challenges, many of Weber Thompson’s dedicated bicycle commuters continue to put up with the less than ideal cycling conditions during Seattle’s winter months. Why? Perhaps for the earth, perhaps for the exercise, or perhaps because it’s still the best way to beat Seattle’s horrific traffic. For whatever reason, we’ve compiled some tips by and for bicycle commuters who must balance a professional career with a cold, damp journey to and from work each day.
If you’re planning to start bicycle commuting the first thing you need to know is that gear is everything. Go out and get yourself some neon or retro-reflective clothing including gloves and a thin hat to wear beneath your helmet.
Next, layer up. Some days are colder than others, and although you’ll always want to wear your fluorescent, waterproof outer layer, some days you might also want a thin base layer as well as an insulated middle layer. Eye protection is essential, when road grit and grime starts flying in the wet months, the last thing you want is for a big ol’ truck to rumble past you and fling mud in your eyes.
Once you start riding on a regular basis you’ll realize, being visible is the key to staying alive on a bicycle. Make eye contact as often as possible with drivers, and make sure you’re easy to spot. In addition to wearing bright clothes, make sure your bike has multiple lights (front and rear are mandatory, spoke and helmet lights are a bonus) and use them even in the daytime. Make sure the batteries are fully charged before you head out because let’s face it, it’s probably going to be dark on your way in and on your way home now that the days are much shorter. The more you can do to make sure you’re seen the safer and more pleasant your ride will be!
Still having trouble getting the attention of drivers and pedestrians while you’re biking around in foul conditions? Consider doing what the Dutch do, get yourself a bike bell and use it! No bell? Your voice can be a good substitute on emergency occasions.
Pimp your Ride.
Fenders: Road debris and water can be more soaking and hazardous than the rain falling from the sky; fenders offer significant protection from these hazards, as well as a chance at having dry clothes by the end of your ride.
Disc Brakes: One trip down a big downtown Seattle hill in the rain and you’ll realize, disc brakes could quite literally save your life if you plan to bike in the rain. If you don’t have a bike with disc brakes, don’t sweat it, rim brakes can be fine too, but you might opt for special brake pads made from a material with additional ‘gripping’ power; and you’ll probably have to alter your route so you don’t need to bike directly down Madison to the ferry terminal, for example.
Panniers: If a backpack just isn’t enough space for all your gear—computer, lunch, change of clothes, anything else you might need to bring to and from work—consider panniers. In addition to providing more space for all those things you need to schlep back and forth, it can be nice to get a bag off your back when you’re climbing Seattle’s hills in the rain.
Plan your post-ride wardrobe.
If you’re going to be shoving your work outfit into a bag, wrinkle-resistant clothes are a must. Many stores like REI and Eddie Bauer are great places to stock up work-appropriate clothes made of wrinkle-proof materials. It also helps to keep a change of clothes and shoes at your office – especially socks, socks, socks. Nothing is worse than wearing wet socks all day. If you have the space, slip a pair or two of fancy shoes under your desk at the office, so you don’t have to schlep them back and forth every day.
For women, be prepared to do some touchup to your hair and makeup when you arrive at work, or if your office has a shower room, use it. Keep a few essentials in your bag: q-tips for cleaning up smudged makeup, face powder for blotting down shine, some bobby pins for taming unruly riding hair.
Watch the road and take it easy.
Leave ample time to get where you’re going (And slow down – to borrow from Aaron Rodgers: R-E-L-A-X). The less rushed you are, the more safely you can bike through the city. Rainy pavement means you should take turns more slowly, and instead of weaving in and out of traffic, you’ll want to be cautious when changing lanes. And watch out for streetcar rails, they are wheel traps even in dry weather!
Build up to your full commute if it’s a long one. Start by riding on sunny days, on the weekend, or take the bus part of the way and bike the rest. If you have a 12 mile roundtrip commute and your first ride is rainy and freezing and you’re not prepared, you might not ever want to do it again.
Attitude is everything!
Try to embrace your unique commute, maintain a positive attitude, and you’ll have more fun. It can be hard to remain calm when every moving vehicle around you seems to think of you as a target, but the more emotional we get on our bikes the more dangerous our ride becomes and the angrier other drivers may get with cyclists.
Yes, what you are doing is noble and possibly the “best” commuting option for you. But remember, it’s not for everyone. We all live in different locations, have different family situations and needs, etc. — yet we are all trying to get somewhere. It can be annoying when a car blocks the bike lane, or when a more novice rider slows you down, but the only race is in your head: no one owns the road, so be prepared to share.
So respect the road, those around you, and the weather by being mentally and physical prepared. You’ll have a calmer, more enjoyable ride, and most importantly, you’ll get to where you’re going in one piece.
Written by Erin Hatch, previous Senior Associate & Marketing Director at Weber Thompson.