Cycling in the rain - lessons from the road

Bob Zeller has endured a shower or two during his years cycle touring in France. Here, he shares his tips for wet weather cycling.

Cycling in the rain

Don't tell a bit of rain spoil a wonderful cycling trip. Tracy and Chenél arrived (relatively dry) at Mont St Michel despite some earlier rainy weather.

There aren’t many better ways to spend two or three weeks than on a bike touring almost anywhere in France. I have been doing it for years and that statement is as true today as it was when I first started. But for a tour to be a success, there's a bit of work needed. And part of that work is planning what to take with you for the possibility (some might say the inevitability) of a wet day.

When I first started to tour, I usually worked on the 'rule of three' for my clothes: one set to be worn, one to be packed and one to be attached to a pannier to dry. That was a good rule at the time because the best cycling clothes were often wool. As good as they were to wear most of the time, they were heavy when wet and they needed much longer than overnight to dry. Today there are lots of other choices made from really first-class synthetics. They weigh very little, pack without wrinkling and dry in a couple of hours or even less. (See here for general packing tips and here for more on wet weather planning).

A wet veloraii route on the Velo Francette between Mayenne and Domfront. Photo: Freewheeling France

Lyn and Nicky rode a wet and often muddy velorail route on the Velo Francette between Mayenne and Domfront. Photo: Freewheeling France

As good as today’s clothes are, the most important line of defence should be a good rain jacket. For years, many cycle tourists wore capes (yes, capes!) I still have mine. Capes ventilated well, of course, but they billowed like a schooner’s sails when the wind blew. I soon gave up using mine, switching instead to a jacket. Many of the jackets back even then did a reasonable job of keeping you dry – that is until you began to sweat from the trapped heat.

Today, a great rain jacket will not only keep you dry, but will expel most, if not all, of the sweat you might generate when pedalling. The best jackets are often eye-wateringly expensive, but with care – which includes while washing – they will last a long time.

Often called ‘hardshell’ jackets, they are usually made with two or three layers of fabric, each one different. Gore-Tex was one of the first and still one of the leading names, but there are many others and there is no real consensus as to which is the outright best. That’s because jacket manufacturers have different criteria, depending on their individual markets and the price point they are selling in. 

In its simplest form, the first question the manufacturer has to consider is how waterproof the jacket should be. There are materials today that can be absolutely watertight, but if they are totally watertight that means they are impervious to air both coming in and getting out. A ride around the block could leave you wetter than the rain you were avoiding. Therefore, today’s materials are designed to let the jacket breathe through microscopic holes small enough to keep the rain out.

In my view, the best all-round jackets for touring are the ones that have a high degree of waterproofness, plenty of controllable ventilation and are ‘relaxed’ in shape. I have two jackets by Showers Pass. One, the Refuge model, is heavier and more of a winter or commuting jacket and I have never taken it on tour. The other, called the Double Century RDX, is lighter and better in warmer conditions. I really like both of them, but there are lots of other makes as well. Some are made with different materials. Some can have as many as three layers of different fabrics sandwiched together. Many will have seven or so controllable vents, others have fewer. Shop around, ask questions and, if possible, try on the one you are considering for comfort and size before buying it (or make sure you can send it back if buying online). Remember you could be wearing that jacket all day for many days if you are unlucky with the weather, so you need to make sure it is fit for purpose both in size and performance.

Lastly, it is imperative that you wash your new jacket regularly. And on many brands, you will need to redo what is called the durable water repellent, a chemical coating on the outside of the jacket which causes water to bead and is thus less able to penetrate the material. If you don’t  look after your expensive jacket, it won’t be any better than a cheap and nasty one.

Bear in mind that hardshell jackets tend to be a bit bulkier to pack away when not being worn. Often a bit too big (and too wet!) to put in a handlebar bag with everything else, they are best squished into a stuff bag and then bungee corded onto your rear carrier or a pannier. That way, they are easy to get to if you are caught in a downpour. And when the downpour is over, you won’t be shoving a wet jacket into a pannier filled with dry clothes.

Cycling in the rain

Bob's hardshell jacket fits easily in a one-litre stuff bag, but when he wants to put it away when it's wet, he uses one of the net pockets on the side of a pannier to avoid wetting things inside. Photo: Bob Zeller

Incidentally, many jackets have optional hoods designed to fit over a helmet and made usually from the same materials. I tried one once and found that hoods weren’t for me. A well-designed hood will turn when you turn your head to look over your shoulder, but it didn’t work for me. Perhaps I should have given it a bit more time but my tried and trusty, and non-waterproof traditional cycling hat, does a pretty good job. And if you want something waterproof, there are both traditional caps and small beanies that work a treat.

You should also consider a second jacket, this one a lightweight softshell jacket to keep you warm in a cool breeze. If it rains, it won’t keep you dry for long but they are very light, and can be bunched up to the size of a tennis ball and thus they are easy to stuff into a bar bag. As a bonus, the better ones, for that read 'more expensive', will keep you dry longer, but bear in mind they are not to be seen as a rain jacket.

Wet weather cycling

Bob uses his pannier's elasticated net pocket to carry his jacket if it is wet. This way the clothes inside don't get soaked. Photo: Bob Zeller

There are other items you might want to consider – waterproof shoe covers, for instance. My cycling shoes are leather and the seams will leak in time, meaning water will almost always get under the laces and tongue. I pretty well resign myself to getting wet feet if it rains long enough, even though all my bicycles have full-size mudguards. The mudguards keep me drier for much longer, but never all day if the weather is that bad. If you do prefer shoe covers, Showers Pass makes some that don’t have a hole in the sole cleats. They are designed for regular shoes or cycling shoes without extruding cleats. But note, the company warns they are not suitable for a lot of walking. For me, the best solution is quite simple: a second pair of cycling shoes and an old newspaper to stuff inside the wet ones while wearing the reserve pair.

Of course, the right clothes won’t be much good if they are already soaked when you pull them out of the panniers. Most newcomers to touring assume that waterproof panniers will keep everything nice and dry. They will, if everything is absolutely dry when you load them and you don’t open one when it is raining. If one article of clothing  inside is even damp, the waterproof panniers will ensure that the dampness spreads throughout the entire bag before too long. However, the many thousands of people who use waterproof panniers will disagree. For them, the solution is to pack wet things into dry bags before loading the bags into a pannier. That means, of course, that those wet things will stay wet all day in their bags.

For me the solution is water resistant panniers. Two companies that produce classic waterproof bags are Carradice and Arkel. Actually, they make both waterproof and water resistant bags. I have never used Carradice, but I know people who do and they swear by them. But I have used the same pair of Arkel water resistant panniers for almost 20 years and they have never failed me. In fact, one of them was run over by a train when I stupidly dropped it between the high platform and the tracks just as a train was pulling out of the station. The only damage was cosmetic. And although they are not classified as waterproof, my clothes inside them have never got wet. The material used to make the bags is waterproof but the seams are only water resistant.  That means moisture can escape while keeping the rain out. Mind you, if you are type of person who needs to be absolutely sure, Arkel will sell you waterproof covers for your bags. I have a set and usually take them with me, but I have never felt the need to use them.

Cycling in the rain

Lyn's bike and kit drying out at the train station at Carentan in Normandy after she was caught in the rain towards the end of this tour.

However, perhaps the best bit of advice is that in spite of all the technology – which comes at a price and is never perfect – the best way to protect yourself is to have a good attitude. If it rains long enough, you’ll get wet. So there will come a time when the best solution to being dry and comfortable is to put yourself and your bike onto a train if there is one nearby. I have done that many times. Cycle touring is meant to be enjoyable, not an endurance event. There are no prizes for doing 60km or 70km in a driving rain while soaked and cold if you can avoid it. In fact, when planning a tour route, I always note the location of any train stations just in case. (See here for bike-train information for France.)

Wet weather cycling

There is no shame in hitching a ride to somewhere warmer and drier, as Nicky did after riding La Flow Velo with Lyn. Photo: Freewheeling France 

Of course, should there not be the train option – and if you can't find a friendly local to give you a lift or if you can't change your accommodation plans – then you just have to grin and bear it. You’ll get wet, but at least you’ll get bragging rights. And a great meal that night in a wonderful bistro will put it all to rights.

About Bob Zeller
Bob is a retired UK-based Canadian journalist who spent much of his professional life covering major European and North American professional cycle racing for the (Toronto) Globe & Mail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Winning Magazine and others. His beat included the the spring and autumn Classics, the Tour de France and the world championships. While he has enjoyed just about all types of cycling – sportives, audax and just riding his bike to the shops – it's touring that he has always loved the most. And it's touring in France that he enjoys the most.

Find more planning tips for your next tour here.

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