So I’ve just spent three and a bit weeks surveying the NCN in Cornwall. The weather at times has been pretty wild and wet but it’s still great to be employed riding a bike. I have a lot of experience of riding in the rain so it doesn’t really bother me. However it’s taken a while for me to feel like I’ve got my kit choices totally right. With this is in mind I thought I would share my personal head to toe solution for wet weather. Bear in mind that this is what I use for long days in the rain i.e. work or cycle touring. If I was just nipping out for a quick spin and could get dry afterwards I would probably just get wet and stay warm. For long days though especially if you are climbing into a tent or bivy at the end you really do need to stay at least mostly dry. I warn you now wearing my solution you won’t look like a fast racing cyclist more like a mountaineering farmer on a bike.
I’m actually going to start at the bottom and work my way up. The thing that I find most annoying when cycling in the rain are wet feet. This was also the area where it took me longest to find a decent solution. In my experience solutions like overshoes and waterproof socks don’t actually keep your feet dry for longer than one or two hours. So item one is a good set of waterproof shoes. Now these can be anything that is waterproof with a fairly stiff sole if you use flat pedals, although a higher ankle helps keep water out as part of the overall ‘system’. I ride SPD pedals so have a pair of the Shimano MT91 SPD boots, which do the trick. You could use any cycling shoe that is waterproof but you will need one with laces.
You need laces because item number two is a set of waterproof gaiters. Remember when I was in south western France and I found the rain ran off the bottom of my waterproof trousers into my boots? Well gaiters were the answer. As an aside my boots weren’t soaking through as I thought, it was the water going in the top. So you need to seal off that hole in the top and I’ve found this means no more wet feet. Overshoes will not do this, they don’t close tight enough and tend to open a bit at the top when you pedal. Equally waterproof socks let the water in by it running down your leg and then don’t let it out again. Your feet stay warm due to the wetsuit like effect but it isn’t pleasant. I’ve actually ditched waterproof socks, they wear out too quickly for me because I ride so much. Instead I just go with a pair of warm hiking socks that will dry fairly quickly should they get wet.
It’s worth making sure the gaiters aren’t going to get caught in the chain or be torn by your chainrings i.e. they shouldn’t be too baggy just above the boot/ankle. It’s also worth seeing how the gaiter closes at the top and if this is painful and/or annoying against your calf. You want to be able to comfortably peddle in them all day long. Anyone paying attention will point out right about now that I’ve simply moved the big hole for water ingress further up my leg. You are of course correct so the next item to wear is a pair of waterproof trousers. Now I have some fancy pants Montane Atomic trousers which are really nice, very waterproof and fairly breathable. However looking at them after a few rides through muddy lanes and across sandy moorland cycle tracks I’ve decided not to ride in them. The reason being I’m just going to wear through the arse in super quick time. Fine for walking but not for wriggling around on a gritty saddle in.
Instead I’ve now got some cheap hand-me-down waterproof trousers courtesy of Judith. They’re too short and I’ve split the crotch already but they still keep the water out, they’re essentially a sacrificial item. I’ll replace them with another cheap set when they’re more hole than trouser. The shortness in the leg is good, I roll them up a couple of turns until they sit just below the top of my gaiters. This lets a bit of air circulate up the leg for ventilation but keeps the water from going onto my legs and down into the gaiters. If the water isn’t falling from the sky but it’s wet and muddy under wheel then I will roll them above the knee as a pair of cheap waterproof shorts.
So gaiters and trousers can be cheap as long as they are waterproof. Don’t worry about how breathable they are just cut the trousers off or roll them up for a bit of mid-calf ventilation. When it comes to your top half though do invest some cash in a decent waterproof jacket. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a cycling specific jacket either. If your position on the bike is stretched out, bum up and ‘racy’ then yes a dropped tail and slightly longer arms will be of benefit to you. However for most of us we’re a bit more upright on the bike and if it fits well any outdoors jacket will do. I would suggest something fairly lightweight in terms of fabric though, a heavyweight waterproof is always going to be warm when cycling. Make sure you can tighten the bottom of it around the waist as well otherwise when riding into the wind it will billow out and flap annoyingly. Being able to use the zips with gloves and zip it up fairly easily with one hand are also positives.
You need to also consider the question of whether you want or need a hood. I personally like a hood you can fold away. Being able to fold it away whilst still wearing the jacket preferably. I don’t wear a helmet on the road, therefore a normal hood that I can pull on when it’s really coming down to keep my head dry and the wind out is good. I currently have a Montane Minimus jacket, the hood is pretty much perfect for keeping rain out without reducing visibility too much. Off road I do wear a helmet so being able to fold away the hood is important, in this instance I let my head get wet and leave the job of keeping my head warm to a cap and helmet. Some people prefer to wear a hood under or if it’s big enough over a helmet, it’s personal choice.
I hasten to add at this point I am not sponsored or have any affiliation with Montane. I bought a batch of items from them when I worked in the bike shop as they did a very good staff discount price. It is good quality kit though. If I was buying another jacket again I would consider Paramo. The company have a good ethical stance as well as a reputation for good aftersales service repairing damaged items to extend their life. They will also recycle your old Paramo jacket when it reaches the end of it’s life.
I’ve touched on your head with the mention of hoods above but before we get there I generally also always wear a ‘buff’ in winter. It’s not waterproof, it gets wet and if you’ve got it pulled over your mouth feels a bit weird breathing, Importantly though it helps to stop rain getting into the top of your jacket if the hood is down. Finally on top of my head I simply wear a normal cycling cap, again it gets wet but they also dry pretty rapidly and keep your head warm. If it’s particularly cold I’ll break out the winter cycling cap to keep my ears warm. I did cycle in a beanie in winter earlier this year but you can’t really wear one under a helmet.
Finally gloves. Ah gloves, a subject I’ve covered before. I’ve still yet to find a set of gloves that will cope with extended heavy rain. So it’s a case of keeping your hands warm, possibly having more than one pair of gloves and being aware of their limitations. Again don’t feel restricted to cycling specific clothing, the Montane Ice Grip gloves I bought in the spending spree mentioned above are the best winter cycling glove I’ve had so far. They do still ‘wet out’ eventually and sadly are often a bit warm for early autumn or late spring riding. At the end of the day when you stop riding and you’ve got to pitch camp you’ll generally have to do it without gloves on so get used to wet hands. When you are done dry them on something before stuffing them somewhere warm on your person to get heat back into your digits.
So there you go a ‘toe to head’ list of what is keeping me dry at the moment. It isn’t infallible but I’ve stayed a lot drier than previously, especially my feet in long downpours over the past few weeks. A word of warning though, one issue I have had is that it’s actually been unseasonably warm. This has meant that on days with lots of hills I have sweated a fair bit. Even breathable waterproofs are not perfect. When you stop riding and get out of the rain make sure you take off those sweaty items like your base layer if at all possible, otherwise you risk getting cold/feeling clammy. If you can’t do this carry something warm and insulating you can put on over the top to try to stay warm. It isn’t a perfect solution but it stopped me shivering all the way home on over 5 hours of station platforms and train journeys yesterday.