In all my years commuting by bicycle – off and on since 1989 – I've experienced pretty much everything one can on two wheels. For the commuter, there are a lot of logistical hurdles to overcome: routes, things to carry, angry motorists, where to lock up our trusty rides, etc. Weather, though, is the one variable that is toughest to fully prepare for. Many of us like to ride without any special equipment – the "come as you are" approach, where we simply wear our work clothes on the bike. Others are more comfortable changing into work-appropriate clothing once they arrive at their office. Either way, some of these unforeseen weather events can put a real damper on your appearance (and your mood).
Following are my tips to overcome some of the regular challenges and surprises of the seasons. These should do you well, but sometimes Mother Nature has tricks up her sleeve and no amount of preparation will keep you from being soaked, freezing your tail off, getting a sunburn, or simply being swept away by the wind; for those you'll need to learn to overcome adversity and HTFU.
Ah, springtime… birds chirping, flowers blooming, sun shining, bunnies frolicking in the fields… what could be more pleasant than tooling to work on your bike, watching the world reawaken after a long winter's nap?
Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? Well, springtime has all those amazing sights and smells, but it just as often has some wicked weather to deal with. Earlier on in my commuting "career", I've been unpleasantly surprised by any number of freakish weather events in springtime. First is the temperature fluctuation that can happen at this time of the year – swings of 30 degrees or more up or down – that can be tough to prepare for. Second is the wind; springtime is also the windiest time for many of us and riding in a stiff wind is no picnic. And, as many commuters learn (sometimes the hard way – I sure did!), spring can mean a lot of rain.
You remember the old saying, "April showers bring May flowers," don't you? Perhaps the easiest way to prepare for some of this is by carrying a light rain jacket or raincape with you. Rainwear can help keep you dry, but it can also help keep you WARM, which is sometimes more crucial. It doesn't need to be raining to get the benefit of a wind- and water-resistant layer between you and the elements.
More spring tips:
- Study the weather before you leave the house… there are dozens of good weather apps for your phone, sites on your computer, or the trusty weatherman on your radio/TV that can arm you with some knowledge before you even get going.
- Consider investing in some fenders/mudguards for your commuter bike. Mudguards, coupled with a rain jacket, can help keep you and your bike clean and dry.
- Pack an extra layer for warmth if you have room in your bag. A temperature swing can make riding very unpleasant if you get cold.
- Give yourself a few extra minutes just in case there's wind. A headwind will slow you down considerably… and you don't want to be late to work, do you?
Well, we don't have to worry about catching a chill now, right? The sun is out and the warmth feels great on our skins. But holy cow, it's HOT out here! How am I going to get to work without being a sweaty, smelly mess? Believe me, I've experienced this due to my many years commuting to work/school along the United States' Gulf Coast (Alabama and Florida, in particular). In that area, it is both oppressively hot and very humid… so even five minutes on the bike brings on the heavy sweating.
A further concern is rain – summertime is the rainy season for many areas, and sometimes that rain comes out of nowhere. It was so bad in Florida that I had a special "rain route" for days that threatened downpours – a route with a lot of overpasses to hide under during the worst of the lightning and the sheets of rain coming down.
Rain jackets are useless in the hot summer months; they trap too much warmth so you wind up getting just as damp as if you simply toughed it out and let the rain fall on your bare skin. Perhaps the biggest concern during the hot months is protecting yourself from the effects of the sun and staying hydrated.
UV rays and poor hydration habits will make you look like a worn-out old shoe. Slap on some sunscreen and remember to drink even before you get thirsty.
More summer tips:
- Again, give yourself a few extra minutes so that you have time to cool off at your destination before slipping into work-appropriate clothing.
- This is the time of year to consider riding in cycling-specific gear – you'll stay cooler and you also won't ruin your fancy work duds with sweat. Don't want to carry all that clothing? Once a week, deliver a load to your office via car or bike pannier. Don't forget an extra pair of shoes to stash under your desk; wearing wet loafers all day really sucks.
- Stash some deodorant/baby wipes/witch hazel in your desk for a quick "freshening up" on the hottest days. Chances are, many of your coworkers think you are weird for riding a bike to work – don't feed that misconception by stinking up the place!
Congratulations! You've survived the heat of summer and are into what I personally consider the "sweet spot" of bike commuting. The temps are still pretty warm, mostly, and the temperature swings tend to be more predictable (cool in the mornings and evenings, warming up during the main part of the day). The rain has stopped for many of us and won't return until winter approaches. This is the time of year that seems to be best for riding "as you are" – not having to carry extra clothing or shoes and simply riding in what you're going to wear that day.
Sure, it can get breezy and there's the occasional temperature hurdle in store for you. I've enjoyed beautiful, warm fall days, only to leave work and be surprised by the rapidly falling temperatures. It pays to carry a light insulating layer or a light windproof vest/jacket "just in case".
More fall tips:
- This isn't so much a clothing tip as a riding-safely tip – watch out for fallen leaves! Damp leaves can be deadly slick, and no one wants to get shredded, especially on the way to or from work.
- Keep an eye on the weather before you leave home and before you leave FOR home. If you can see a storm front coming beforehand, you won't be surprised at the sudden cold wind blowing down your shirt!
Winter is the real make-or-break for a year-round commuter. There are plenty of seasoned bike commuters who simply hang up their two-wheeled steeds and take the bus or drive. That's ok, but if you want hardcore commuter points, you'll keep on rolling through the cold and ice. Riding in snow and ice brings up some safety issues – visibility becomes ever more important when there's snow in the air and darkness in the mornings and early evenings.
You might want to run your front and rear lights "just in case", and stick to brighter/reflective clothing colors to help motorists see you out there on the roads. Also, bike handling can be tough when there's a layer of ice on the ground.
If you live in an area frequented by icy conditions, investing in a pair of studded winter tires is a good idea. Yeah, they're quite expensive, but they will last through several winters if you give them a bit of care.
Perhaps the most mysterious part of winter cycling is layering for warmth. It's actually quite easy, though, if you stick to the "three-layer" formula: a sweat-wicking underlayer, an insulating middle layer, and a wind/waterproof outer layer. Conventional wisdom states that you want to start out just a bit chilly; as you begin to ride you will warm up nicely. If you start out toasty warm, you're overdressed for the conditions and will get hot and sweaty under all that clothing! And sweat means you will start to freeze if you have to stop for a tube repair or the like.
More winter tips:
- Cover your ears – because cold ears really hurt and will make you miserable. A helmet liner with earflaps sure isn't sexy, but I swear by one in the coldest months.
- I've heard tales of folks using chemical handwarmer packets inside their gloves and shoes… it's worth a try if you find yourself with chilly fingers and toes.
- Swap out your regular pedals for a pair of BMX "flats" – this way, you can ride in work shoes, winter boots or everything in between and keep your feet warm at the same time.
Don't forget to bask in the glory of becoming a true "four season commuter"… it's not for the faint of heart, but you're out there making a difference and showing others that it CAN be done with style!