When I first started out as a cyclist—back when I was eight or so—I didn’t ride when it rained. Cycling was something to be done on clear, dry days. If it rained, it meant my parents would have to take me somewhere or (later) that I would be taking the bus or train or (still later) driving.
Let almost fifty years pass. I stopped riding and bought a car (sometime around 30) and then got back into riding (sometime around 35). Bicycles then didn’t have fenders. Well, most bikes didn’t. Certainly the kinds of bike I rode didn’t have fenders—they were road bikes, designed for speed.
So over time, I convinced myself that I would always need two bikes—one for regular weather, and the other, a rain bike for those days when it was just wet. So I acquired slightly older frames with more tire clearance, learned to install fenders, etc.
But over time–it may have been an accident–I discovered that I liked the rain bikes more. Maybe the geometry that allows for fenders makes the bike more comfortable for me. Dunno. Anyway, it worked out that I started to spend more and more time on my rain bike than my other bike, until, today, I ride a bike with fenders (and lights) all the time.
But the thing that makes a rain bike really work, whether it’s your primary ride or just for wet days, is your apparel. I used to get just soaked, riding in a cotton t-shirt and jeans. Fenders helped avoid the skunk strip, but it was still messy. I next discovered waterproof rain jackets, but the issue with those is that they get hot. I don’t care which miracle fabric they’re made out of, a jacket that keeps water out is going to restrict air flow.
And then, almost by accident, I encountered this:
This is a rain cape. This particular model was sold by CampMor, and is no longer available on their site, which is too bad. It’s essentially a poncho, long in front and short in back, made of waterproof fabric, and it has a long bit of elastic at the back (which I tie around my waist) and two loops of elastic in front (which I slip over the brake levers). I don’t generally use the hood, since it’s too small to fit over a helmet and rather warm if I wear it under the helmet, bu I have used it on one or two occasions when the rain was bucketing down.
The rain cape works because it’s open at the sides. Most rain gear is designed with the (correct) understanding that the problem isn’t moisture, it’s cold. When something gets wet and has air moving over it, evaporative cooling can lower the temperature pretty quickly. When I was a kid, my parents had an air conditioner for their car–it was a long tube that looked like a jet engine, filled with wood chips. You put it in the window and the airflow from the car moving blew over the chips (which you had saturated with water) and into the car. A/C on the cheap!
Anyway, when your cotton shirt gets wet and your riding along at 15 MPH or so, you’re not only wet, but thanks to the same principle that cooled my parents’ car, youi’re cold. Some fabrics do better, but in general, a wet ride is a chilly ride.
Most rain gear solves this problem by being wind gear. Initially, you don’t get wet from the rain. You will get wet from sweat, but if the wind is kept out, at least you’ll be warm. Rain capes work the same way, except that you don’t sweat (at least not nearly as much). The cape is open at the sides, so the rain is kept off your frot and back, and there’s space for airflow. the result is that you stay dry from both rain and sweat, so you don’t get cold, and you don’t get steamy. Temperature regulation on the cheap!
Note–the rain cape is only really effective if you have good fenders on your bike, because otherwise you’re just spraying the interior with water. But that should be obvious. The rain cape will also protect your saddle against getting wet–more important if you have a Brooks-type saddle than one with a plastic shell, but still and all, nobody likes riding with a wet crotch!
I’m thinking about all this because the other day I was en route to work when the sky opened up. I had known it was likely to rain,but not that hard. I ducked under a convenient tree and pulled my rain cape from my handlebar bag and popped it on. It comes down just far enough in back to cover the top of my messenger bag (the computer inside is wrapped in plastic in any event) and in front to cover the handlebars and then some. Because my front light is mounted out on my front rack and my tail light on the rear fender, the rain cape doesn’t interfere with them at all.
And with that out of the way, I’m in a good place to enjoy riding in the rain. Streets are smoother. Aside from the sound of the rain, everything is quieter. Colors show up in a different way, and lights probably make my bike more visible in the rainy gray than it would be on a clear day.
Great rain capes can run in the multiple hundreds of dollars. Very good rain capes can be had for $15 +/-. Highly recommended!