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Outerwear 101: Jackets and Pants for Wet Weather Cycle Commuting

Monday, October 19th, 2009 at 11:52 am

I heard a great saying the other day that went like this:  “when it comes to riding year round, there is no bad weather just bad clothing choice.” My wife would adamantly disagree, but having the right wet weather clothing can make the difference between a nice morning ride and dropping a barrage of f-bombs as you curse your way through morning traffic. When it comes to protecting yourself from the elements you could wrap yourself in a series of strategically duct-taped garbage bags, but you won’t be happy and people will make fun of you.

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The answer to wet weather woes lies in bicycle specific clothing. A month ago I wrote a post that gave a broad overview of what you need to ride year round. Here I’ll look at the down and dirty of the right clothing for riding comfortably in the rain. This one will concentrate mainly on Jackets with some cross over into pants and other clothing. I’ll cover the other gear soon.

Why Should You Buy Cycling Specific Clothing?

You may be wondering why should invest in cycling specific clothing. First off, cycling clothing is fit to be most comfortable when you are in a riding position; when your arms are forward the sleeves won’t ride up to your elbows and the back of your jacket will keep water from running down your pants – a very uncomfortable and disconcerting feeling I can assure you. The pants are fitted to ensure mobility while you are pedaling and to avoid the cuff getting snagged in your chain. The gloves offer extra padding for your palms and the shoe covers will still allow for proper pedal contact while keeping your feet cozy and dry. Carefully selected materials and construction gives you highly breathable fabrics in a variety of weights so you don’t end up with a sauna inside your clothing. Finally, strategically placed reflective material will help motorists see you in low light, ensuring you don’t become a sopping wet hood ornament, bonus!

What is Waterproof and Breathable?

If you’ve been researching clothing already you may notice that some of the jackets and pants have a mm rating for the fabric. I have discovered that almost no one knows what this means so I will try and demystify this rating. The mm rating comes from a water column test where they place a column of water on a piece of the fabric and then fill the column until the water permeates the fabric, they record the mm of water at the point that this happens. This information may be as abstract as I can imagine; I certainly have no idea what 20,000mm of water looks like, though I imaging it’s a lot. To put in perspective I once heard a great analogy that a monsoon is equivalent to about 7,000 mm. If your clothes are above monsoon rating than you are probably okay, that is unless you are caught in a super monsoon.

However, what you need to remember is that the mm rating is just for the fabric, it’s tricky I know, but there are still seams and zippers to worry about. If you really want to stay dry look for fully seam sealed garments with waterproof zippers. Your local shop can point you the right way.

Don’t forget breathability, which is usually the other rating you’ll see, once again this is way too abstract to be of much use, so the simple explanation is a higher number is better. Better breathability will stop you from having a steam bath in your own clothing.  There is, however, always a tradeoff between higher breathability and water resistance, one of life’s little conundrums. Take these ratings with a grain of salt, but they do offer some basis for comparison in your purchases.

Where and When Will You Ride?

One thing you need to consider is what type of rider you are or aspire to be. Ask yourself if you are planning to ride to work every day, three times a week or only when it’s sunny, you decide. Next, how far are you going to commute; is it 5km, 10 or longer. Will you be splitting your commute between transit and riding? All of these factors will influence what type of outerwear you will purchase.

To help you along with your decisions here are some clothing choices and their best uses:

The Basic Rain Beater: A simple yet waterproof shell usually made from PVC which means they breathe about as well as saran wrap. They are inexpensive and simple. Great outerwear for short rides or emergency rain wear, but can turn into a sauna if you are riding longer distances. Probably not your first choice for year round riding and definitely not ideal in colder situations; below 10°C (50°F) and they tend to become brittle below freezing.

The Softshell: Windproof and water resistant, these clothes are usually warm and comfortable. On colder wet days they are also a great mid layer underneath a weatherproof, breathable shell. Because of the water resistant rating you’ll be okay in a drizzle or light rain but any more than that may leave you wet. These shells usually sport a high level of breathability and can be a great year round addition to your wardrobe, you may even find yourself wearing them every day.

The Water Repellant Light Jacket: No not the old K-Way hiding in the back of your closet. These jackets are lightweight, breathable and usually water-repellent. Compact and easy to store away these are great for light rain and warmer days, above 10°C (50°F). They give you protection from the elements and can be used on any ride from short too long.

Light Weight Water Proof Shell: Over the last few years outerwear material technologies have grown leaps and bounds, partly due to the expiration of Gore Tex’s waterproof laminate patent, which let other manufacturer’s join the game and push product development, competition is grand. The result is light weight, waterproof and breathable materials that are compact and easy to stow away. These are great for warmer weather rides and are compact enough to bring along even when there is only a slight chance of rain. If you aren’t planning on riding through the wet months or you are a performance rider looking for lightweight protection then this style of clothing is perfect.

The Multi-Ply Water Proof Year Round Shell: I admit that the description is a little on the long side but you probably get the picture. These shells are made of a multi-ply laminate to give you maximum wet weather protection. You may hear 3-ply or 2.5-ply, taped seams and waterproof PVC-coated zippers are combined to keep you dry. Yes, these jackets are more expensive but when the going gets tough they are an awesome thing to have. When it gets colder out, wear a fleece or softshell underneath and you’ll stay warm and dry.

The Verdict

There are a lot of good products out there to make riding year round enjoyable. By doing a little research and figuring out what type of riding you do or aspire to do you will have an easy time getting the right gear to fit your riding style.

I hope that the above has given you an idea of what you need to enjoy riding, no matter what Mother Nature throws your way. If you are prepared, riding year round is easier than you might think  and great way to stay in shape and avoid rush hour anger as you sit in your car watching cyclists pass you by. Keep checking back for more guides on foul weather commuting.

Pedal Forward!

-Cadeyrn

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