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Ahead of January’s traffic crunch downtown, here’s some advice for first-time winter bike commuters

Is it the Period of Maximum Constraint or the Seattle Squeeze or the Jenny Jam? Doesn’t really matter what you call it (well, Mayor Jenny Durkan would really like you to call it the Seattle Squeeze), you should be figuring out right now how you are going to avoid driving to or through downtown Seattle.

Biking is a great option, but Councilmember Mike O’Brien made a good point earlier this week:

There’s a reason most bike commute programs start in Spring. It’s just easier to convince people to start biking to work when it’s sunnier. But with the Viaduct closing January 11, we don’t have that luxury.

But with all the doom and gloom talk about the Period of Maximum Car Squeeze, I agree with today’s Seattle Transit Blog Editorial: This is an opportunity. And as the Move All Seattle Sustainably (“MASS”) coalition said in a press release today, “This multi-year traffic crunch should be a catalyst to move rapidly towards the carbon-neutral, multimodal transportation system Seattle needs.

Under Mayor Durkan’s leadership, SDOT squandered its chance to have a fully-functional Basic Bike Network operational by the time the Viaduct comes down January 11. Sure, I can dream that she will boldly direct SDOT to make the nearly impossible happen and build a pilot bike network in just one month. But as Donald Rumsfeld once maybe said, “You Maximum Squeeze with the bike routes you have, not the bike routes you might want.”

So in that spirit, Seattle Bike Blog asked readers for their advice to someone commuting by bike for the first time in the dead of winter:

I would also point folks to Seattle Bike Blog’s perennial classic post: How to bike in the Seattle rain.

I am most excited about people’s creative ideas for encouraging people to try biking. A supportive community is vital to helping folks who are nervous or confused give commuting by bike a try and stick with it until it forms into a habit. So if you have more ideas, please share them in the comments below.

Winter biking is in large part about pushing through or around the initial fear of getting wet. It’s about learning to love what’s great about year-round biking in this amazing Seattle and enjoying the empowerment you get from knowing no weather can stop you from getting where you’re going when you want to.

I don’t usually spend a lot of time writing about gear, but it’s a question a lot of people have. In general, I urge folks to try out things for themselves and be ready to just get wet at times in the process. What works for some people does not work for everyone. And rain gear is really just clothing, and everyone has a different style.

But if your family and friends give gifts this time of year, some quality rain gear is a great idea. While there are ways to buy winter-ready clothes on the cheap, don’t cut too many corners. Knowing you will be mostly dry and warm no matter the weather is hugely empowering for people hoping to rely on biking through the winter. And since biking saves you so much money, it makes sense to invest in the gear or clothing you need if that means you will bike more often.

Here’s a quick list of winter biking gear, ranked roughly in order of importance:

  • Reliable, rechargeable bike lights. More on that in this post.
  • A rain jacket that is actually good at being waterproof. If your old jacket soaks through, try rehabbing it by cleaning and washing with a product like Nikwax (consult your tags or the manufacturer’s website for tips). But if that still doesn’t do it, it’s time for a new one. Don’t let a leaky jacket keep you from biking. An alternative, lower budget idea is to search for wool layers. Check out the sweaters, jackets and coats at Goodwill. Wool typically wicks water pretty well, and a warm wool layer (or two) is enough for misting and light drizzles. But it will soak through in heavy rain, so bring a backup. Your heavy coat is probably already great for the coldest rainy days, but it may be too warm for most days.
  • Fenders. If installing them yourself is daunting, your local bike shop is there for you. It’s weird that bikes so often come without fenders because they are vital. Not only will this save your feet, shins and back, but the person biking behind you will be grateful you aren’t spraying them with your rooster tail.
  • Gloves with a backup solution. Nothing is worse than putting on wet gloves (except maybe wet socks). So one option is to just bring two pairs of gloves with you at all times. Or you could buy a pair of gloves with a detachable waterproof shell you can use only when you need it (I like Outdoor Research’s Versaliner gloves). Ski gloves work very well to keep you warm and dry on the coldest rainy days, but you might find them too warm for much of the winter.
  • A water-resistant bag. There are many options out there, and your existing bag might be up to the task already. It doesn’t need to be submersible like a kayaking bag, just something that won’t easily soak through. But if you’re looking for something special, I gotta shout out longtime SBB supporter Swift Industries.
  • Rain-ready pants. This one is lower on the list because I do not personally like most rain pants. And for most of winter, you can get by without anything special on your legs. In the light rain or mist, it just doesn’t really matter. This is especially true if you wear something wool. I find that typical rain pants are annoying to take on and off and get so hot from pedaling that I’d almost rather be wet from rain than sweat. However, what works for you might be different. Many people are happy wearing rain pants. But there are other options, like Rain Legs, which are easy to take on and off and only cover the tops of your thighs. Or you can invest in higher-quality breathable rain paints that let as much heat out as possible while still keeping you dry.

There are also alternatives you can try. Some people love rain capes, for example. Others get those handlebar covers to keep your hands wet and dry without needing waterproof gloves. Some people wear shoe covers. Any of these solutions could work for you, and part of the joy of winter biking is trying things out. Because once you have a solution that is ready for any weather, you feel like a total bad ass. When you can confidently and reliably bike wherever you need to go all year round, that’s powerful.

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24 responses to “Ahead of January’s traffic crunch downtown, here’s some advice for first-time winter bike commuters”

  1. Machiko

    I bought shoe dryers a few years back when I was ready for Ride in Rain Challenge in November through WA Bikes. I keep a portable one at work and more sturdy one at home. What a difference they made!!! Getting wet on the way to work is one thing, but putting my dry feet into wet shoes to go home… Absolutely worst feeling!!!
    Link to the portable one (which I like better because they go far into my shoes)

  2. For those commuting from West Seattle, a supportive community is all set to help you out!
    “This is a WSBC ride for anyone who wants to try commuting by bike from West Seattle.”
    Sat, Jan 5 at 9:30am https://cascade.org/node/46115

  3. Craig Woods

    By far the most important safety tip: “Winterize your route”. In winter, you will be riding in conditions where it is very difficult to share the road, especially if cars are going fast, or there are lots of turns/driveways. Build a route that uses trails, then protected bike lanes, or unprotected bike lanes wherever possible, even if it means adding miles to your commute.

  4. Route selection, route selection, route selection. Please select your routes to work for safety, efficiency and terrain in that order. For Safety ride routes that have low traffic flow and speed. Streets that run parallel to the main arterial s get you to the same place without the heavy traffic. Be aware however of driver that will use these side streets to speed around the jams. If the main arterial s have a bike lane or a wide shoulder (squeezing through stalled traffic is highly dangerous) sometimes the backed up traffic goes very slow and makes you the faster vehicle. This works safely if you watch very carefully for frustrated drivers that can make sudden changes of direction often without notice. If you need to bus and bike to avoid unavoidable heavy traffic do so.
    Winter riding is very healthy otherwise and if you use common sense and a variety of lights you will be more visible in the dark due to the contrast. Watch out for pot holes hidden in puddles or anything metal like railroad tracks that can cause you slip out if you don’t cross them at 90 degrees. You may be more prone to flats as you cannot see the debris and the tires pick up more sharp items when wet. Flat resistance tires will in the end save you money on patches, tubes, flat repairs and Uber rides.
    The possibility of black ice on sub freezing January mornings is another hazard and can linger all day in the shaded areas. Do all your braking before you come to the slippery sections of any kind and lay off the front brake more than the rear. Yes, the rumor is true, you can get studded tires.
    I am about to strike out into the dark with my dynamo hub powering three lights ( 2 front 1 rear Busch Muller) and a planet bike flashing on the rear carrier as well as the Lights in motion 360 helmet light. I also wear a reflective vest that is bright yellow even though I have no problem with France’s fuel tax.
    Winter commuting is very rewarding and it always looks worse looking out the window than it is when you go outside. Ride safe

    1. Cosign. This was one of my bigger barriers to start bike commuting. I can be hard to find a safe and convenient route. Now that I have a bit more experience riding the streets of Seattle, I’d be happy to help anyone looking for suggestions and even help preride the route if you want. I can be contacted on Twitter. https://twitter.com/206husky

  5. PDieter

    One surprising benefit I found with my ebike is that by controlling your personal exertion your breathable fabrics work perfectly. Hills don’t matter and rain doesn’t matter. Every day rider.

  6. Peri Hartman

    Tom, any way to get Seattle Times and TV stations to publish your article and some of our comments? I feel like we’re “preaching to the choir.”

  7. Kirk

    Get the right rain gear. Polypropylene zip turtleneck and polypropylene long underwear, nylon breathable and vented jacket and pants, waterproof shoes or boots, neoprene gloves, helmet rain cover. Get a fan to blow dry your gear hung up at work. Fenders, lights, reflectors. Wear a bike hat at night to block the glare. I’ve loved my internal gear and dynamo hubs. It’s never too cold, you will easily generate enough heat to keep warm.

  8. asdf2

    Three under-appreciated pieces of winter riding gear which I find absolutely indispensable include head/ear covers, mittens/gloves, and shoe covers. The shoe covers are especially under-appreciated, but they make a huge difference in keeping your feet warm and dry.

    E-bikes are also nice in the winter because you can adjust your workout level to keep warm without sweating. If you’re cold, turn the motor down and pedal harder. If you’re getting hot, you can turn the motor up and pedal a bit less.

    Another thing that also makes a huge difference, biking in the winter, especially early on, if you’re not sure what gear to bring, is to reduce the distance, perhaps riding just to the nearest Link station, rather than all the way downtown. If you’re not willing to leave your bike at a light rail station all day, that’s what the Lime bikes are for.

    1. Geoff Hazel

      Second the shoe covers. I have neoprene booties that fit over my shoes and wear them whenever it is below 40 degrees or 50 and raining . They form a barrier to keep wind off my feet and keep feet warmer. In pouring rain, my shoes may still fill up with water after an hour of riding but my feet stay warm.

  9. Tim F

    If your workplace has a Wiki or other information page for employees (lists of dentists, etc.) make sure it’s updated with safe route recommendations, bike parking info, links to rain riding how-to’s, local bike shops, local bike orgs, and a curated list of books. A weekly casual social ride can be encouraging, especially if someone can join it w/ bike share. Listing the email of someone willing to help out w/ route tips can be helpful. Visible management support (and even riding) is invaluable. Keep suggesting bike parking improvements. Our last parking expansion included well spaced staples and electric outlets and is now well used by new family bikers even in December in addition to many dozens of daily riders using the hanging racks.

  10. (Another) Tom

    A small desk fan under your desk is all you need to dry even fully-soaked gear by the end of the work day if you flip everything over once or twice.

    A basket makes commuting life so much better. On gross days I usually just (re)use a plastic grocery bag to transport my dry clothes, toss ’em after they get ripped or filthy.

    You warm up so fast on the bike I actually find that I spend more time uncomfortably cold waiting for the bus than I would riding. Unless your commute is really long don’t worry too much about getting wet, you’ll dry. If you’re cold, pedal harder.

    Shoe covers are cheap and make a huge difference, wool everything, ear muffs and/or scarf/buff that you can pull off without stopping after warming up a bit, grow a beard if that’s an option for you.

    It gets easier.

  11. Gary

    For Amazon employees there is are internal webpages to help you out. As well as an a active group of riders. For first time riders, check those pages out, and ask on the email list for a “riding buddy” likely there is someone already riding who goes near, or right by your route.

    I know because I wrote a lot of the stuff on those pages when I was there.

    For the rest of the world, wool, wool, wool. That’s jersey, glove liners, benie hat (thin for under the helmet) and knickers. (ebay ibex for the knickers because they went out of business, icebreaker for the top, socks and benie) A real rain coat is great, you don’t need a hood. A safety vest to go over top and lights. Booties for your shoes are also good.

    For those without a shoe dryer stuff them lightly with newspaper with a fan out, so that the water is wicked out to the fan and your shoes will dry. A second set of socks is generally good.

    And just remember, “keep the warm water close” don’t focus on being dry, it’s impossible between the sweat, and the rain. You will be comfortable, but damp.

  12. orange wheels

    unsolicited gear advice: Costco is selling some cheap (~$10) windblocker gloves right now made by Head. They are not bike specific, but are some of the better Seattle-winter bike gloves I’ve found, good even in upper 30s.

    1. Conrad

      Its been my experience that inexpensive gloves from the hardware store or inexpensive ski gloves for really cold weather generally outperform and outlast expensive biking- specific gloves!

  13. Rachel

    When I was a new rider in Seattle, I found gear lists daunting. My advice: don’t worry about all the gear! I started with nothing more than lights, a helmet, and stuff I already had in my closet (old sneakers that I didn’t mind getting wet, a winter puffer coat, and a change of clothes for when I got to work). You can always add gear later as you gain experience and figure out what works for you.

  14. Joel

    As a car driver, all I can say is PLEASE wear bright lights and have reflectors on your bike (pedals at least) and on you. I can’t tell you how many bicyclists I see riding around with no lights or one tiny, dim light. You can be very difficult to see in the dark, especially when it’s raining, with the glare of oncoming headlights, rain drops on windshields, etc. And I say this with 20/20 vision. Don’t assume that cars can see you instantly just because they have headlights. I’m happy to share the road with bicyclists and I want you to be safe, just please do everything you can to be visible and please don’t run red lights or stop signs – my 3,600 lb car doesn’t stop on a dime in the wet, even at only 20 MPH. Cheers!

  15. search for wool, polypro, and nylon clothing at the Goodwill and Value Village before laying out big bucks for retail. Wool will keep you warm even when wet. Lights and fenders! you can wear a wool beanie under our helmet. wool gloves can be worn under bike gloves. I found Gortex ski gloves at the Goodwill. use layers; you may want to remove some going uphill or when it stops raining.

  16. Dave

    Light to the max! Remember, politely meek lighting is a luxury we can indulge in some hazy future time when drivers are human. American drivers need the optical equivalent of a sharp stick in the eye to get their attention.

  17. NickS

    One crucial piece of winter riding gear for me at least are clear or very lightly tinted sport glasses. My eyes start to water and stream in cold air, especially when moving at a faster clip downhill. You can apply plastic-safe Rain-X if you find the beading troublesome if it’s drizzling or raining, but it will generally only shed well if the coating’s fresh, you shake your head occasionally, or are moving -very- quickly. Make sure whatever glasses you get sit off your face a little or have decent venting, or fogging may be a problem.

    A bonus — with sport glasses, you can go for uber-bike-commute-dorkdom like I have achieved, and attach a rear-view mirror to your glasses. I highly recommend the Original Bike Peddler Take a Look mirror; I found the compact size to sit too close to my face and was difficult to focus on, but your mileage may vary. I hate to ride without it now, because I feel so much safer merging from the shoulder into the middle of the lane to pass parked cars or turn left.

  18. Jack

    Embrace the rain! My legs aren’t made of papier mache, so I just wear some lightweight shorts that can dry out, and I bring pants and socks in a backpack to change into at work. After a short distance, legs heat up fine, even on the rare snow days. A good jacket is critical though. I keep work shoes and shirts at work. One thing that took me a while to figure out is to keep my shirts and jackets at work: take them from work to the dry cleaner and back, so I always have a clean, ironed shirt to wear. Justifies the cost (and time savings!) dry cleaning!

  19. mark smith

    You know…just imagine if they left the viaduct up for biking and walking. A bike and walking and sightseeing superhighway for free. But no…no imagination.

  20. […] member of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff took some heat after being dismissive of the idea that anyone would bike in January, calling it “a pretty […]

  21. […] member of Seattle City Council took some heat after being dismissive of the idea that anyone would bike in January, calling it “a pretty […]

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