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Illustration by Douglas Scott
“Wet, unpredictable, challenging and a hell of a lot of fun.” This is how bike commuter Patrick Edgarton of Seattle, WA, describes an average winter day cycling around the city. When asked if these words might also adequately describe a typical winter ride elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Edgarton replied, smiling, “It depends on the minute.”
Winter cycling in the Pacific Northwest is wet, cold and changes by the minute. As you plan your rides for this upcoming winter, remember to take the hourly forecast with a grain of salt, and that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.
Before You Ride
David Minton of Hutch’s Bicycles in Bend, OR, said, “Clothing is definitely the most important part of cycling in the winter.” Winters in the northwest range from wet on the coast to dry and snowy inland. While the past few years have seen an above-average amount of snow in the area, the snow eventually turns to slush. Adequate layers are key.
While Minton recommends arm and leg warmers for the cold, a quality jacket can also be just as effective. Showers Pass, which is among the brands Minton recommends, is a Portland-based gear and clothing company that specializes in multi-functional all-weather products. Their Elite 2.0 jacket is one of the best on the market. It has a patented three-layer fabric system that allows for maximum water resistance and high-tech breathability to prevent in-ride overheating.
Adequate hand and foot protection is essential because that’s where you feel the cold first. I always recommend a pair of DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks, which will keep your feet warm and wick away body moisture. For an added layer of defense for blocking the wet and cold, Sealskinz Chillblockers are a good mid-calf-length sock that combats this dual aggravation. Riders can also benefit best from an outer-shoe cover, such as the Showers Pass Club shoe covers, or the clipless-compatible Louis Garneau Neo Protect shoe covers.
A bad choice of glove can cut your ride short. A glove should allow for mobility, warmth and deflection of the elements. The Specialized Radiant, BG Deflect and Element WireTap gloves excel in these departments. For extreme cold, the Pearl Izumi Barrier Lobster glove is the best.
While You Ride
John Abernathy from Wheelsport East bike shop in Spokane, WA, suggests to all riders that they ride with lights, a few tools and a spare tube on all winter rides. “It can get dark fairly early,” Abernathy said. “Make sure to be seen.”
He also suggested outfitting your bike with fenders. They won’t always keep you dry, but they’ll save you cleaning time. Planet Bike makes a wide selection of different-sized fenders for all types of bikes, and SKS makes the Race Blade fender, which can be attached to road bikes that don’t have mount points for standard fenders.
The most important pieces of equipment for your ride itself are your tires. For wet weather, I recommend the Continental Contact Extralight tire, which comes in both 26-inch and 700c. It is an ideal water-diverting tire. The center of the tire stays in contact with the road while guiding water out through the side channels.
Knobby tires, such as the 700c Continental Cyclocross Race tire or the 26-inch Kenda Kinetics, add an element of stability to rainy riding, though the knobs can work against you if the rain turns to snow.
After You Ride
The purpose of this gear is to keep you safe and dry in bad weather, but chances are that no matter what you do, you’re still going to get wet.
If you’re commuting and you need to bring along a change of clothes, invest in a set of waterproof panniers, such as the Ortlieb Back-Roller classics. A waterproof backpack, like the Ivan Rolltop from Chrome, can also make a good ride partner.
The rain and slush will take their toll on your bike. After every ride, wipe away excess moisture from the drivetrain. Grit sticks to moisture and can wear down moving parts, which may cause mechanical problems if neglected. Wipe down your braking surfaces with rubbing alcohol to extend the life of your brake pads and ensure continued stopping power.
Winter riding in the Pacific Northwest isn’t always picture-perfect, but if approached with preparedness and confidence, you might find yourself missing it when it’s gone.