Person attaching bright red back light to their bike

How to bike in the rain (and other fall bike commute tips)

Fun fact: I’m a born-again bike commuter. I ride a lot of bikes, but I once loathed commuting on one – especially when the weather got bad. Why? I used to arrive looking like a sauna enthusiast, my work clothes were soaking wet, and I was ruining my road bike. Sure, part of my issues might have been deep-rooted cowardice, but for the most part, I just didn’t have a good system for biking in the rain, wind or bad weather.

I’ve come a long way since then. Here are some of things I’ve faced and how to fix them.

Preventing Swack (sweaty + back)

Swack can happen – especially when you’re commuting with a backpack, when you’re hammering along, or when fall temps aren’t quite as brisk as you suspected.

Tip:
  • Wear a dedicated commuter kit, and change into a fresh shirt when you arrive.
  • Find a backpack with a mesh back for air flow, or…
  • Install a bike rack and pannier system on your bike to ditch the pack completely.
Person putting a bike lock into their pannier

finding the right bag

Sure, you’ve hauled your backpack from middle school around for the past 12 years but… is it waterproof? Will it rock back and forth and back and forth whenever you stand on the pedals like a pendulum of pain? And, most importantly… will it protect your stuff inside?

Tips:
  • Find a bike backpack that’s purpose-built for commuting (many don’t necessarily look like “bike bags”).
  • Messenger bags do an excellent job of staying close to your back and firmly in place.
  • Tip: Some folks (me included) find that a single strap can strain one side of the shoulders/neck. In that case, opt for a two-strap backpack with padded, adjustable shoulder straps, plus a sternum strap (or a rack and pannier system).
Person biking with the Osprey Metron Pack on

The Osprey Metron Pack (above) is one example of a bag made for anyone who rides everywhere. It’s got a ventilated back panel, a built-in pack cover and tons of pockets for your stuff.

Remember: it gets dark early

Maybe you got stuck at work, caught up with a friend, or had a class that went late. Next thing you know, it’s pitch black outside. Fall means shorter days, so prepare accordingly.

Tips:

  • Bike lights! They’ll keep you seen by drivers, pedestrians, and other commuters. Always keep a charged set in your bag.
  • Most bike lights are rechargeable, can be insanely bright, and are often easy for you to remove when you lock up your ride.
  • Many jackets and bags have reflective hits to help you seen by drivers. An easy way to add visibility if you don’t have built-in reflection is with LED slap wraps.

Don’t destroy your shoes

You look out the door and the morning is a universe of golden leaves and sunshine. You ride to work – not a care in the world! – in your regular shoes. But then… weather changes, rain falls, and you totally trash your nice shoes on the ride home.

Tips:

  • Dedicated commuting kicks, or waterproof boots (like these Blundstones) if you want to maintain a bit of style.
  • If your shoes do get soaked: Stuff them full of newspaper after riding home to reduce morning swamp foot.

Stay dry (not soaked)

Riding has the potential to get you way soggier than if you were walking with an umbrella or taking transit. The good news? You have a lot of options. Year-round commuters are a practical bunch, and there are commuter-specific jackets that are bright and waterproof. If you prefer something with a bit more street-style, there are plenty of waterproof-breathable shells that can do double-duty as bike jackets.

Tips:

  • Waterproof and wind-resistant clothes. (Some might not repel water quite as well as other gear, but there’s a lot to be said for clothes that work on and off the bike).
  • If your commute is long, if you bike year-round, or if you maintain a good pace, opt for more technical commuter bike apparel.
Two bike jackets with reflective parts shining in the dark

If you’re planning to bike a lot in bad weather, waterproof-breathable gear with reflective hits (like these MEC Downpour Lumix Waterproof Cycling Jackets) keep you dry and visible.

Watch for the rooster tail/mud mask combo

You gotta be prepared for a bit of spray if it’s raining. Your front tire can spit gritty water into your face on wet pavement, plus you’ll be facing an onslaught of rain. The worst problem? Rooster tail: a stunningly uniform line of mud and water that runs from your butt and up your back.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Tips:

  • Install fenders, front and rear. They’ll protect you and also keep those riding behind you dry (courtesy never hurts, right?). Plus, a front fender reduces spray on your shoes.
  • If you can’t fit full fenders, use smaller clip-on fenders.

Don’t ruin your bike

Wet mornings can steadily eat away at your drivetrain (re: chain and chainrings), rims and bearings. Grit and grime are inevitable in bad weather, but you can reduce the impact.

Tips:

  • Rinse your bike often – nothing fancy, just spray with a hose to get gunk off. From there, lube your chain and do a quick once-over with a dry rag to get rid of remaining water. Get tips on how to clean and lube your chain.
  • Fenders (again) help protect your bike from excess spray.
  • If you’re riding steadily, consider a mid-season bike tune up. It’s cheaper and safer to do preventative maintenance instead of pushing your bike to mechanical exhaustion.

Skip the summer tires

Commuting beyond summer? You’ll come to realize that roads get covered in debris – rocks, snow, salt, broken bike parts, staples (where do they come from?), nails, screws, broken glass – literally every sharp thing you could imagine.

Tips:

  • Invest in beefier bike tires. If your frame lets you go wider, go wider – you’ll get a bit more grip.
  • Your tire choice is going to depend on the make of your bike. Ask an MEC bike tech for know-how.

Avoid frozen hands

Chances are there’ll be a ride where you’ll brave the rain or wind without gloves. Don’t do it. Halfway through, your hands will resemble frozen claws, and you’ll end up noisily blowing your hands in that 9am meeting or lecture, much to the chagrin (or, possibly, amusement) of those around you.

Tip:

Close up of bike gloves with raindrops on them

Waterproof bike gloves, like these ones from Showers Pass, are key to comfortable rides when cool fall weather rolls in.

Bonus tips

Commuter bike safety is worthy of a future post in its entirety. Nevertheless, here are a few quick tips for boosting your safety cred:

Always make eye contact with drivers at intersections

It’s the best way to make sure that a driver is aware of your existence. If you haven’t made eye contact while approaching (it can be tough to do when it’s dark and you can’t see through windshields), ease up and use caution.

Corner carefully in rain or frost

When those first rainy or frosty mornings hit, slow down. 98% of the time things will be fine, but use caution when cornering – the road is slipperier, and a corner you’re used to cruising through might catch you by surprise.

Brake sooner

When your rims are exposed to dirt, grit and rain, your brakes won’t perform as admirably as they usually do. Always brake a bit sooner in wet conditions. This isn’t as much as a problem for bikes equipped with disc brakes (which makes them great for commuting).

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Originally published September 2016. Updated in 2019.

Jonathan Johnson

Writer, coffee addict and spandex expert. Tirelessly seeking the perfect writing/riding playlist.