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Winter riding: Staying warm and dry on a budget

Posted by on November 6th, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Bike to Work Breakfast-3
Raingear comes in all styles, forms
— and budgets.
(Photo © J. Maus)

Now that the rain has arrived in earnest, it’s time to get the daily wet weather riding routine down pat.

For many of us, that isn’t going to include shopping for a new, name brand rain jacket and pants, fancy washable wool, or a new bike with disc brakes.

Fortunately there are plenty of local options for staying warm and reasonably dry without going broke.

I recently made a trip to Andy and Bax, a military surplus store at 324 SE Grand, right in the center of the industrial east side. They have whatever the military has too much of — and this includes plenty of wool gear as well as perfectly good, basic $10 rain pants with snaps at the cuffs that keep them out of your chain.

bikes at Earth Day
Simple, functional, and highly visible
at Earth Day 2007.
(Photo © J. Maus)

A variety of rain coats run more on the order of $30 (some even have features like ventilation and non-drab colors). Ponchos also run in a wide variety of prices, sizes, and options — if you have fenders on your bike, a poncho with a couple of velcro snaps to attach the front to your handlebars is really all you need on all but the windiest days.

By the entrance a vast array of hats, balaclavas, gloves (including some with grips that seem to be made for motorcycling), and mittens (an articulated trigger finger also aids in braking) are made of weather-appropriate wool, fleece, waxed cotton.

The goal of the trip was to find a waterproof bag to carry things in my Xtracycle pannier in the fast-approaching storm. The $14 bright yellow tube I ended up with is suitable for intermittent full submersion and fits everything I need to carry on a daily basis, at a fraction of the price of its fancy step-cousin the Ortlieb pannier.

I couldn’t resist dropping by Next Adventure a block away at SE Grand and Stark. I’ve heard tales for some time of their legendary bargain basement.

portland free store
Portland’s Free Store could have
just what you need at just (really!)
the right price.
(Photo © Elly Blue)

It more than lives up to the hype. While not as orderly, uniform, or determinedly utilitarian as the stock at Andy and Bax, in 20 minutes of rummaging through you can find everything from an $11 teal vinyl hoodie for a giant to what I presume is a bargain $89 technical fabric, name-brand raincoat made specifically for hiking or cycling. Rain pants were in shorter supply; the ones I found fell in the $10 to $30 range.

Next Adventure’s bargains also include a rack of cycling gear from many eras including this one, a bin of clipless bike shoes, and gems like a trainer and a battle-worn Schwinn child seat ($10).

Many people have reported excellent wet weather gear finds at thrift stores (including the always fruitful, if unfocused, Goodwill Bins that sits conveniently right off the Springwater Corridor). And Portland abounds with clothing exchange parties, both organized and casual. If you can’t find an event online that suits you, organize one with your friends.

I’ve stayed dry — if messily — all winter in years past on a bike without fenders by wearing an impermeable raincoat and $10 rainpants tucked loosely into knee high rubber boots. If you don’t mind climbing in and out of wet, muddy gear at every destination — or being asked frequently if you’re a highway safety flagger — this is a fine budget option. You’ll certainly stay warm this way, though if you’re a fast rider you’ll get too warm and so much for staying dry.

aaron's fender
A political campaign sign
has a new life as a
rear fender.
(Photo © Elly Blue)

Fenders are one of the best investments you can make into winter riding on your bike. The water and road gunk that your tires pull off the ground and throw at you (and anyone riding right behind you) is often heavier than what’s coming out of the sky. With full-coverage fenders, you often don’t need to bother with more than just a wool sweater in a light rain.

For affordable fenders (and friendly assistance in putting them on your own bike), check out Bike Farm at NE Wygant and Garfield (near NE MLK and Alberta) — reports are in that they have just received a shipment. You may be able to find used fenders, along with other used parts and gear, at Citybikes at SE Ankeny and 20th.

If you’re handy and inspired, there are plenty of examples roving around town of fenders made out of repurposed campaign signs, mountain bike tires, and plastic water bottles. If you make your own, we’d love to hear how it goes.

What are your equipment strategies for wet, cold weather? Feel free to share in the comments below.


- See also our discussion of the wide world of wool as an option for winter riding from last year around this time.

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Comments
  • Vance Longwell November 6, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    This is going to sound like I’m being a smart-allelic, but why ride in the rain? I know that sounds totally crazy, but think about it just for a sec. In addition to all of Elly’s excellent suggestions (Bravo E, I really liked this one.) I just wanted to add that notion. So many times just a few minutes waiting, or hurrying, can save you having to suit up.

    Plus, brake-dust carried by water will quickly contaminate even sealed bearings. Garden hose, $2 bucket, $2 dollar dish-brush, and a bottle of J&J baby shampoo. Clean that bike off completely after every ride in the rain and it will pay dividends. The baby shampoo is very mild, but still a petroleum-solvent, so be sensible.

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  • Paul Heinlein November 6, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    In addition to Elly’s suggestions, a pair of neoprene shoe covers are a great asset. I have a pair that only covers the toes of my shoes (with holes on the bottom to allow access to the pedal clips), but my shoes and feet are markedly drier with them than without.

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  • TTse November 6, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    “from an $11 teal vinyl hoodie”

    I would caution against using most hoodies for riding a bike. Unless they have those draw cords that pull them back a bit, they kill your peripheral vision and reduce what you can hear quite drastically.

    My favorite rain gear hands down (other than fenders) are booties. Dry feet are happy feet.

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  • John Lascurettes November 6, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Now that it’s wet and fall, be extra careful of the leaves too. In the old-growth parts of town, homeowners are already raking their detritus into the street and letting turn into slicker-than-snot, messy patches while they wait for the city of Portland to clean up their mess.

    Normally in dry weather your front brakes mechanically give you better stopping power (see some of Sheldon Brown’s old articles). That same stopping power in wet weather transforms into more likely to skid-crash over slick patches. Favor the back brakes in wet and icy weather. Avoid locking up that front wheel.

    PS: Riding without fenders on busy bike routes (like crossing any bridges) is just downright rude in Portland. :) And those stinger-tail fenders don’t count.

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  • hilsy November 6, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    I went old school yesterday evening with plastic bags rubber-banded around my sock-feet before putting on my shoes. They did keep the rain out, but it was pretty darn warm before the cold front made it in. So my feet still got damp, but from the inside out instead.

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  • AaronF November 6, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    After commuting as cheaply as possible for many years, this year I broke down and bought a Showers Pass jacket,some wool Ibex knickers,a nice comfy helmet with a brim and a headband to cover my ears. I spent about $350 in all.

    The nastiest days this year have been absolute heaven compared to years past, and I have 0% buyers remorse.

    I have regular cheapie brakes and I’ve never had any real problems with them. Maybe I’m the only one?

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  • TTse November 6, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    John #4,

    Your middle paragraph? You speak the truth.

    I’m watching to see how many hipsters running their faux gear single-speeds with only a front brake are going to totally eat *%^# this winter with that suicide set-up.

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  • Vance Longwell November 6, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    #4 – I hope I don’t start an argument but if any water originating from my bike collides with you on yours, in my opinion only, you are like 15 feet too close to me. Not that I mind gearing up for purposes of being polite, and I really appreciate that you do; but a REAL problem with that just screams to me, “Too Close”.

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  • Vance Longwell November 6, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    #6 – c’mon now. Wishing people physical harm for their choices crosses a line in the ‘ol bike arena, don’t you agree? I’m really frustrated with that particular demo myself, and even I turn off the hate when it comes to one of us laying it down. This can kill ya just as easy as not.

    With that said, in my expert opinion, bike set-ups like TTse is talking about are ill advised for all too many reasons, and in every condition.

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  • Jeff TB November 6, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    #8 Vance – #6 is “watching to see” not “wishing to see”. Easy there. No one is wishing for injuries on others.

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  • Jeff TB November 6, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Oh, I love my booties!

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  • TTse November 6, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Jeff is right. I wish no one harm (other than bike thieves). Perhaps I laid my cynicism on a bit thick and it began to resemble hate. Apologies.

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  • MeghanH November 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I always get too warm in my raingear — so I sweat, so I don’t stay perfectly dry. It’s not the end of the world…

    But I have to say, my Kamik rubber boots and some wool socks go a long way toward making my day better (and my feet warmer.)

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  • Jocko November 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Great article! I love to see all of the options for the broke and the cheap skates.

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  • dsaxena November 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I am currently experimenting with riding w/o any rain gear and just wearing multiple layers of wool from thin base to thicker with lining on the outermost layer. I rode in last night’s storm and lived to survive. I’m partially doing this b/c I lost my rain jacket :( but b/c of the idea that if Lewis/Clark can cross the country w/o Gortex, I should be able to bike around without fancy petro-chemical based clothing. :)

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  • Vance Longwell November 6, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Ya, my bad TTse, I didn’t even notice it was you, and that while typing out your handle. :-) More for the noobs than directed personally at you, anyway. Examples, and all.

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  • Anonymous November 6, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Cape (waist strap is important) + fenders keeps me super dry from inside and out. Add gaiters and booties if it is really coming down. Take the cape off in seconds and you are ready to go inside.

    Also keep you bike much drier.

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  • John Lascurettes November 6, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Vance, even at low speeds, such as coming off a fresh green light at the western end of the Broadway bridge when bikes are all bunched up, a bike with no fenders throws up quite the rooster tail of dirty water.

    Easy solution is to ride slightly out of phase (not directly in line) with that rider if they’re faster or same speed as me. My other solution is to take the next lane and get past if they’re slower than me.

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  • Mr DeJerk November 6, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    My strategy for this year is to go to Brazil during most of the wet season, thank goodness!

    Other than that, I think you tackled my usual spots: Andy and Bax and Next Adventure. All you need for the right price. As for fashion, I’d rather look like I’m gone fishing than I came out of a REI catalog, anyway.

    But, yeah. The wool stuff plus some sort of water resistant layer seem to do the trick. Make sure the pants are breathable, though, otherwise you’ll end up as wet as if you didn’t have rain gear on.

    I still don’t know what to do about water on my face, though, sometimes it can be a little annoying.

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  • Dan November 6, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Affordable comfort and resourcefulness are good things (comfort always being relative, anyway), but some good stuff is worth paying for. (I mean, c’mon – *used* shoes?) I guess, though, in tough times, maybe…

    I commute >50 miles a day year-round. The only “rain gear” I have is a jacket with pit zips ($79 on sale), and I only wear that if it’s really coming down. I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like trying to ride sealed head-to-toe in plastic bags.

    I think I could really go for the rain cape setup (breathable dryness). One of these days I’ll have to try it, but don’t expect it would be a comprehensive solution for my riding circumstances.

    Booties are a godsend, but for something to cover your feet in outdoor elemental activity, they’re too easily damaged. (Also watch out for snagging the cutouts on like SPD pedals.)

    Wool is magical stuff. Don’t know what more to say about that.

    For the brutal cold yet to come, one of the best things I have is an ear-covering headband. It really takes the edge off of bitter cold.

    It’s amazing how some of the little things like headband and gloves affect your total warmth – too hot, too cold, or just right.

    Gloves are really a tough one to get just right. So far the best I’ve managed is to carry an assortment and change gloves as conditions warrant.

    Basically, though, if you have to work even a little bit hard riding your bike, you’re gonna get wet when it rains – one way or another. But you can only get so wet, and then you are. And isn’t it just glorious out in the elements? Riding home into some hardcore headwinds Thursday night, well after dark when it started to rain (hard) on me in my neoprene booties, shorts, T-shirt, short-sleeves jersey, and half-finger gloves, I said, “Hot Damn – here it is!” :-)

    Climate-wise, Oregon is becoming northern California anyway.

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  • KruckyBoy November 6, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    I mean, c’mon – *used* shoes?)

    I bought a ‘temporary’ pair of used SPD shoes at Next Adventure for $14 last year and now like them so much I’ve never felt the need to upgrade to a new pair. Don’t knock it ’til you try it!

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  • cee dub November 6, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    Got at Andy & Bax or the bins-I don’t remember which-a long (like below the knees) wool Swedish Army coat with a deep back vent that can be unbuttoned for riding. I doubt they were designed for that but it works perfectly. I wandered around in it last winter, biked and unbiked, in comfort and looked mahvelous…

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  • Tim K November 7, 2009 at 1:44 am

    Great article. Thanks.

    One tip: recycled heavy-duty plastic shipping envelopes are great to reuse as Xtracycle “dry sacks.” They seem to last forever (I’ve been using one for more than a year) and when I need a new one, I can just pluck it out of the trash at work or the post office or something.

    The largest size is big enough to keep my messenger bag dry. I carry three or four most days — even using them for impromptu Trader Joes shopping bags.

    Cheap, recycled, and highly effective!

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  • bikieboy November 7, 2009 at 7:57 am

    thanks, Elly, and commenters, for sharing low-cost weatherproofing strategies!

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  • Sarah November 7, 2009 at 11:52 am

    For feet, you can get waterproof socks made for duckhunters for about $10. Now I just wear waterproof dress boots for easy road-to-office, but I did great with those for years.

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  • KWW November 7, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks for this article, I tire of all the ‘technical’ uniforms that many of the bicycle snobs wear.

    I have gone old school this year, with a waxed cotton rain cape. The brilliance of it all is that it overlaps the handlebars, so you can wear wool gloves without them getting wet. You can also wear breathable jackets that would otherwise get soaked.

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  • Steve B. November 7, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Kudos to everyone who considers other cyclists when installing fenders. It’s a bummer to get a face full of muddy water when heading to work. This is especially true during busy commute times when there is a lot of stopping and starting with large groups of cyclists.

    Enjoy the rain on your bike. It can be quite a thrill to be outside in weather most people would dare step out in. There’s a nice comradery among those who are out in this tough weather, so much fun!

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  • kate b. November 7, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    If you’re a small person, go to the kids section. I bought my first sporty style rain jacket this year for $30 at REI. It’s a boys size large and I love it. All the women’s jackets were at least $100 and not much different than the kid’s. Also, I think the colors and design are better in the kids section, but that may just be me. :)

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  • Stripes November 7, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    I love waterproof colorful rainboots!

    I wish that Portland bike shops sold handlebar clamps for umbrellas, like they do in Japan! An umbrella is the simplest way to stay dry, possibly…

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  • This Week in Commuting News | Commute by Bike November 7, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    [...] Blue of BikePortland.org hits upon staying dry and warm this winter, on a [...]

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  • ms November 7, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I invested in a yellow goretex helmet cover a few years ago with birthday $ , and I’ve found that makes a big difference in keeping me feeling warm & dry (especially since I have long hair). The bonus of it is extra visibility since it’s BRIGHT yellow. I imagine the dome-shaped helmets without vents are nice for this time of year.

    My other tip? To help shoes or gloves dry faster, crumple up newspaper & stuff inside. I’ve done this after riding into work so that I have dry gloves for the ride home.

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  • matthew November 7, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    i like to run and extended mudlap on my front fender to keep my toes drier. a friend made covers for his toe clips out of a gore-tex snap on hood from a ski jacket. two thumbs up for upcycling! pendelton woolen mills has an outlet in washougal that is great. this summer i picked up several merino wool light weight turtle necks and t-shirts that i use as base layers. they ran $20-$25 ea. compare the price to castelli or rapha clothing and it is a no brainer. they also have washable wool and sell mill ends and fabric by the yard if you are handy or know someone who sews. some of my favorite winter riding gloves are light cross country skiing gloves. i have to admit i did pick up a water resistant (treated) cotton rapha cap and love it. i’d like one of their rain jackets and trousers or fixed shorts but don’t really want to pony up the big $$ for the whole kit. then again… come january i my change my tune. catalog companies like campmoor and sierra trading post often have discontinued and closeout base layers, fleece and rain gear at fantastic prices.

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  • Jessica Roberts November 8, 2009 at 12:29 am

    My feet are always cold when winter biking. Andy & Bax sells super-cheap wool felt insoles that you can cut to fit your shoes. They compress over time so don’t worry if they are a little snug at first. I love them so much I have gone back twice for more so all my winter shoes and boots have some extra insulation from cold and damp.

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  • beth h November 8, 2009 at 8:34 am

    @ #29:

    An umbrellas is seen by many Portlanders as a sure sign that the user is from Somewhere Else and/or hasn’t adapted yet. A good rain jacket or cape and a cap with a decent brim do the trick for me.

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  • Patrick Valdez November 8, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    It never fails, Goodwill always has good deals on wet weather cycling gear. Recently I nabbed a waterproof jacket with taped seams and ventilation zippers for $10 plus they have wool tops and pants that make for a warm ride this time of year.

    Surprisingly, lightweight snowboarding pants can be more comfortable to ride in than standard waterproof cycling pants.

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  • Adam November 8, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    I recently found waterproof nylon rain pants & jacket, sold together as a complete rain suit for a total of $40 at Cosco. I’ve been riding with it for a few weeks now, and it’s performing very well. It’s also relatively easy to get on and off.

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  • Ted Buehler November 9, 2009 at 12:57 am

    Wool dress pants. Go to your favorite thrift shop and pick up a pair. They look pretty good, they wear well, and they’re great for light rain. $5 or less.

    Ted Buehler

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  • Ed November 9, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Keep your hands dry using large dish gloves over insulating gloves, tucked under your rain jacket. Your hands will stay warm all day that way, and the rubber provides good grip.

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  • chelsea November 9, 2009 at 10:21 am

    I have been seeing a lot of Smartwool socks at the Nordstrom Rack downtown. They are at least half off of the normal price. I hardly wear anything else these days.

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  • Dave November 9, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Most of the winter, I just wear a wool driving cap and a wool coat, both of which keep me very dry except in torrential downpours. The biggest problem is the tops of my legs, which a poncho that is long in front mostly fixes.

    For shoes, I just wear something leather if possible, no converse for the rainy days :) My bike has full fenders with a mudflap on the front, so I don’t really get any spray at all from the front tire, even on my feet, just if I splash through a big puddle or something.

    I do sometimes ride with an umbrella if it’s not too windy, which keeps my upper body dry, but doesn’t do much for my legs.

    Need to run by Andy and Bax for some full gloves though, I just have fingerless at the moment, and it’s starting to get cold enough I’m wishing I had something more.

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  • Neil November 9, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    I have to wonder about backlash to wearing technical gear in the rain. I’d say that each of us has to consider our own situation and dress accordingly. There’s no way I’d make my ride into town from Beaverton without technical clothing. 10 miles each way in anything else, and I’d be miserable by the time I reached my destination.

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  • dutch November 9, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    tall bikes dont need fenders. Yet another plus for something that most seem to still think are a disadvantage to ride.

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  • El Biciclero November 9, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    This is one of my favorite items of wet-weather ‘gear’. As Vance said above, leaving a little bit sooner or later can have a dramatic effect on how wet you get.

    Oh, and Vance, there are many possible scenarios wherein I diligently attempt to maintain “proper” distance, yet eat crap from someone else’s rear wheel.

    * The pull-out-in-front-of-me-from-a-side-street
    * The pass-me-then-cut-back-over-too-soon
    * The I’m-passing-you-but-want-to-minimize-my-time-in-the-next-lane-over
    * etc.

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  • Vance Longwell November 9, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    “* The pass-me-then-cut-back-over-too-soon”

    Ya, I forgot about that one, and you are too right. I have a rain-jacket and no fenders, not even a pair of gloves, ride hundreds of miles a week year round, and rarely saturate a single article of clothing; let alone get real wet. All on auto-pilot. Couldn’t tell you how to do it in a million years.

    I get bashed for veteran-thinking that’s useless for the noobs. On this, I definitely feel it is a learned thing, so not much immediate help. Ten years, or so, of practice and you can ride ‘tween rain-drops like me and the cat. Swear.

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  • KWW November 9, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    30 gallon trash bags!
    sleeveless rain jacket!
    kilt!
    babushka hoodie!

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  • batya November 9, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Go to Franz Bakery (NE 12th across from Benson HS) and ask for some new bread bags. They make good emergency sockliners in the winter deluge. Put them on over wool socks and under your shoes. When you get to your destination, take them off and hang them on the bike to air out for the ride home. It’s tacky but it works.

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  • lilly November 10, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Barmitts….. i live in KFalls, and this has been a huge difference in my commute. I suffer from renauts(sp?) in my hands, thus i lose circulation easily.

    Gortex mtn bike shoes help too. I live on an extreme hill so i need the clipless pedals.

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  • ME 2 November 10, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Yes that is a good point Neil #41. I’d also like to add that there is more than one way to look at clothing on a budget. I recently purchased a $175 waterproof jacket that should last me for the next 10-15 years. I prefer this route than buying something cheaper that will likely have to be replaced every 3 or 4 years.

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  • aletown » Blog Archive » That Icy Cold December 6, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    [...] has a great article up on getting gear for winter riding, but I thought I’d share my setup since I’ve taken [...]

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  • Jessica Roberts November 24, 2010 at 9:02 am

    This year I have ‘discovered’ rubber boots (warmer, windproof, guaranteed dry from knees down) and mittens (so much warmer than gloves!). I know, these are hardly rocket science level discoveries, but it took me 15 years of biking to get there…

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