Why, in the name of all things warm and dry, would anyone in the Pacific Northwest want to bicycle to work year-round?

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They coast down slick streets and withstand gale-force winds with what seems like great ease.

If we could see their faces through that spitting barrage of chilly downpour, we’d probably catch them grinning.

Why, in the name of all things warm and dry, would anyone in the Pacific Northwest want to bicycle to work year-round?

“Commuting in winter separates real bike commuters from pretenders,” says Doug Gantenbein, a local cyclist who created and writes the “Gear Guy” column for Outside magazine’s website.

Is that it, then? The men from the boys, the women from the girls …

Year-round commuting is actually also about some serious physical, economic and mental benefits, advocates say.

New bicycle commuters can lose about 13 pounds their first year, according to Bicycling magazine. And trimming one household vehicle saves $4,000 a year, not counting parking savings, according to the city of Seattle.

“Driving is boring,” says Ed Pottharst, a city employee and year-round commuter from Ballard to downtown and West Seattle. “I like being outside and
feeling the weather.”

Riding in winter, Pottharst explains, is not torturing; it’s “bracing and invigorating.”

Getting to your job on a bicycle in the Northwest winter requires planning. Specialized gear and safety measures will ensure that you don’t arrive at that PowerPoint presentation stinky and dripping like a mud-splattered nutria.

Gantenbein recommends these items for a dry, comfortable ride:

Good lighting. For a handlebar or helmet, you need a light that produces at least 700 lumens, such as the Light & Motion Seca 800 or the NiteRider MiNewt Pro 750. Pricey, but worth it, Gantenbein says. Ideally a rider will have both a handlebar and a helmet light. Planet Bike Superflash is a good taillight, he says.

Fenders. Even if it’s not raining, water on the road can soak you.

A decent rain jacket with a ducktail, preferably neon/reflective, is important.

Shoe covers, like those made by Pearl Izumi, contain warmth and keep you dry.

A helmet with a brim keeps rain out of your face.

Flats happen, so be ready to deal with them. Carry at least one spare tube, preferably two, along with a CO2 inflator and spare cartridges (faster than pumps), Gantenbein says. Run your fingers along the inside of the tire to ensure that whatever caused the flat is cleared. Practice replacing a tube and inflating it at home.

Pottharst says he always rides slower in wet weather and darkness, and turns his light on now no matter the time of day.

The best choices for winter-appropriate clothing are hotly debated among cyclists, so ask around and read reviews. Midweight wool is a popular choice for jerseys because of water-resistant and antibacterial properties (wool doesn’t reek after a day of hard use the way many synthetic fabrics do). Tights, soft-shell gloves and caps are also popular.

Some cyclists have the luxury of showers and lockers at work, but others use health clubs or wear rain gear over their clothing. If your employer isn’t bike-friendly, see the Resources sidebar for options.

Even hard-core winter cyclists stay off the bike if it’s raining too hard. Pottharst, who has been cycle commuting for 18 years, fell just once; he went down a ramp too quickly and had to take time off to heal his hip from a good-sized bruise.

“Try it out,” he urges others. “Winter commuting is not really that much different from warm-weather commuting. The more you do it, the harder core you become.”

Stay safe

  • Get good lights
  • Know your route
  • Don’t be afraid of traffic; hold your position in the road
  • Make eye contact with motorists
  • Signal

Resources

Maps and locker info: Bicycle Alliance of Washington
Bike-commuting classes: Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation
Bike-commuting forum: Cascade Bicycle Club
Riding tips: www.carsstink.org
Staying fresh: Bike Refugee