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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rain Capes and My Inner Dorkitude

I'm the guy right in the center.
It's no secret that I live in Portland, Oregon, "you-say".  And Portland (and the Northwest* for that matter) is known as being rainy for a good half of the year.  Now this doesn't mean it pours every day, it means that we see a lot of days with rain, usually of a lighter type.  So if one wants to be an all year cyclist, one needs to deal with rain.

I've been biking in Portland for a decade.  Over the years I've tried many strategies, but over the past couple years I've moved to a mostly wool wardrobe for the rainier months.  And there's a lot of benefits to that if you can hack wool.  Not only is wool warm, but it is warm while wet.  Anyone who's tried riding around in January with jeans sans rain pants can tell you how sucky it is to ride in wet pants.  But a pair of heavy wool pants with a good wool sweater or jacket can put up well with light to somewhat moderate rain.  So that's what I wear most of the time and I don't normally feel the need to put on specific rain gear.

But there are those occasions that the rain turns moderate to heavy.  And the wool will not be enough.  I've gotten by on a Marmot rain shell the last few years, which is lightweight and easily packable, so I can easily stow it away in a bag.  But maybe it's all the interest in vintage bikes as of late that has got me thinking of rain capes.

I've hesitated buying a rain cape for a while.  Besides the dorkiness factor (of course this can be said about a lot of bicycle rain jackets), the rain cape scenario never "worked" for me.  And this has to do with the design limitations of rain capes.  Capes are meant to go over the handlebars, so it doesn't work with handlebar mounted lights.  More upright riding styles work best. And a backpack or messenger bag will make the rear of the cape ride up, exposing your lower back. 

It wasn't until the Raleigh Wayfarer dyno lighting was done that I considered trying out a rain cape.  But which one should I try?

Carradice makes both a classy traditional waxed cotton version plus a more modern synthetic hi-visibility style.  And two Oregon companies--Jackson & Gibbens and Center for Appropriate Transport--also have their own versions.  Even Rivendell has one!  The issue however is cost.  The lowest priced one (J&G) is $45, which is a lot of money to spend on something that might not work for me.  In fact, I've seen some Carradice rain capes come up on Craigslist, so obviously not everyone digs them.

But there was a low cost option that I had forgotten about.  The Monkey King on Hawthorne Blvd is a shop that specializes in Chinese trinkets and they sell a version of the Chinese bicycle rain cape that is ubiquitous to that country.  And the price: only $10!  So I got one and gave it a try.
Somehow I don't think the cape works that great without fenders.

It's a pretty basic design.  Rather than use loops around the wrists, as most of the other capes do, it has a plastic alligator clip that's supposed to "clamp" to the handlebars. I don't know what style of handlebar this can even grab onto, as anything thicker than a drinking straw seems too much.  So I've just clamped it to the barrel handlebar bag.

I've used it a few times when the rain has been hard enough. My impressions?

It's okay.

I haven't had any problems with it blowing in the wind, as the clip plus the stiff plastic keeps it stable.  Lack of arm loops means it's easier to use hand signals.  And it definitely keeps off the rain!

But water can pool up in the front, so an occasional "shake out" is warranted.  It's cheap plastic, so it has the cheap plastic smell.  The head opening/hood area is small, so it's awkward getting over my head. Since it attaches to the bike, I have to be cognizant of the fact everytime I dismount.

And yes, it is quite dorky looking.

But overall it does the job.  I'm considering at some point the possibility of getting a better one, but probably not until next winter. It's fine for around town, when I want to wear regular clothes and have something to throw over them when the rain gets hard.  You don't have to factor in "what clothes am I wearing underneath?" as much as you would with a rain jacket. I wouldn't use it for touring or long-distance riding, as it covers handlebar bag, cyclometer, and map holder.

*Of course if you are really "in the know" you know that only the West-of-Cascades Northwest is moist, whereas the Eastern half** is dry as a bone.
**More like Eastern two-thirds, if you are going to be technical.


  1. If you want dorky, check out the Carradice spats that go with the neon-blinding-yellow rain cape. (Sorry honey!) I have been known to refer to T as Pac-Man when he sports the getup.
    The main problem I've had with my (Sarah Stout produced) cape is WIND. It really acts as a windsail- which is good if you have a tailwind, but SUCKY if you have a head or sidewind. and in the winter, the prevailing winds are from the East, and South. So that has been a problem for me living in 1. St. Johns (commuting along the Willamette bluff ridge, riding in a South-East direction) and 2. Roseway (Riding in a South-West direction - sometimes getting that eastern tailwind, but just as often having a south cross or headwind, and often with an eastern headwind in the evening).

    The main pro, however, is that I can dress totally girly underneath. I love it in a light rain, because between the cape and fenders, I don't even have to wear booties or rain pants, just one piece of rain gear to deal with, and you have the automatic ventilation underneath- no dealing with pit zips.
    Girly pencil skirt with heels, with neon sporty Showers Pass jacket on top, and sometimes the rain pants and booties atop...sigh..not so much.

  2. Actually I love capes and am designing one of my own with the things I like of each of the ones I own. But since I am known for doing exaggerated hand signals(signalling) I don't like to have the cape over my handlebars, I like it just to drape.

    If you want to solve the windsail problems, and don't mind looking dorkier, take a long bungee type cord, attach it underneath the cape at the front, but on the outside at the back, and it keeps it a bit more tied down to your body. You look dorky yes, but not a billowy dork!


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