Over the past few days, we've seen nearly a 40 degree swing in temperatures, in addition to wind and rain.
This can wreak havoc on people who ride their bikes to work, especially on days where it's 70° and sunny at 8am, then 50° and rainy at 5pm. I can't speak for everyone, but I'd bet lots of people find it trickier to gear up for sporadic weather and in-between temps than they do dressing for winter and summer.
Fortunately, we can take some cues from pro cyclists competing in mountainous stage races like the Giro D'Italia. Specifically, they'll endure searing heat as they labor up steep climbs out of the valleys. Then when they pass over the summits, thousands of feet higher than where they started their day, they'll experience frigid, hypothermia-inducing winds on the way back down.
To combat the cold, they'll cover up with a gilet (wind vest) as well as arm and leg warmers...all pieces of gear that protect from the cold and wet, yet are easy to peel off and pack away when temps rise.
As a commuter, you too can prepare yourself for everything mother nature can dish out. You even have an advantage over a pro, in that you have a lot more room to stash gear than a couple of jersey pockets...so you might as well take advantage of it.
If you're riding your bike to work, for pleasure or for transportation, presumably, you're equipped with something like a backpack, messenger bag or panniers (saddlebags). Whatever the vessel, if you keep a springtime "survival kit" on hand at all times, you'll be ready for nearly anything.
Two Schools of Thought
There are two approaches to dressing for bike commuting that I've typically seen.
Approach #1: Kitting Up in Lycra
The first approach is gearing up for your commute like you would for a training ride. In other words, wearing cycling-specific lycra gear. Your work clothes - which you'll change into when you arrive at the office - are stashed away in a backpack.
This approach makes sense for lots of riders, primarily because they're comfortable and aerodynamic on the bike while their work clothes stay clean and fresh regardless of the weather. The downside is that with cycling-specific gear, you have to change clothes upon arrival and departure, which adds time and hassle to your day.
If you choose to go this route, the folks at Global Cycling Network offer some good tips and tricks in this video (for warm-to-cool weather) and this video (for cold weather). The only thing I'd add is to transport your work clothes in something that is waterproof, so if you get caught in a heavy rain, you'll still have dry clothes to change into.
While it's a hot mess from a color coordination standpoint, this pic represents a good spread of gear that (provided you're riding reasonably hard) can keep you comfy down to 45 degrees: hi-viz gilet and Belgian cycling cap (Rapha), jersey and bib shorts (The Chainlink), gloves (Craft), arm and knee warmers (SmartWool), shoe covers (Gore Bike Wear).
Approach #2: Clothes that Go from Saddle to Cubicle
The second approach is to choose clothes that can transition from your bike to your office, while toting extra layers to protect from sudden drops in temperature and/or surprise rain storms. I personally have gone this route over the years, so this is the one I'd like to discuss.
Fenders are Vital
One of the most important pieces of "apparel" for bike commuting doesn't even go on your body. If your commuter bike can accommodate them, do yourself a favor and install a set of full-length fenders. Their ability to keep your feet and butt dry during all but the heaviest rain storms cannot be understated.
Choose Technical Clothing
When I discovered the wide variety of technical pants, shorts and shirts available, I stopped wearing cotton t-shirts and denim jeans and never looked back. Easily found at outdoor-oriented stores like Erehwon, Moosejaw and of course REI, today's technical apparel is stretchy, durable, wicks away sweat and dries quickly after a rainfall. Granted, these items were primarily designed with people like hikers and rock climbers in mind, but I believe they work excellently for casual cycling as well. The only downside I've experienced is they can retain odors more than natural fabrics, but that seems like an issue clothing manufacturers have been systematically addressing over the years.
The "survival kit" that lives permanently in my panniers from March through November: waterproof shell (Mission Workshop), merino sweater (Swrve), Belgian cycling cap (Rapha), gloves (REI), pump, multi-tool, tire levers, master links, tubes, patch kits, locks and cables.
Choose a Merino Wool Sweater (and Socks Too)
The most indispensable piece of cycling gear I own is my merino sweater. For such a relatively lightweight article of clothing, it can cover an extremely wide range of temperatures. It's also highly breathable and it doesn't attract odors. Merino socks are my faves too, for the same reasons. If you don't want to wear a merino wool garment, there are a variety of synthetic garments (Polartec polar fleece, for example) which could potentially serve the same function.
This is pretty self explanatory. It keeps you dry when it rains. In addition, it blocks wind and layers up nicely with the merino sweater when temps drop below 55 degrees. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for with waterproof shells. The more you spend, the more they breathe, and the more they breathe, the less clammy you feel.
Rain Pants and Shoe Covers
In areas of heavy and/or frequent rain (Seattle for example), a quality pair of rain pants and waterproof shoe covers make a lot of sense. Showers Pass is an example of a reputable company that focuses on rain gear for serious cyclists. Chicago weather (to me) seems to be dry or kinda rainy most of the time, which is perfectly suitable to my technical, quick-dry clothing. But then, once in a great while, the skies open and all hell breaks loose. So by the time I've hypothetically pulled over and put on the pants and shoe covers, I'm already wet and the storm has largely passed. As such, I've thus far not invested in these items. Instead, for the one or two times in a year where I get caught in a heavy rain storm, I just keep riding and stash an emergency pair of dry clothes (including socks and shoes) at the office.
Since they don't take up a lot of room, make sure to stash a warm hat and gloves. I like a Belgian-style cycling cap because it fits nicely under a helmet and the brim helps keep cold wind and rain out of my eyes/face. Keeping a spare pair of socks isn't a bad idea either.
Well, that's about it. It's all pretty straightforward, common sense stuff. Outfit your pannier, bag or backpack with quality gear that can take you from dry to wet, and from 45 to 80 degrees, and you'll never get caught out in unpredictable spring weather.
If you have any suggestions, we'd love to hear them in the comments below.
About the Author
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.