Source: Bicycling Magazine
Into every cyclist’s life a sprinkle, shower, or torrential downpour inevitably comes—but with the right gear, skills, and attitude, riding in wet weather can precipitate a sense of freedom, joy, and accomplishment.
When I was in my twenties, which must have been a hundred years ago, I worked 12-hour nights in a plastics factory in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and I commuted on my bike 6 miles each way, starting my shift at 7 at night and ending at 7 the next morning. These days, such a commute would probably qualify me for a solid-citizenship award—hell, having a manufacturing job would probably qualify me as something special, too—but back then, I didn’t own a car, so if I wanted the golden opportunity to make plastic bottles all night long, I had to place my butt in the saddle.
The job itself wasn’t too bad, really, if you could ignore the plastic fumes and the toxic coolants and machining lubes and the terrible hours and the owners who treated everybody like something that emerged from the back end of a dog, but when I was riding to work, I had no complaints about life because at least I was riding my bike, which seemed like freedom to me, even though I sometimes felt as if I were riding my bike to prison.
One spring morning when my shift ended, a heavy thunderstorm rolled in—high winds, lightning, rain falling so hard it instantly made the nearby roads into rivers—and I suppose I could have waited out the rain in the factory and headed home when the downpour eased, but why would I hang around in a stinking plastics factory when I could be riding my bike home? Who cares about the storm?
I remember pedaling as hard as I could and muttering a few lines I had memorized from King Lear:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples!
I remember the rain saturating my body, all the way to my soul, and washing away the misery of the night on the job. I remember feeling like I was riding faster than I ever had and feeling more pride in being a cyclist than I ever had. People in cars could see me spinning along in the deluge, and I knew in my heart they didn’t think I was crazy. They thought I was one Grade-A Tough Sumbitch who could ride through anything. They probably wished they were me! Mike Magnuson: Patron Saint of Cycling in the Rain! Mike Magnuson: Complete Human Being! Then I crossed some railroad tracks and my rear wheel slipped out from underneath me, and before I knew it my bike was upside down on the sidewalk about 20 feet away, and I was on the asphalt, rolling out of the way at the last possible instant before a garbage truck ran me over.
The greatest rain story I know is not the time in the 1971 Tour de France when Eddy Merckx, in a hailstorm, attacked Luis Ocana on the descent of the Col de Mente, causing Ocana to crash out of the Tour, nor is it Greg LeMond’s spectacular duel in the rain with Laurent Fignon in the 1989 World Road Championships, nor it is when the young, pre-cancer, pre-scandal Lance Armstrong won the 1993 World Championships in Oslo, Norway, on a torrentially rainy day wherein nearly every great road racer in the field had hit the deck multiple times, nor is it when my buddy Dave, who is now a Cat 2 racer living in Yellow Springs, Ohio, was just getting into cycling and lined up for a C cyclocross race outside of St. Louis, and about 10 seconds after the gun went off, an absolutely monstrous cloudburst commenced, a storm so intense the air became black, causing the racers to vanish into what seemed like their watery doom, only to emerge a few minutes later, alive, with Dave in the podium position that he would maintain for the rest of the race and, really, for the rest of his cycling life.
No. Rain reminds us that we have to keep our passions in perspective. Rain keeps us humble. Rain happens to all cyclists of all abilities, just like shit happens to all cyclists of all abilities. We roll with what the planet gives us. If we are not strong enough of character to do that, well, what are we worth?
So maybe the greatest rain story I know, and one I have never told to a soul till now, is the time I was riding alone in a drenching, all-day rain and figured, after the third miserable hour, that since I had never quite learned how to do the rolling pee thing professional riders do, that now was my time. The temperature was probably 65 degrees. The wind gusted and gussied and objected to my presence on this earth. Up the road, the rain spattered on the asphalt like a disease. Not a car was in sight. The nearest farmhouse was at least a country mile away. I remember taking a couple of squirmy pedal strokes and feeling awkward for a moment then feeling like, whoa, this rain is just not going to let up, so why not let myself go? I did. I was happy. That’s right, Shakespeare, I thought. The rain for damn sure does raineth every day. And in no time, all that had been ailing me washed away.
The Case for Capes
I don’t like wearing rain gear on my rides around town—the jackets are too sporty, too performance-oriented to complement the look (and experience) of being on a transit bike. And rain pants? I don’t know, just: ugh. Not my style. Even with fenders, my feet were always getting wet. And my favorite everyday-carry bags are, at best, water-resistant but not waterproof. This spring, I discovered the rain cape. This sleeveless, hooded, longtime staple of European transit riders shields your entire body when you’re seated on a bike, including your feet (which aren’t covered directly but are protected as if under an umbrella) and any pack slung across your back. I’ve never been as dry and comfortable at the same time on soggy town rides, nor more genteel. I like this lightweight, $350 nylon cape from the Japanese company Postal-Co (pictured) with arm straps, an inside pocket, front buttons, and a gusset that expands the back when you have a big pack. It folds into its own pouch for easy transport when the rain stops. There are similar high-end capes from companies like Brooks (which uses waterproof cotton), and simpler models for around $50, such as the Carradice Pro-Route. In any of them you feel a little like a superhero, a little like a bon vivant, and a lot like a dry cyclist.