The Wet Look
by Richard Risemberg (November 1997)

An academic might say, "A considerable precipitation will descend"; your average bureaucrat might scribble, "A majority of indicators support anticipation of a greater-than-average cloud-condensate accrual and dispersal within a near-term time frame"; but Bob Dylan said, "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"--and it's time to get ready for it. Is your bike ready for El Niño? Mine is, and it didn't take very much time or money to get it that way. This time, that is....

When it first started raining again in California after our seven years' drought, I had to consider what to do to accommodate myself to regular precipitation during the three or four months of our rainy season. I had owned a "rainsuit" for quite a while, a coated nylon construction that fell into the category of all too many other products of our capitalistic age, that of things made to be sold, not to be used: for it would barely withstand a light drizzle for fifteen minutes, while a heavy rain would soak through in seconds. So, with the prospect of real weather ahead of me, I did what any red-blooded American would do--well, not really; I didn't buy a car and go hide in it. I love the world too much for that, and I love the rain, its odors and its musics and its all-pervading light. But I did put my faith in technology and pay a great deal of money for a full Gore-Tex® rainsuit: jacket, pants, and little socks. And I have to report that they do, in fact, keep out the rain. Perfectly. For hours at a time, if need be. And (except for the socks), I never use them any more.

The fact is, if I lived in Alaska or Toronto or Iowa, I would love my "rain" suit with a mad, nay, an unseemly devotion. Because it is wonderfully warm. Often I have ridden out in forty-degree mornings with nothing under the jacket but the thinnest possible T-shirt. Comfortably. Till eight-thirty or the first hill. And then, miserably. Because the laws of physics decree that if it is raining outside, then it is not freezing, because if it were freezing, it would not be raining. And the rainsuit is wonderfully warm.

And so is riding a bike nine miles to work. So my "rain" suit hangs in the closet, waiting for the next Ice Age.

That's all right, though. I have discovered a superior technology. A technology that allows me to ride cooler yet stay drier than the most advanced "breathable" fiber will ever be able to do. A technology that is comfortable, effective, and CHEAP. A technology that has been tested by years of daily use in countries such as England, Ireland, and Scotland, where drizzle may fall for months on end only to be relieved by rain, and the rain relieved by a cup of tea and a fireside. Yes, my friends, I have discovered capes and fenders. And they work.

The cape is a misshapen poncho, a great, broad swath of plastic or waxed cotton with a hole in the middle and a hood over the hole. A strip of cloth ties its back to your middle so it won't flap up in the breeze, and a couple of loops tie its front hem to your thumbs so the rest of it will stay over your legs. Rain falls down from the sky, rolls along the poncho to its edge, and drips off everywhere that you are not. And air--cool, sweet air--swirls up under the cape to dry your sweat and carry off your heat. Except for your hands and the tip of your nose and chin, you stay dry. And cool. And maintain your intimacy with the rain. A perfect solution. As long as you have two accessories: a visor, and fenders.

The visor's obvious: you can't have rain on your glasses if you want to see well, especially at night. (Maybe you can take your glasses off, but I can't--I need my glasses to find my glasses.) The fenders may be less obvious, but they are equally necessary. Because a bike, after all, has tires, and tires, if they are to be useful, must go round and round. And they do--quite quickly, in fact. And they pick up water from the street and fling it joyfully into the air. Into the air, in fact, that fills the underside of the cape, and thence onto you. Making you, in fact, wet.

If you don't have fenders on your bike, you will have to use rain pants with your cape, and if you do that you will be sweaty, stuffy, hot, and irritated and will not have a very pleasant ride. If you do have fenders on your bike, you will be able to ride happily through the downpour and arrive at work no wetter than you would be, from perspiration, on a clear autumn day.

Fenders are useful in the summer, too. In Hollywood, where I work, the streets are decorated with used condoms, dead rats, and mounds of feces both animal and human. The fenders will stay when the rains have gone.

After a while, you get used to how they look.

* * * * * * *
My "rain" suit cost me about three hundred dollars and is not useful. My fenders and cape, along with the socks from the rain suit (to accommodate road splash) cost me about a hundred dollars, and I can use them for their intended purpose. I went and bought the fancy waxed-cotton cape from Britain; you can get plastic ones for half the price. I bought the expensive fenders from Germany; you can get uglier ones for half the price. (But the German Esge fenders have an automatic quick-release in front, so that in case something sticks to the tire it won't jam under the fender and cause a wreck; other brands don't, as far as I know).

Esge fenders and Carradice waxed-cotton rain capes are available from Rivendell Bicycle Works and from enlightened local dealers.

Richard Risemberg