It’s possible to cycle across town on the coldest, wettest day Portland has to offer without even the slightest chill.
I suspect it is, anyway. Call me naive, but with an unlimited budget for gear I suppose cyclists can stay as comfortable as that asshat splashing up potholes in his SUV. Like most Portlanders, I lack the means to try such solutions. So solving the problems along my 13-mile round-trip winter commute has required some ingenuity.
Wise people, and sad to say I am not one of them, buy what they need the first time. I’m plagued by pound-foolishness—always trying to scrape by with a more modest solution and often suffering in the process. All bike commuters seem to have different problems and peeves—some fear blue fingers, others fret a skunk stripe—so it’s hard to tell anyone where to spend their dough. But here’s what I’ve learned in four wet months of not driving to work despite having a nice little car I’m still paying off.
First try: Just wear any old stocking hat—like a thin wool cap from H&M—under your helmet. The big foam-and-plastic helmet keeps you warm, right?
Better yet: Any old hat will work until you start flying down hills or the wind swirls down the valley. Then it gets mighty chilly. Which is why it’s worth getting a Gore Windstopper stocking hat with big ear flaps (Outdoor Research, $25).
Really, though: A balaclava made of sumptuous Smartwool ($35) would be wonderful on extra-cool days.
First try: A cheap old pair of wool gloves from an army surplus store ($1) wicks the wetness away from your fingers and keeps the wind off. So does a pair of latex-palmed work gloves from a hardware store ($3).
Better yet: A pair of 200-weight polar fleece gloves (cheap pairs can be found at Marshalls) are usually thick enough to not soak through until I get where I’m going. They need to be dried out at night, which is a hassle, but it’s definitely endurable.
Really, though: I’ve got my eye on a pair of Pearl Izumi Cyclone bike gloves ($40) with a waterproof softshell, grippy synthetic leather palms and helpful reflective accents.
First try: A standard raincoat—which any Portlander should own—will work, though the unused hood tends to catch water and my trusty Columbia lacks armpit zips, causing a little too much condensation for comfort.
Better yet: It takes some scouring, but you can score a decent used cycling coat at a thrift store or a secondhand sports store like Next Adventure. My Performance Bike coat (made in Canada, eh) runs about $129 new, but I found it at Goodwill for $7.99. It’s too big and muted red instead of eyeball-popping neon green, but it’s served me well.
Really, though: When I run into a little cash, I’ll be buying an Endura Luminite cycling jacket ($139) made of waterproof material and with an LED fiber-optic strip sewn into the tail.
First try: A regular pair of camping rain pants, available for about $10 at an army surplus store or used camping-equipment shop, will protect your jeans from muck but probably not keep them dry. I just wore old Adidas running pants through December and changed into jeans at work.
Better yet: Since the top of your legs are flat during much of your ride, they take the brunt of the falling rain. I finally decided it was worth getting a nice pair of seam-sealed pants with drawstring bottoms (Marmot Precip, $60).
Really, though: Honestly, $60 solved my problems. It’d maybe be nice to have basically the same thing but with articulated knees, higher-end fabric and reflective accents sewn in (Vaude, $130).
First try: Your feet are the hardest thing to keep dry on a bike commute, so why even try? I just put on a pair of wool socks and old shoes.
Better yet: Cheap yellow nylon cycling shoe covers (Log House Designs, $15) without taped seams aren’t bombproof, but they do keep feet largely dry and shed the mud. A pair of cheap Planet Bike fenders ($12) helps you not ask too much of them. If you can’t deal with wet feet, a pair of rubber boots from the Urban Farm Store ($20) will keep you dry, though they tend to slip off the pedals.
Really, though: Two Portland companies make cool water-battling footwear products. Shower’s Pass Club shoe covers ($40) are higher-end than the cheapies I have, adding zippers and better fabric. The Bogs Hawthorne ($68) are ankle-high rubber shoes that look like sneakers and have a patch of ventilating mesh. It’s surprising more companies don’t make something like them. Then again, how many people outside Portland are crazy enough to have a need for such fancy rain boots?
Where to Find Cheap Gear
Andy and Bax
324 SE Grand Ave., 234-7538.
Portland’s sprawling military surplus store is the best place to go for inexpensive, often ugly rain gear. Head here for rain pants, hoods, ski masks, long underwear and oversized booties. They may not fit quite right, but they’ll be really cheap.
Next Adventure’s Bargain Basement
426 SE Grand Ave., 233-0706, nextadventure.net.
The subterranean portion of the storied Portland outdoors store is packed floor to ceiling with great deals on closeouts and used gear. Come here for outerwear, bags, racks and helmets.
River City Bicycles Outlet
534 SE Belmont St., 446-2205, rivercitybicycles.com.
River City is known for its jaw-dropping selection of high-end racing and road bikes. But if you don’t have $3,000 to drop on your ride, you might find a steal at the recently opened outlet, where River City offers major discounts on lower-end bikes, including some that would never make it to the floor of the flagship store. How’s a GT single-speed for $400 sound?
Community Cycling Center
1700 NE Alberta St., 287-8786, communitycyclingcenter.org.
Want a used bike and don’t want to deal with Craigslist? The Community Cycling Center refurbishes donated bikes into awesome riding machines, which it sells for a fraction of the new cost. Proceeds go toward teaching bike safety to kids, so you get a karmic benefit as well.
Various locations, meetgoodwill.org.
For all our talk of sustainability and upcycling and green this and that, Portlanders discard an awful lot of still-usable gear. Fortunately for everyone, much of it ends up at Goodwill stores, deeply discounted but still super-functional. A little regular browsing will turn up high-quality rain gear.
— BEN WATERHOUSE.