Gear: Rain Capes

I've just returned from a trip downtown to drop something off at a friend's house. There is a steady, moderate rain as I cruise down the hill, and through the village to run my errand. I then make my way back up the hill, huffing a little at the steep parts. I arrive home, take off my rain cape, and get back to work. My feet are a little damp and I am a little warm from the ride. Other than that I am dry.

Keeping dry while riding is always challenging because you are dealing with two wet elements, the rain coming from the sky, and the sweat coming from within the confines of whatever rainwear you've got on. Despite the claims of many modern "wicking fabrics," it is frequently a challenge to keep dry while biking.

I've tried a variety of solutions and most of them involved letting as much air as possible pass by my body while keeping as much water as possible from getting in. This involves unzipping my rain coat most of the way up, so it's just hanging open, but still joined near my chest and then opening the pit zips. I also purchased a medium priced neon yellow rain shell that promised to be rain resistant, but in anything other then light rain offered no ability to shed the showers. It also got hot pretty quick.

Enter the rain cape.
Rain capes achieve much of the above in a simple and effective manner. Look them up and you'll find references to classic English cycling gear, or images of Chinese commuters on their way to work, a veritable sea of multi-colored rain capes. In any event, rain capes were often the gear of choice before cycling specific rain outfits were widely marketed. You don't see rain capes often these days, but you should, because they make sense.

The concept is simple; the cape is essentially a poncho with or without a hood that is specifically shaped to drape neatly over the body of a rider while positioned on their bike. Inside the cape are two pieces of twill cord that are meant to be tied around your waist. These are intended to keep the cape from flapping in the wind. At the front of the cape are two roomy loops through which you pass your hands; they also provide a means of keeping the cape from flapping up with the wind. The beauty of the cape is its simplicity. Pull it over you head, tie the waist strap, put your hands through the loops and climb on your bike. You've effectively donned your own personal little tent to inhabit while you go about town.

What's it like?
I find wearing the cape a takes some getting used to. Once on the bike, you cannot see much of the bike nor your body. If you are used to glancing down to see what gear you are in, you'll have to adjust to shifting by feel. You can always flip the cape up with your hand to look, but if it is really raining, it is easier to keep the cape draped over the break levers and handlebars. It can also be a little disconcerting to put your hands into the two loops because this limits the range of motion, although I've never found this to be a problem. The loops are sized to allow lots of movement.

You'll notice that the cape adds somewhat to your wind catching surface area. I imagine this would be a big turn off for anyone who is primarily interested in speed, but I'm happy to trade off some wind resistance for the comfort of inhabiting my bike tent.

Is it an effective means of keeping dry? For the most part, yes. I don't think there is any form of bicycling raingear that is completely effective. I own a Carridice Duxback waxed cotton rain cape. In practice I find it to work well except along my arms where the fabric lays on them while I reach out and hold the handlebars"--they get damp after a while. A cape made of a different fabric might eliminate this problem. Also, you'll find your feet start to get wet from spray and your movement into the rain. To deal with this, the tradional English rain kit included spats, which are booties with straps that go over the foot and up the front of the leg and over the knee. I don't mind my feet getting a little damp, so I just go with the cape and maybe an extra pair of socks to change into. I should mention that if you don't have fenders, your chances of staying dry and clean with a rain cape are pretty much nil. Get fenders!

Beyond these two areas, I stay dry with a rain cape. If I start to get hot while I am biking along, I can always flap the cape up and let the air move a bit. Remember there is nothing other than your usual attire under the cape, so you are largely doing your riding in a little triangular space unencumbered by any other close fitting gear. If it is getting cold, putting on the cape provides a degree of shelter from the wind that nicely moderates the chill.

The cape has become my go-to rain gear. I keep it strapped to my saddle in a little roll and do not need to think about encountering bad weather. It is compact and uncomplicated. I like to think it is even a little stylish"--in a dashing retro geeky way. It wouldn't be any good if it didn't work as well, or better, than any of the other raingear methods I've tried and by this measure it succeeds quite well.