My Correspondence With Weather Celebrity Cliff Mass

I’ve given several presentations about my Stevens Fellowship at various organizations in the Seattle area over the last month. I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned with others who are eager to make cycling a more mainstream form or transportation–and the presentations are also a great way to promote my new Active Transportation practice area at Cascadia Consulting Group.  

Since returning home to Seattle, I’ve realized that bicycle infrastructure alone isn’t enough. Yes, it’s certainly important to have great infrastructure, but many of the places I traveled to didn’t have perfect bike infrastructure and yet cycling rates were still very high. Tokyo and Kyoto, for example, have almost no bike infrastructure, but rates of cycling are still four to five times higher than Seattle. Why?  Cycling is a cultural norm in Japan. Everybody does it. Rain or shine.

That leads me to my next point. A question I’ve been getting over and over again is–“what do people in these places do when it rains? Do they still ride their bikes?”

The short answer is yes. Rain is just part of the deal.

Here is my long answer.

First, although my dear friend Mikael Colville-Anderson will hate me for this, here are a few clothing tips that I’ve found helpful when getting dressed on a rainy morning in Seattle. Remember: no need to go crazy buying bike “gear,” these are just a few ideas for you about practical, stylish clothes that work well on Dexter Ave. or in the office conference room.

Getting the right pair of jeans matters. Avoiding denim is smart when you live in a rainy climate because cotton-based clothes don’t stand up to moisture very well. I have four pairs of these Silence and Noise skinny jeans. They are 90% Spandex, but they look like jeans and feel great to ride in.

My next great fashion find that works well with my cycling lifestyle is this La Selva raincoat. If I have boots on and this rain jacket my knees are the other thing exposed to the rain.


Thanks to my mom for spotting this jacket for me while we were down in Portland a few weekends ago doing some urban adventuring.  Isn’t she cute?


Sean also is obsessed with anything made out of merino wool because it drys really fast. I didn’t really understand his deal with Merino wool until he got me an Icebreaker shirt for Christmas and now I understand.  According to Icebreaker, “merino’s fleece is built for extremes – breathable in summer, insulating in winter, yet exceptionally soft and lightweight.”  It’s classy too.

The Japanese invented bike umbrellas which are very effective at shielding you from rain, but do cause you to slow down a bit. I also saw a lot of people in Tokyo and Kyoto just holding umbrellas while they were riding in the rain.


Lastly, I’ve also noticed that even on what feels like a very rainy day, I often end up on my bike and realize it isn’t raining at all. I certainly still get completely drenched every so often, but more often than not I’m surprised by how dry I stay in Seattle. I decided to ask University of Washington Professor, Cliff Mass about this.  Professor Mass is famous for his weather prediction research–and I also happened to know that he gets to work on a bicycle.  Here is his e-mail to me from earlier this week:

Sent: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 8:07 PM
To: Christine Grant
Subject: bike weather

I am glad you like my blog.   Regarding frequency of rain, we
basically have that information….all we would need to know is how long your bike ride is and what time of the day.  As a bike commuter myself….I would give the percentages are roughly 20% in the winter to 5% or less midsummer.  But by using the weather radar intelligently, it would be possible to greatly reduce that number…particularly in avoiding heavy rain.  That is what I do…and a rarely get superwet since even on rainy days there are
breaks.   Perhaps someone will support the development of a bicycle
web site that has all this information…take care..cliff

Professor Clifford F. Mass
Department of Atmospheric Sciences,
Box 351640
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington 98195
(206) 685-0910

I don’t have access to the same weather radar that Professor Mass has, but Sean introduced me to a weather website–Weather Spark–that gives by the hour weather prediction. It can be useful sometimes–but often I don’t have a choice about when I leave for work or home.  The good news is that if I ride my bike at about the same time every day I’m probably going to have a dry ride at least 80% of the time. Even in Seattle!   .

The ~20% of the rides that are rainy make me appreciate the sunny days even more.


8 thoughts on “My Correspondence With Weather Celebrity Cliff Mass

  1. Great post Christine, I think you’re onto something here – perhaps if you cycle from a young age, in all weathers, you just don’t think about it? I know that when I cycled to work here on Mull (West coast of Scotland and in/famous for its rain), I’d just put on waterproofs and get on with it; the umbrella idea wouldn’t work though, I’d be blown backwards!

    • Hey David!
      Yep–it’s pretty amazing how quickly you can adapt to weather of all kinds. I didn’t bike much as a kid, but I did spend a lot of time outside playing the rain. Maybe it prepared me for winter biking.

      The weather always looks worse from inside the house looking out the window. Once I get outside, it usually isn’t that bad.

  2. I use the King 5 website’s animated 60-mile doppler radar to predict how to avoid heavy rain by timing my commute right.

  3. Christine,
    Thanks for putting up a fine web site for us bikers! Please do note that Doppler radar is NEVER, EVER shown in Doppler mode; just marketing eyewash. Doppler puts up a display of wind velocity toward and away from the radar (For the curious, it’s an option at gov radar). I love WeatherSpark (being a nerdy scientist), but radar is MUCH more useful for the bicyclist. I use the NWS radars (LGX shows “Pineapple Express” precip approaching Olympia better than ATX). Mouse clicks zoom you in and dragging moves the approaching precip to center. What’s 60 miles out is nearly useless. What’s 30 minutes out is extremely useful. Do tell folks that they will definitely get much better at predicting precip and dry time arrival after a year or two of experience. I use two fingers on the display for marking one hour movement to improve timing accuracy of arrival at my location. Animated radar images are a godsend for attempting any outdoor activity during the rainy time.

    For the big picture and loops up to six hours long (use the sliders!):

  4. I used to tell my kids to “run between the raindrops”–another tactic to consider :).

    I’m with you–unless it’s an absolute downpour most of me isn’t getting that wet. Really long fenders make a huge difference for feet/shins (and the person behind you). I switched from a more vented helmet to the rounder style with fewer holes–less rain gets in and I also wear the helmet cover you can get at Hub and Bespoke (overall effect is very equestrian–tally ho!).

    My live-in pants now are the Outlier women’s daily riding pant because of the fabric’s water-shedding characteristics. Light rain just beads up and I’m dry once I’m inside for a few minutes; moderate rain doesn’t do that much more. (My review:

    For a jacket I often find a heavy wool one is enough. It holds enough of the water out that I don’t get wet underneath on a short ride.

    I think a rain cape would be great, though, and I plan to check out the Iva Jean cape you can get at Hub and Bespoke (designed in Seattle too) My lap sometimes gets kind of wet because it’s catching more of the rain.

    Having moved here from Spokane 6 months ago, I was actually expecting more rain than I’ve seen. Your weather expert confirms what I thought I was experiencing–it’s actually not THAT bad.

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