Unexpected Thunderstorms

Last weekend a friend asked me and Trisha what we do about thunderstorms, and we both agreed that we simply do not bike in them. However, that is a simplified, partially true statement. The full explanation is that I choose not to bike in the morning if, at the time of leaving, hard rain is actively falling or the forecast all but guarantees thunderstorms. I tend to ignore vague forecasts for the possibility of thunderstorms in the evening, because so many times when I started bike commuting, I was tricked into not biking when the weather was fine.

Which is how I now end up biking home in thunderstorms more than I would like.

My commute is long enough to give the weather ample time to change (30 minutes) but short enough that I feel okay pushing through bad weather. I wait out storms with thunder and lightening, but the most common scenario has me leaving work just before the sky opens up, and once I’m already on my bike, only the worst conditions could stop me. Otherwise, I push on through cautiously but assertively.

Such was the case last night.

Photo from last year. Imagine this, but dark.

Leaving a fundraiser benefit for my employer, the weather seemed fine, although the night sky was too dark to see clouds. Only after I biked half a mile did the rain suddenly start pouring. Thunder and lightening soon followed.

I was wearing an elegant black ensemble: a silk dress, blazer, tights and dress shoes.  I had a raincoat tied around my waist because my new dress became way too short on the bike (more about that later) and for visibility, not because I anticipated rain.  After the storm started, I considered pulling over to put the raincoat on, but did not want to lose momentum, so I continued all the way home as I was.  Of course, by the end of my commute, the storm had calmed to a drizzle. Arriving home, drenched and drowned-rat-esque, I immediately hung my clothes to dry and took a hot shower.  This morning, both the clothes and I are fine. My Po Campo bag, which is advertised only as water resistant, amazingly kept all of my contents safe and dry.

There is a lot of talk on bike blogs and forums about gear like rain pants, ponchos, etc.  Those accessories are important in some situations (like if I were on my way to the event), but if you’re going straight home, there is nothing terrible about getting caught in the rain in your regular clothes. I do not want newer bike commuters to worry that they are not properly prepared for bicycling until they acquire all that stuff.

I am grateful that I had my Planet Bike Superflash.  Powerful lights are always important when riding in the rain, especially at night.

Somebody tell me that I’m not the only one with bad luck when it comes to getting stuck in the rain. What do you do when unexpected thunderstorms hit?

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34 thoughts on “Unexpected Thunderstorms

  1. Oddmonster says:

    The Superflash really is a lifesaver. Up here we get unexpected thunderstorms a lot during summer; however, earlier this week I headed off to work in the pouring rain, with rain pants and raincoat, and still got soaked and cold. I’m a big fan of having a full change of clothes in my desk drawer.

  2. Bettina says:

    My commute is a bit shorter (a good 10 minutes from the train station to the office), so it’s a bit more predictable than yours. There is also a bus, so if it’s already raining in the morning, I leave my bike at the station and take the bus. Similarly, if it starts pouring while I’m at work, I leave Froggy (my bike) at the office and take the bus to the station. If it’s just a drizzle though I might brave it, but since I have a train ride after the bike ride I don’t want to get soaking wet and then freeze for 20 minutes before getting a hot shower…

  3. Nancy says:

    My approach is much like yours, try to avoid rain but deal with it if it happens. Near by lightening and thunder scares me though. So far I’ve been able to outride that, if just barely, but if I couldn’t I would look for shelter. My biggest concern with commutes is the papers I carry getting destroyed. That would take a drenching rain as I use water-resistant though not water proof panniers. My low tech solution is plastic garbage bags that I can put everything into in the event of a hard rain. I’ve never been caught in a downpour on the way to work (lucky, eh?) but have on the way home. Then there’s the smartphone. Don’t want it soaked. I’ve used zip lock bags for rain protection and they work. A more sophisticated solution is a Dry Doc case. It’s like a super tough zip lock, with a safety handle. It lets you use the touch screen while the phone is encased. It’s also suitable for other small electronics. Another issue is protecting my leather saddle. I carry a Brooks saddle cover and will pull over to put it on if needed. Better to lose momentum than ruin an expensive and beloved saddle!

    • Oddmonster says:

      The best investment I’ve made as a bike commuter is an Alchemy Goods messenger bag. They’re covered in recycled tires and really are honest-to-goodness drenchingly waterproof.

  4. David says:

    Plan ahead as well as I can – last night I escaped, by barely a minute, getting soaked by the same storm that got you, but when I left my home I put a rain jacket and pants in my front basket in case it hit mid-ride. If it’s warm enough, I’ll just get wet – it feels good, and if I’m not wearing ‘nice’ clothes I don’t care. If it’s a cold rain, a drizzle is OK but full-on wet is pretty miserable.

  5. Ipstenu says:

    Last summer, when we had all those hellish storms that shattered windows in downtown, I was on my bike headed to the train (I have a folding bike). I got wet. Really wet. Drowned rat wet. The train conductor got me a towel wet. He’s my friend.

    Generally I don’t bother with a poncho on my way home, but if I’m going TO work, I have a cheap bright yellow one in my emergency repair kit, and I’ll throw that on to keep the worst off me. I hate plastic clothes (OCD kicks in, I will not wear them!) so I have a very nice oiled cotton jacket for when it’s supposed to be rainy. I can fit a sweater under it for the cold morning, and it keeps me dry and breathable.

    I work downtown in a business casual place, so most of the time damp chinos don’t bother anyone, and the ONE time I showed up looking like I’d swum to work, I just sat on the heater.

    Mostly I just deal with it. If it’s pitchforks and babies when I’m leaving the house, I may catch a ride from a friend, or take the bus, but since I’d have to walk and stand out in the rain anyway, why not bike? At least I’ll have a good story at the end!

  6. Raingear is for cold rain. I’m perfectly happy to get wet on a warm day.

    Then again, if there’s a hint of rain for the ride into work, I’ll wear bike clothes and change into dry clothes at work.

  7. Stephen says:

    It’s true that it’s only rain, and that wet clothes and hair will dry. But the drivers in this flea-bitten redneck provincial town masquerading as the capital of the fourth most populous state in the Union are bad enough on a good day, and absolutely terrifying in the rain. That’s the part about rain that bothers me. It’s get-out-of-my-way-Jack-I’m-late-to-the-BBQ-buffet, and even the most devote weekend Christians don’t give a tinker’s damn about some crazy person on a bicycle in the rain, even though I have the cell phone numbers of several elected officials and police officers.

    So, I avoid it when possible, and hide out if caught. Kudos to you, Dottie, but you live in a relatively civilized city!

  8. cris says:

    What do you do when unexpected thunderstorms hit? I get wet :)

    We’re made of, what? 60% water? Rain isn’t poison.

    On commutes, if rain is in the forecast, I’ll pack a rain jacket and will avoid wearing denim. The jacket doesn’t have to be a ‘bike’ jacket. On my first seven years of commuting, I was just using whatever $30/$40 rain shell I could find at REI. It was usually blue with nothing particularly reflective. For seeing and being seen, that’s the job of the lights.

    If I’m wearing ‘nice’ clothes, I’ll also pack those in a pannier and just plan on changing and freshening up when I arrive at my location, whereever that may be.

  9. David says:

    I am always watching the radar on the computer on days like that. It’s worked well for me when timing rides. I’ve literally drove right up to my home as the rain just started to pour. It is toughter to time when riding into a storm that is approaching you. Last year, I was just a half mile or so from work, when I terrible storm came out of nowhere. Major lighting hits over my head, and to make it worse I was going up a hill. I wanted to stop, but I was so close to work. It was very scary. Amazing how a lighting storm can just happen so suddenly when the weather is perfectly silent.

  10. If we’re talking summer (Austin Summer, 90F – 100F before the storm hits), I’ll just ride through a light rain and then go hiding if it gets serious enough to impair my control. On the way to work I am usually in a pair of shorts that I can’t wear in the office, so I am already in the habit of changing when I arrive.

    In the winter, my rain-resistant clothing also doubles as a wind-resistant shell and allows me to get to work without frostbite. Not that Austin gets cold by your standards…

  11. Vorpal Chortle says:

    My short commute between Somerville and Boston isn’t usually that bad if I get caught in rain. I wear an inexpensive wind/rain jacket and rain pants if it’s raining in the morning or is projected to do so by my evening ride back. (I ride year round in almost every condition except blizzards and when ice has yet to be removed from the streets.) I also always carry a secret weapon: a plastic bag. Usually a trash bag in case I get caught in torrential rain to cover my backpack (although it does have a rain cover water could still seep in from the back) and usually a smaller plastic bag to protect books, paperwork, wallet and phone from getting destroyed, the bag can get wet, but the precious items will stay dry. Other than that a little rain doesn’t hurt.

  12. Eco Mama says:

    Dottie, I really love your low Wald basket but can’t find one. Would you mind sharing where you got it?

    We don’t really have thunderstorms in the Pacific NW, but do deal with perpetual rain. I’m used to it and it’s usually gentle enough not to be a big deal at all.
    Eco Mama

    • neighbourtease says:

      It has only happened to me once and, of course, I was wearing a white dress that went from diaphanous-but-still-pretty-chaste to full-on porn. That was a drag. I wouldn’t have minded otherwise in summer. Now I make sure to check the radar.

  13. Sungsu says:

    If it’s not windy, I find an umbrella to very useful for downpours.

  14. Kara says:

    I never paid attention to the weather report as I do now as a bike commuter. The weather app on my iphone might be one of the most used. I got caught in the rain once and did realize, hey it is not so bad. It wasn’t a downpour thunderstorm though. Try to avoid those for sure.

  15. anniebikes says:

    I’ve become a weather junky, always checking the forecast. I tend not to leave in the morning if the weather is yucky, but do not mind riding one way in the rain on the promise of good weather. Last week I was caught on my way home, a mile from my house in hard showers with thunder and lightening. I stopped, pulled my rain hood over my head, and braced for the remaining route home. I didn’t mind getting my lower half wet. I’m not frightened by thunder and lightening, but I am concerned about my visibility to other drivers.

  16. Megs says:

    I am kind of turning into a weather junky too. April just about sent my phone (with the weather app) through the window a few times. I got so tired (and a little depressed) with the amount of rain we had last month.
    My last bike got stolen and I have replaced it with 2 bikes instead. So I’ve spent enough money for now but I really need fenders on my ‘city bike’ and then I won’t mind riding in the rain. In the meantime I got caught in the rain the other day and suffered skunk tail / butt since I didn’t have fenders.

  17. Dave says:

    Just as you said – check out the weather report, if it looks nasty, or it’s actively raining, I make sure to wear boots and take my poncho with me. If not, I just go. Sometimes I get soaked, sometimes not. Sometimes I’ll have my poncho with me, but if I’m already on the way riding when it starts raining heavily, I won’t bother to stop and put it on, but sometimes I will. I definitely won’t bother to put it on if it’s just raining lightly, too much trouble :)

    I don’t mean to sound arrogant or flippant, but really, the discomfort of being wet for a little while isn’t all that bad – to me, it’s much less than the stress of trying to drive in traffic in the rain with no visibility and everybody grumpy because they’re stressed out.

  18. cycler says:

    I’m about like you. I don’t ride if it’s seriously rainy when I’m leaving the house or if there’s a serious thunderstorm predicted for the late afternoon/ evening. I try to err on the side of riding, as I can leave my bike inside at work if it is unexpectedly foul. On the other hand, riding home means you’re riding towards dry clothes. Last night, stopped at a light it started to rain, and the three other bikers at the light with me all looked around, rolled their eyes and shrugged. It had stopped 5 minutes later, and I was dry by the time I got home.

    I’m not really interested in rain pants etc. One more thing to have to deal with. I do have a giant yellow poncho that I will pack if I HAVE to be riding and it’s predicted to come down- I’ve only actually used it once. Usually I just wear something that will dry quickly (Skirts, tights, boots- or just skirts and shoes that won’t be ruined by getting wet.

    I keep thinking of getting a patagonia rain trench like you have, but haven’t gotten around to it.

  19. Maria says:

    If it’s raining in the morning I typically wait it out (rain comes and goes fast in Denver) or have my husband drop me at work on his way to take the kids to school. If I’m on my way home, I just ride. I keep a kitchen garbage bag in my saddle bag just in case I need to wrap anything for protection.

  20. you are definitely not alone in this. even if everything is planned and gear is ready, i have such a knack for getting stuck in storms. and although i’m prepared most of the time, i just don’t like riding in cold wind and pouring rain. it’s uncomfortable! the last time i got stuck in a storm i got drenched (wind and water knows no bounds) and when i got home i did the same thing, threw off my clothes and took a hot shower. the boy made me soup, put me to bed, and warmed me up, then i feel asleep. luckily i didn’t get sick but to me it’s a matter of my health and safety even if is harmless water.

  21. Amy says:

    OMG, I ALWAYS get caught in storms! Either they wait until I’m nearly to work, or start just after I’m on the way home. Like you, if I’m heading home then it’s not such a big deal, but unless it’s a hot summer day, getting caught in the rain on the way to work is a pain. On those hot summer days, it feels nice no matter which direction I’m heading!

  22. Julie says:

    Can you clip that SuperFlash light onto your racks or do you have to use the plastic mount? I wouldn’t imagine you would have one of those on your bikes!

    Do you have a pic of that light clipped on?

    Sometimes I “clip” a similar light through a belt loop or just hook it onto my back pocket when I’m wearing jeans.

  23. GravelDoc says:

    I try to stay prepared for rain with the lights and fenders on the bike along with a rain cape, pants, and helmet cover. Last year, I got caught in a downpour along with cloud to ground lightning striking less than a mile away. The soaking did not bother me as much as the idea of getting struck by lightning (as remote as the possibility may be while riding a moving bike). Also, my route takes me over two lane country highways that have no bike lane or shoulder. Automobiles going by splash/blow rainwater and just make the ride potentially more treacherous. These things tend to make me a fair weather cyclist. Like others, I’ve missed some good opportunities to ride because the weather did not turn out as predicted. I just tend to be a cautious cat by nature.

  24. Holly says:

    I’d be really surprised if I ever became comfortable riding in cold rain. I can and do deal with rain on a summer day, but cold rain makes me miserable. Because of that, I keep a close eye on the weather all Spring.

    I’ll never forget the summer day I got caught in the rain on my way home from my dog walking job. The sky went black–completely black. There’s no way I could outrun this storm because the raging sky loomed in the direction of home. Even though it was warm enough outside, I was terrified. It rained buckets, the wind was insane and when it started to lightening, I holed up in the bank ATM lobby soaked to the gills. Of course, not before I dropped an iPod into a puddle!

    The great days I’ve had on my bike definitely outweigh any rainy adventures. Nevertheless, I’m a bit of a fair weathered city rider. Traffic freaks me out in the rain.

  25. I am much less likely to get on a bike when it’s already pouring than to keep cycling if it started out fine, but starts pouring during my trip. Somehow, the gradualness of it is easier to take.

  26. Carolyn I. says:

    We’ve been starting to get some Thunderstorms. Thursday in particular, seemed to be a unpredictable stormy day that made riding a bike challenging. I put on all my rain gear and tried to find bags for my feet to keep them dry. I ended up using them for nothing as it didn’t rain on my way to work.

    Of course, another storm came through right after!

  27. Will says:

    In Oregon we don’t really have unexpected rainstorms. That’s not to say that it doesn’t rain. I just mean that it rains so often that we expect it all the time. So, by necessity, I nearly always have a light rain jacket and a pair of rain chaps with me.

  28. Sam says:

    I want to get a cool trenchcoat like sheridesabike.com has…but for now, I just ride in the rain while going home and wait it out if it rains on my way to my destination. The bad part about the riding in the rain is I ruined a perfectly good pair of Dansko leather shoes and now one has a permanent squeak that is quite annoying.

    I am planning on putting together a little rain outfit that I can carry on days rain is threated to drench everyone.

  29. I have to cheer for the PB Superflash as well. We use ours on the Madsen and I think it’s one of the best value bike accessories out there.

  30. Anum Syeda says:

    I must admit that this is my main deterrence to riding regularly. I’m *DEATHLY* afraid of thunderstorms.. like in a 6-year-old-child-burrowing-under-her-pillows kind of way. Watching a thunderstorm from inside my home scares the crap out of me, so I can’t imagine being in one… either intentionally or unintentionally. Any advice? Should I just go see a psychiatrist? LOL

  31. Suzette says:

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