You could legitimately argue that waterproof gear is necessary at any time of year in the UK. However, as we flash through autumn and rapidly approach the winter months it definitely becomes more important. Cycling technology has moved on rapidly in the last few years meaning that the well known Alfred Wainwright quote is more relevant than ever
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
So lots of cycling kit is marketed to allow you to ride in all sorts of weather, but does that marketing blurb actually stack up? Well there are many websites out there that can describe the scientific detail behind all of this better than I can but here is a relatively quick overview.
There is a British Standard so whilst many things might be labelled as waterproof you should check whether it is to a British Standard (or comparable International one). Essentially a hydrostatic test of a fabric must resist over 1500mm of water across a 1 inch diameter tube for 24 hours. So a jacket with a test value of >1500mm is considered waterproof, but not all waterproofing is created equally. For example, a jacket that resists 20,000mm will be considerably more waterproof than one at 1500mm. Eh? Surely it’s either waterproof or it isn’t? Well no. At a molecular level very few things are completely waterproof – the amount of water, pressure at which it is applied and time it is exposed to water all come into play. So a bigger number is better. But cycling is an active sport, so it’s all very well being clad in something that stops water passing into it (a bin bag?) but that also means that when you sweat it stops the moisture passing out. And that can give the impression that you are “cooking” or simply get wet anyway, albeit not from the rain. So there’s a balance to be struck and most manufacturers have developed technical fabrics that tread the fine line between waterproofing and breathability. The final consideration with waterproofing is the fact that clothing involves complicated shapes that are joined together, Seams, zips, cuffs are all traditional weakspots for waterproofing, so the overall capability of an article of clothing can be compromised if these are not considered properly.
Some garments are not even labelled waterproof. They are described as water resistant. These items generally rely on a Durable Water Repellency (DWR) coating – water forms a bead on it and runs off before it can soak through. Typically this coating will erode over time and use and washing and need re-applying but it generally works well for showers. It can, however, be overwhelmed by persistent rain.
So what is the reality of all of this. Here’s a short, subjective review of all the decent waterproof kit I’ve tried over the years, from the bottom to the top.
Socks, shoes and overshoes
Northwave Fahrenheit Winter Boots
These use a Gore-Tex membrane to claim to be totally waterproof and breathable. That may, in fact, be absolutely true but the water runs down your legs, or wicks down if wearing tights or leg-warmers, and your feet can get wet from the inside. Once they’re wet, they stay wet, as the membrane keeps the water in. In sustained heavy rain they can keep my feet dry for about an hour. In drizzle I’ve done rides of around four hours with dry feet.
Sealskinz Socks – these are totally waterproof. I can attest to that fact because when the water somehow gets down into them (and it usually does) it forms pools of cold water around your feet. When you take them off you can pour the water out. However, they work well in all but the heaviest rain.
Sealskinz Overshoes – again, these appear to be waterproof but the water gets in around the cuff which is pretty loose. That, or I have very delicate ankles and narrow calves.
Gloves tend to be problematic. The shape means there are lots of seams and joins which don’t help with waterproofing. There is also the problem of the cuff – outside the jacket and water can wick down the sleeve, under the jacket and it’s pretty bulky to get on and off. And, of course, they are a point of contact with the handlebars which are themselves wet and the introduction of capillary action or osmosis or whatever the correct scientific term is.
When the mercury drops I wear the Sealskinz heavyweight winter gloves because I really feel the cold in my hands. These are about the best waterproof gloves I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a lot). They can last in drizzle for hour after hour. In very heavy rain you may get an hour out of them, which is generally much longer than other gloves. The lobster gloves are equally waterproof and toastie warm in winter when worn with under-gloves.
Endura Deluge Gloves
Lighter gloves and the name is more of a hope than a reality. They don’t keep water out for long and certainly not in a deluge. Autumn showers gloves rather than winter gloves.
Altura Waterproof Gloves
They just aren’t. They will resist some drizzle, and an occasional shower but they aren’t waterproof – but they do have the word “waterproof” printed on them so what do I know.
Bibshorts and leg warmers
Sportful Fiandre No-rain leg warmers
These work pretty well with the rain beading off at first. Can be overwhelmed by heavier downpours and also inadvertently direct the rain down into your boots/shoes.
dhb Aeron rain defence bib shorts
Very decent, especially when combined with the leg warmers above. They are good shorts, comfortable with a good chamois and plain black, which I like. Water will bead but not for a sustained period.
Jerseys and Jackets
Gore Oxygen Jacket
They say you get what you pay for and this is absolutely the best waterproof item of clothing I own. It has never let me down. It fits well, the sleeves come down to cover the cuffs of gloves (and thus stop rain running into them) and it has a longer tail at the back if you’re one of those lunatics that insists on not using mudguards in the winter. It doesn’t, however, pack down into a size that is easily portable so it’s a put-on-at-the-start-of-your-ride jacket. Which brings me to…
This is a great packable waterproof. The water beads off it and it will withstand strong showers. It will pack down into it’s own pocket to then fit into a jersey or jacket pocket. This is the jacket I carry on my bike/person during most of the year in this country – it’s a just-in-case jacket.
Sportful Fiandre No-rain Winter Jacket
This is a very warm jacket which I think is ideal for winter in this country. It’s a racing fit and so far it has held the rain at bay when I’ve needed it too. The rain beads at first but then appears to soak in a bit but it doesn’t get through. Did I mention it’s pretty warm too?
Rapha Classic Winter Jacket (Tricolour Version)
What a great jacket. Another put-on-at-the-start-of-your-ride; it’s windproof and weatherproof. I’ve worn it in four hours of drizzle/rain and gusty wind and it’s kept me warm and dry. The fit and cut is everything you expect from Rapha with nice detailing touches. In comparison to the Fiandre above it’s not quite as snug a fit and not quite as warm but that’s a subjective view. In the dry it appears to wick sweat away really well. It is expensive but if you use vouchers and sales (I’ve never bought Rapha full-price ever) it’s a great jacket that will do a job for ages.
Pactimo Storm Jacket (club kit)
This is a strange jacket. It has short sleeves and a pair of arm warmers. The body is meant to be water-repellant and it does so to a certain extent. It certainly isn’t waterproof and though the body is warm enough (roubaix-type lining) the arm warmers don’t really cut it in winter. So I tend to use it for Spring and Autumn.
Both the Altura NightVision and the Proviz jacket I use in winter are waterproof in the heaviest rain but then my commute doesn’t last very long! I’d say you’d be dry in either for a commute up to an hour. Both have hi-viz reflective detailing (the whole Proviz is reflective!) and therefore stand out in the dark and help make you more visible.
Stolen Goat Orkaan Race Tech Jersey
This is a super racy fit mid-sleeve length jersey. It’s warm and is water-proof although the seams are a weak point. It’s great for those spring and autumn days when the weather doesn’t know what to do.
Le Col Aquazero Winter Jersey
Great quality, super-warm and water-repellent. Excellent winter jersey and looks amazing too, which always helps.
Finally, I’ve tried a whole host of cheap alternatives to the above over the years and they generally don’t work. Technical bike-wear has come on tremendously in the recent past and you do usually get what you pay for. I have found out to my cost that mostly, if you buy cheap you buy twice.
To sum up – if you do very long rides in the rain, sooner or later your waterproof clothing will fail you as water always finds the weak point – like a seam, a zip or an opening. How long that takes will be a combination of the conditions and the product. If you are doing shorter training rides there are a lot of good products out there that will very effectively keep you dry. My comments are based on my own experience of both types of ride.
If you decide to buy any of this gear you can get cashback by joining here and then clicking through to various online bike shops including Wiggle, Chainreaction, Evans etc. If you buy a lot of gear online (or anything really), the cash back really is worth it.