Saving it for a rainy day: Building the all-weather bicycle culture
Posted on 30 July 2009
Editors note: one of our favourite articles, if only because it interviews Sussi from Biomega and Henry from Workcycles - two companies that couldn't be more different. At Curbside we always knew one way we could measure the success of bike culture is the increased business we get in the off-season, and despite some very cold winters we have seen a very large uptick indeed. The answer for inclement weather has certainly something to do with the bike (there are bike shops that still scoff at fenders) but also what you're wearing. No one likes riding in the rain but we like that in Holland cycling is the default not because of thrift or masochism, but because it has greater individual liberty.
- February 2016
The Eastern seaboard has seen a positive deluge of rain this year. While bike cultures are rapidly advancing in cities like NYC, Chicago, Toronto and Montreal, the overall spirit has been dampened - literally. While places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen see continuous cycle usage despite the weather, the streets of the Eastern seaboard seem hauntingly empty of cyclists the minute the sky looks angry. We decided to contact our good straight-shooting friend Henry at Henry Work Cycle in Amsterdam and our Danish fashionista Sussi Poulson, export manager of Biomega in Copenhagen to discover the key ingredients of an all-weather bike culture. The answer? Just deal with it. Try to stay dry. And ride the right bike, for heavens sake! The interesting fact? The bicycle is always the preferred option. It takes a lot to get a Dane or Dutchie off the bike and into a car. Well, we're giving it all away. Read on!
Bespoke: Sussi, how many people stop riding in Copenhagen when the weather turns nasty?
Sussi: I would say 2 out of 10 will use the public transport etc. if the weather gets nasty (rain, storm, snow). All my friends ride their bike all year round, so I would feel strange leaving my bike at home, just because it rains. In general people always rely on their bikes and still find it easier and more practical to ride around Copenhagen, even though it rains a lot. After all - it´s just rain. You´ll dry in a second.
Bespoke: Henry, you wrote a post entitled "Dutch ride in the rain. Germans are made of sugar" which indicated a statistic that nearly 41% of Germans leave the bike at home once it starts raining. I think NYC, Toronto and Chicago are even worse. This begs the question, what do Germans and North Americans have in common?
Henry: I'm guessing it's not so much what Germans, Canadians and Americans have in common as what's different about their situations from that of the Dutch. In Germany and North America pretty much everybody has their own car and driving is the normal mode of transportation. Thus it's not that they STOP cycling when it rains... they ONLY cycle when the conditions are deemed ideal. Of course there are some who defy this description but, as a whole, it fits. For the Dutch it's the opposite. The typical Amsterdammer, for example, doesn't own a car and finds public transport (no matter how good) a drag. Thus she rides her bike for transportation unless there's a very compelling reason not to.
Bespoke: Sussi, why don't you Copenhagers just drive? Is it some sort of Viking spirit thing? Maybe the Danes like riding in bad weather?
Sussi: I don´t think we like riding in bad weather, but we don´t care either [Vikings!]. It´s still the easiest way to get around Copenhagen, and living in the city makes it difficult for you to have a car due to extremely expensive parking facilities etc. Also, compared to our public transport bike riding is both time and money saving. Another thing is the idea of getting fresh air, exercising and habits. After a long day in the office it´s always refreshing to get on the bike and breathe a little - it makes you move - and if you are used to biking it's a pain in the ass being forced to rely on the time table of a bus or a train.
Bespoke: Sussi, I know from all the photos on my camera that Danish people are very stylish on their bikes. What do they wear when the weather gets lousy?
Sussi: It's difficult to ride a bike when it rains wearing high heels, but people in Copenhagen still try to find stylish alternatives like rain coats, wellingtons and even umbrellas. Rain coats used to be quite dull and boring in their designs, but during the past 5 years they have become more trendy and colorful. This allows people to be fashion-victims and hip - even on rainy days.
Bespoke: Henry, perhaps its all a question of equipment. The Dutch bike industry goes through great lengths to keep its consumers dry, but beyond this I have seen more diversity than consistency when it comes to keeping dry. What is the most practiced method of staying dry in a city like Amsterdam?
Henry: It's funny to see the range of attitudes toward dressing for rain here. You'll see soggy jeans jackets, umbrellas in one hand and complete PVC coated rain suits on the bike path at the same time. Ponchos are rare since they're generally not suited for riding in an upright position. If it's just drizzling hardly anybody even bothers with a rain jacket. In any case everybody just cycles in normal street clothes since they're actually going somewhere rather than cycling for some higher ideal or image. That guy in the fancy North Face Gore-Tex jacket is probably either headed off for a climbing holiday, or a foreigner. I ride at least a few kilometers every day (about average nationwide) and only pull on rain paints maybe ten times per year. I do generally wear a waterproof jacket (waxed cotton) most of the year though so a raincoat is largely irrelevant.
Bespoke: Sussi, what do you say to our North American readers who want to ride all year?
Sussi: We have a Danish saying: "It´s never bad weather - just wrong clothes". Take a look at the weather forecast and dress accordingly. Get used to the benefits: more energy, independence, fresh air, fun, city spirit, save money, no bitching on the bus, no lines, healthy lifestyle etc. Today riding a bike is a lifestyle and you chose the design according to your personality and functional needs. For example, many customers choose a Biomega shaft drive bike because the pure design lines reflects your image and at the same time it is very low maintenance, especially when used all year round. No dust, no dirt and no greasy trouser. In general I just think it´s all about getting into the habit of riding your bike at all times - It becomes a natural part of your life.
Bespoke: Henry, how about you. Final comments?
Henry: Yeah, just relax, ditch the righteousness and don't try to be a road warrior. Cycling is fun, convenient, cheap and safe. Ride if it improves your own situation. Take the train or car if and when that's more practical or fun for you. Unless it's really pouring I still enjoy riding in the rain. That said the experience of riding along central Amsterdam's softly lit and nearly car-free canal streets on a rainy night is very different from doing so amidst the the traffic din and road spray of a typical North American street in the rain. I guess that's one of the reasons why I'm here instead of there. [Ouch!]
Well there you have it. Mix the straight-shooting Dutch practicality with some Danish fashion sense and you will continue enjoying your bike, even in the rain. While not even Copenhagen has the nice soft lit canal-lined streets of Amsterdam, I can bet your city has an equally aesthetic experience. Here in Toronto, I have a wealth of back streets that are my 'bike lanes.' They are generally free of car traffic and when it rains I can hear that lovely sound of rainwater on my tyres and watch as the world suddenly become greener. What do I wear? The North Face jacket of a foreigner (sorry Henry!) and if its really pouring, a pair of pull over rain pants. No spandex or hideous yellow jackets for me.
Eric Kamphof is editor of bespoke and a former Vancouverite - where it rains perpetually.