Rain capes and I have had a long and tenuous relationship. Curiosity interested me for years, but I didn’t have the opportunity to try one out. Now I have. And I want to like, them—really, I do—but the reality of using one has not matched up so far with how they’ve been explained to me.
If you’re not familiar, a rain cape is supposed to work like a big tent that shields water from your body underneath. Practical applications: if you hate wearing a rain jacket and rain pants, or perhaps if you are too short, too tall, too big, or too curvy for the few decent selections out there on the market. Available sizing got you down? No problem, a rain cape is for you!
But if you live in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest (like I do), beware.
In Montana last summer, I received a bright red rain cape from the Dutch company Fast Rider. It worked when I biked a few blocks in Missoula’s spring showers, but I knew the ultimate test of this rain cape’s abilities would be testing it during a Portland winter.
Since coming back home last fall I’ve worn this rain cape out on three occasions:
• Riding downtown to see a bike-related brown bag presentation and meet a professional contact in person for the first time. The rain was pouring. While my top half stayed sufficiently dry, my pants were sticking to my legs when I arrived at City Hall. They remained so for hours. Tres professionnel.
• Biking about an hour to my friend Chris’ house the evening before Thanksgiving. Despite almost never having any unwanted attention while riding my bike, on this round trip I had a person from a car holler at me as they drove along a major street while I was waiting for a light. I had a frozen custard (or something similar) thrown at me on Williams Avenue (it hit my shoulder). Then I had a group of high school kids next to me at a light roll their window down to ask if I was warm biking in the rain. It felt like my bright red rain cape was a matador flag, invoking ire as I crossed town.
• Yesterday I journeyed to inner southeast. As soon as I left my house the rain went from pouring to drizzly, and stayed there most of the time I was in it. Result: while the rain cape protected me well from the top, my socks still got wet from the spray being kicked up by my wheels from standing water on the pavement.
If getting unwanted attention and wet pants from pavement moisture wasn’t enough, there’s also a signaling problem. When your arms are covered by a big tent of fabric (and your wrists are pulled through the loops inside), it’s impossible to signal your turns.
In theory, there is a solution to this. I like to call it the Bricker signal, for the person who introduced it to me. It involves using your head to communicate your intent (you may have to click the image to see what I’m talking about):
Of course there are problems. The Bricker signal isn’t exactly street legal. It’s not as easy to see a bobbing head as it is to see as an arm, and the signal may be misinterpreted by those around you (“I’m going to turn left” could mean “go ahead, pass me on my left”). So far I haven’t had any problems with the Bricker signal, but then again I live in Portland where people are largely used to riding courteously around bikes, and I am a pretty defensive cyclist.
In short, the results of my rain cape experiments have been achingingly inconclusive. Two of the three times I’ve worn it out, it seemed to be more trouble than it was worth. I really like having gear options, because I don’t really relish needing to don my ugly rain gear to ride most of the year. But there are more mundane options that can get the job done, like a heavy wool peacoat. I am keeping the rain cape in my closet for now, but maybe not for long. We’ll see.