• Why rain capes are awesome

    Capes are probably the most primal garments, unless maybe loincloths: a hide or blanket sewn into a cone with hole for head. In water-repellent materials, they provide pretty complete rain protection in a single piece, with complete freedom of movement whether you are fat or skinny, tall or short, and whether you wear a suit, a dress, Carhartts and a backpack, or a loincloth. Being completely open at the bottom, they don't trap your body heat and sweat the way waterproof-breathable fabrics sewn into jackets and pants all inevitably do. A couple layers of wool beneath a rain cape on a bike, with waterproof boots or gaiters optional, is likely the best all-around Portland weather solution on a bike between October and May. It should go without saying that you must use fenders, as there's no protection against muck flying up from below. (I think we've sold maybe 0.02% of bikes without full fenders since 2007, if that.)


    Capes specific to bicycling have a few key features not common in PVC ponchos from Freddie's or Andy & Bax. A cape is a fitted garment, roughly conical, while a poncho is a rectangle with a head-hole in it. Bicycle capes are long enough in front to drape over the handlebars: this is crucial to protecting your legs. Swept bars call for the longest fronts to reach over the bars. And short enough in back to stay out of your wheel. All have some way to keep the front from flying up or back, dumping rain into your lap: usually loops sewn into the inside fronts to place either your palms or thumbs through, or to loop over some part of the bars. Some have ties to keep the backs from flying up as well. Most have reflectivity or high-vis colors or both, since wet and darkness tend to coincide: a cape puffed up and billowy commands a lot of visual field, especially when reflective.

    There are some issues, which may or may not apply in your case. One is that capes on a bike increase wind resistance, so if you regularly face stiff headwinds or like to ride faster than about 15mph, capes provide more exercise. The flip side is that tailwinds make you faster than a flying squirrel in a vacuum. One of my funnest moments on a bike ever was over a decade ago, riding at night in an electrical storm with a stiff 6-o'clock tailwind, wearing a Carradice cape. As my speed approached the wind speed of about 35mph, effortlessly, the rain stopped pelting my face, and all noise of air rushing ceased as the lightning and thunder continued. (I survived, regretting nothing.)

    Another issue can be lighting. The most common kinds of bike lights in the US attach to handlebars, which a rain cape covers. To use a cape at night or in Portland's nine darkish wetter months you need lights that mount on your fork crown or lower, like most dynamo setups, or else on your head. We have hardware that lets you mount handlebar-style lights on a fork blade, and usually head/helmet mount types too.

    We're stocking three makes of cape this year just in time for the relentless soul-soddening rain separating us from July 2014. Here's a mini-review of them:

    Carradice Duxback

    This is old school, beautiful in waxed cotton with brass zipper, leather tab, plaid liner at collar and hood. Sewn in Nelson, Lancashire, northwest England, each piece signed. (Thanks Janet for mine!) Aesthetically striking, if Lord of the Rings is a look you can swing. Water rolls off like a duck's back (get it?). Waxed cotton is the original waterproof breathable performance fabric. Where the fabric begins to get wet, the fibers swell to close the gaps in the weave, while dryer parts remain highly vapor permeable. This wettening also makes the fabric somewhat stiff and heavier, helping it lay in place on the bars and around your body in spite of gusts. While the open design of a cape makes the breathable part superfluous, the self-sealing nature of waxed cotton seams makes it perform better than most laminates, notorious for leaky seams. Waxed cotton unlike plastics is also noiseless, and can be re-proofed indefinitely to restore original resilience; our first is 16 years old and still in service with only 1 small rip. Available in 2 sizes, the larger of which is suitable for very tall people on very upright bikes, uniquely so.


    No relation to Clever Cycles except in sensibility, these timelessly fashionable lightweight rain capes come in lots of fabrics, 3 of which we stock. One's called Electric Houndstooth, as it's got a grid of blazing reflectivity hidden in Cord-Dog-Prov kC9Gzs_xxpadZLToA30kYXWYeYvlxAAsrJUa3eVknLg-1 the plaid, until illumined directly, and POW! Another is Mr Fox Point corduroy, which you might not associate with waterproofness, but this is. Surface moisture evaporates rapidly from corduroy's fuzzy face: all those little fibers sticking up increase the surface area massively. Definitely the most cuddly raingear going. Last is TF Green, which is a quietly dignified Glen plaid with sharp reflective piping. We don't know what TF stands for but it's attractive. All Cleverhood capes feature nifty magnet-closed slits in front, a chest pocket with waterproof zipper, a brimmed hood that doesn't block your peripheral vision, and more. Designed and sewn in Providence, Rhode Island of imported synthetic (PVC-free, very nice) fabrics.


    We carry both the premium Oxford and the basic Cambridge variants, with the main difference being materials used, resulting in both the most and least expensive of capes we stock. image004_w800_h600_vamiddle_jc95The Oxford is in cotton with a (polyurethane?) coating inside for waterproofness, which looks like a classic waxed garment but without the weight, faint smell and oily feel of proofing wax. This is accented with a 360-degree broad beautiful worsted wool strip, and patch on the back, into which reflective fibers are woven. Then there are the leather straps for rolling it up when not in use: this is a very elegant package. Sewn in England. The basic Cambridge is in honest coated nylon with reflective piping and leather roll-up straps, sewn in Italy.

    Both Brooks models feature, instead of internal loops to attach to thumbs or hands, gathered cuffs leading to the outside, for your hands. Instead of relying on the internal attachment of your hands to keep the cape from flying up, there are clever magnetic straps that secure the front to the bars. These will break free with any meaningful effort. The benefit is that your hands remain visible outside the cape, say for ease of signaling, and so you can see the controls of your bike. The downside is that your hands need separate waterproof protection when it's cold, while wool liners alone beneath other capes are usually sufficient.

  • How to keep your hands warm

    It’s a truism that there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. We stock clothing that supports riding in town every day year round. Including gloves: a few kinds, none of them sporty. But if you ask me which is best, I’ll give you my opinion. Go ahead. OK, here’s the deal: there is no one best glove for cold weather riding here in rainy Portland. But there is a best system, same as for any other part of your body: layers.


    80% of the time, all you need from November to April are mid-weight wool gloves. Not too hot, but insulating even when a bit wet. You can even wring them out if soaked to restore some warmth. They will usually dry overnight if left in a warm spot, say over a stove or heating register. Currently we stock Ibex brand lambswool-nylon ones in black and “hand signal” red, with rubberized dots on the fingers and palms. These are much softer and lighter, and dry faster, than common rag wool types, yet seem to wear just as well.

    For the other 20% of the time, whether it’s bitter cold or pouring, you need windproof, water-resistant shells over the wool. Not insulated! Just shells. What’s wrong with insulated gloves? Apart from the fact that they will be too warm 80% of the time, on a bike in the rain, the insulation will get wet sooner or later, whether from the rain directly working its way in, or if truly waterproof, then from your own perspiration. (It happens even if you’re not “sweating.”) The latter is worse from an odor/gross-out factor POV. Either way, it takes much longer for any all-in-one super warm glove to dry than a separate shell/liner system. Swampy or gym-sock odors will take hold. Unless you want to run a dryer every night, you’ll need several pair of insulated gloves to match the convenience and comfort of a single quick-drying, two-part system.

    What kind of shells? For years I used light, simple synthetic waterproof shells. Then one day I nicked one on a knuckle, and it seemed like all the water gravitated toward the hole, soaking the wool quickly. I tried to order replacements, using my privileged insider status as a poor bike shop owner to get some at wholesale, but you know what? I couldn’t find a source of said simple shells that had less than several-thousand-dollar seasonal minimum order. I guess if you’re REI…

    In my search for a replacement, I considered the nick that doomed the thin shell, as well as my preferences for natural materials and local manufacture. I bought unlined deerskin motorcycle gloves. That was two years ago, and there’s no looking back. Let’s face it: there’s a whole lot more investment at a societal level behind the idea of motorcycles as practical transportation than bicycles, and some of the functional requirements cold-weather clothing-wise are similar. The gear is evolved. Among motorcyclists, deerskin is considered the best glove material, as it remains buttery supple after repeated wettings, is slightly elastic to avoid binding, totally windproof, strong and exceptionally abrasion-resistant, and comes from a natural resource in superabundance since we drove wolves nearly to extinction in this country.

    IMG_0542Deerskin also will protect the skin of your hands better than a thin shell when your number comes up to suffer a “traumatic event” on your bike, say going down on wet leaves or steel street elements.

    We now stock Churchill unlined whitetail deerskin “biker” gloves, sewn in Centralia, Washington. They look and feel great! They’re water-resistant as is, but slather in Obenauf’s leather preservative to proof them, along with your Brooks and your boots, and you’re ready for anything. Get them “too big” to accommodate a wool liner, or regular size to use plain on warmer days.

    I did disclaim that this was my opinion? Other opinions here are that all-in-one gloves are fine because it’s easier to keep track of two gloves than four. Touché! But I counter that four are better than two because you can afford to lose 2 before you have none at all... Anyway we have all kinds of gloves.

  • Sshhh! Introducing Belmont stealth pantaloons

    bspbspI’ve barely changed my pants for five months. Rain and shine, cold and not, I’ve been testing revisions of a new trouser design we’ve developed with Richard Risemberg at Bicycle Fixation, whose excellent wool knickers, together with Rivendell’s MUSA pants, were primary inspiration. We’re introducing them for sale today: Belmont stealth pantaloons.

    They’re ideal for year-round daily bicycling in temperate climates like Portland’s. But don’t call them bicycling pants, please! They don’t have reflective anything, or padding, or U-lock holsters, or clingy fit. Most of all, they aren’t knickers. In fact, we’ve called this “the Not Knicker Project” among ourselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with knickers, except that many people won’t commit to matching knee-high socks, nor to arriving everywhere everyday looking like a period clothing enthusiast, mythical humanoid species, or fashion-forward bicyclist. Belmonts are stealth, as in discreet. Pantaloons as in baggy and not too serious, though these are some seriously fine pantalones.

    They are made of the very best wool we could source, in a black gabardine and a slightly lighter-weight charcoal square weave. Think fine business wear material. They are light enough for summer plain, and for Portland’s three cooler seasons with long merino underwear underneath. It’s not scratchy because it’s worsted. This means that all the fibers are straightened and aligned smooth when the thread is spun, unlike the naturally kinky/pokey woolen wool that usually gets knit into sweaters or woven into tweed or flannel. Hard-wearing, it has a smooth, dense hand, just heavy enough for wrinkles to hang out. Your natural perspiration cycles act like steam almost in maintaining an elegant drape. Waves flutter through it as you move.

    Black and charcoal, the sum or absence of all color, go with everything, and hide the inevitable bit of grime that may escape from your bike, especially if you’re one of those edge-seeking minimalists who rides with an exposed drivetrain. Unlike cotton blacks, the black stays black. Unlike synthetics, it’s hard to make it stink, it’s silent, it drapes better, it isn’t particularly prone to snagging or ripping, and it won’t melt too close to a campfire. Dirt, lint, and so on just brush off. Expect weeks of wear between washings.

    We’re certainly not onto anything new with the idea of riding in wool. But until now, choices for wool pants have tended toward too-heavy, scratchy surplus stuff from the siege of Stalingrad or some frozen hunting fantasy, or maybe XTreme golfing, or business wear, either new or thrifted. We won’t mention tights. All but the army stuff is cut and sewn inappropriately for active use, with restrictive seams, dry-clean-only, fussy linings and fly closure systems, and floppy lower parts that must be strapped to stay clean and whole on most bikes. Not these.

    Belmonts are cut loose in the upper parts, with forgiving elastic in the rear waist. The crotch won’t blow out even if you do splits. Below the knee, they taper to a small opening, meaning that you won’t need a strap or to abuse your socks. They are hemmed on the long side, so your ankle remains covered even when your knee is sharply bent, but the small opening means you can’t step on the fabric at the heel even if it’s way too long. Easy to take up if necessary, or to let out another inch.

    [xls_product code='Clever Cycles Belmont stealth pantaloons']

    They’re $109, this time. We have reason to believe that the price will go up for future production runs!

    Many thanks to Ezra “fast boy” Caldwell for the excellent photos from our once-was NYC home.

  • A sale, and wool

    Please help us end the freak snow, hail, and record low temperatures we’ve had here lately by stocking up on wintry clothing. We’re having 20% off clearance sale on select Ibex woolens, and on rain gear from Showers Pass and [sale over] Puddlegear. Showers Pass makes the best-reviewed cycling outerwear, filling the gap left by Burley’s exit from the market a few years back. Puddlegear is for kids, PVC-free, and tough. It’s not cycle-specific, but then neither are most of the clothes we carry. This sometimes causes confusion about whether we are a “real” bike shop or an eclectic clothing boutique that happens to have a lot of bikes, maybe as “lifestyle” props. We think there’s nothing so real as bikes that get ridden and clothes that get worn, every day year round and for all errands, instead of just on weekends or during “commute” hours. If it breathes well, doesn’t stink or bind, and keeps you warm in cold and cool in heat, it’s bike clothing in our book.

    Which brings us to wool. My own conversion to wool occurred over a decade ago under the influence of Rivendell Bicycle Works‘ Grant Petersen, whose writing on the subject convinced me to ride down the Pacific coast wearing basically nothing but scratchy fisherman’s underwear. It was awesome. Surly knows it too. Now I’m in wool from October to May as a rule, and occasionally even in the hottest weather. The scratchy part is usually overstated for macho value and often completely untrue, especially the superfine merino stuff that’s great for next-to-skin use year round. The initial cost of fine woolen clothing is often higher than other fibers, but its anti-stink qualities mean you wash it less, and the good stuff remains colorfast with good drape and no pilling for years and years: it’s good value.

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