Cycling in the rain

That was asking for trouble, when I showed you the summer was hotter than usual this year. It started to rain from that very moment and it has rained for days on end for several weeks. Not 24/7, that would not be possible. On average it rains only 6.5% of the time in The Netherlands. But because on a typical day there would be shorter and longer showers, with only very short dry moments in between, it sure feels like rain for weeks on end.

Older women are amazing! They always come prepared. If you cough they have a sweet for you, if you sneeze they offer a tissue and when it starts to rain they just happen to have a rain cap and a rain coat tucked away in the bottom of their bag…

Does that stop people cycling? Some yes, it is a bit more quiet on the streets, but on average most Dutch people are not scared away by a bit of rain. Many of them come prepared and the minute the clouds turn nasty you see signs of that preparation popping up everywhere. Umbrellas are the most obvious defence system and a lot of people carry one. But –especially older– women all of a sudden can be seen wearing little see-through rain caps over their hair. Plastic over coats are taken out of their small packages from the bottom of bags and some people even have entire rain suits or rain ponchos that they start to wear at the first signs of rain. Others just hope the next one won’t be so bad.

Head between the shoulders and bent forward. A pointless – but very common – attempt to catch fewer drops. Ah… it will all dry again!

That moment it starts to rain you see the umbrellas popping open everywhere and the people in their rain gear cycle on with a content look on their faces. The ones that didn’t prepare pull their heads between their shoulders and lean forward. Desperately trying to shield their upper legs from the rain drops. Pointless of course, and they know it, but still you see people trying to be smaller in an effort to catch fewer rain drops. Many people start to ride a bit faster and others only put the hood up of their hoodies or jackets. When it really pours, people will stop and take cover. It usually only lasts for a few minutes, so it makes sense to wait it out. “The harder it rains, the shorter it lasts” is the proverbial wisdom. Nowadays you can check how long it will take on the surprisingly accurate rain radar on your smart phone. And many people do.

The moment the rain stops again, everybody continues their activities as if nothing happened and of course that is true; nothing really happened. Rain is natural, it is part of our lives and we are not really bothered by it, as we shouldn’t be.

I tried to film this phenomenon, and after a few days of fruitless waiting for rain at the time I could film it, I finally succeeded to catch a shower and everything around it, from beginning to end in the ʼs-Hertogenbosch city centre.


Video: What happens around a short rain shower in ʼs-Hertogenbosch. The still shows a typical Dutch umbrella that is more wind resistant and very well suited for cycling, because it has one shorter side.

Some people are afraid of a bit of rain, even in the Netherlands, and they will say they don’t cycle because of that fear for rain. To bust the myth that it always rains, Gerard Poels from Grave (near Nijmegen) started the site “It almost never rains” on which he has documented his every ride and whether it was a dry or a rainy one for six years now. The percentage of his wet rides (9.4% after 5 years) is a bit more than that average of rain of 6.5%, but still the vast majority of his rides is completely dry!

32 thoughts on “Cycling in the rain

  1. Ha! I too am still impressed that you kept the camera lens spottless of any raindrops!

    I think videos like this are an excellent indicator of just how motivated the dutch are generally as a society. In other words, that no weather will deter most of them from doing activities like cycling that are so deeply rooted as an essential of everyday dutch life! (Mind you, I am part dutch and I admit to being lazy today and using a bus, to avoid heavy rain today in the UK)!

    I have always admired the skillful ability of dutch cyclists who ride with umbrellas! I must confess I need to use both hands to cycle.

  2. I have lived in Noord Holland for 10 years and i still have not found out why Dutchies don’t wear hats. I wear a hat ofte, I’m a bit of a hatophile. They are especially useful for the darker months when the rain is not only wet but freezing and sideways. However, I get rubber necked alot with people staring (more so than the usual Dutch goat-like stare) at me for wearing a hat. My only theory is that it must hark back to the days of Nazi occupation and that hats were unofficially banned then. Any one know whats up with the severe reluctance to wear a hat when its pissing down? They keep your head dry and warm!!

  3. The percentage of wet rides of 9.4% on the hetregentbijnanooit website is totally consistent with an average rain rate of 6.5%. If your ride is very short then your percentage will be close to 6.5% His ride is quite long so the chance of a wet ride is higher. The longer your ride the higher the rate will be. Taking the logic to the extreme, If a ride lasts for a year then there will be a 100% chance that there will be some rain during the ride.

      1. That’s very interesting. It would be really good to see a similar graph showing the chance of getting heavy rain, above a certain amount of mm of rain/hour. Rain in the Netherlands (and indeed much of north western Europe) is generally light which would not really be too uncomfortable to cycle in without a raincoat.

  4. My old Army regiment, The Royal Regiment of Canada, records in its war diary that it rained every day in The Netherlands in April of 1945. To this day, it remains kind of a joke to say “its Dutch out” to mean raining.

    Of course, the saying for really hard rain or other nasty weather is “its patrolling weather!”

  5. This reminds me of when I cycled to school when I lived in Colorado, in the U.S., rain or shine, because the school district didn’t provide school buses for students who lived within a mile and a half away.

    Now, in South Carolina, the local middle and elementary schools in my neighborhood have a special bus that takes the students to the library when it’s raining, after school, even though they’re literally only 2 blocks away from it and there is a crossing guard who stops traffic to allow the students to cross the road safely.

  6. It may seem to some that this is not so important (to others it is *very* important!) but sometimes this is just the sort of info we need. What sort of equipment do people learn to take with them to deal with the rain, e.g. special clothing, waterproof panniers, umbrellas (whereabouts exactly do people store an umbrella on their bike?); coping techniques like the hunching down mentioned here (I thought I’d invented that!); purposefully-planted tree cover along bike lanes (if any) to provide an avenue of shelter (not of any use once the leaves drop in autumn, of course!); where people take shelter for 5 or 10 minutes while the rain is pouring down hardest (shop awnings, under bus stops, cafés!); how do people keep the seat dry when they leave the bike parked somewhere (purpose-built seat covers, a plastic shopping bag, take a rag to dry the seat with them?), etc. All little things which are usually passed over when talking about the much bigger talking point of infrastructure & design.

    One thing I’ve long wondered, is how to build a built-environment suitable for cycling in windy conditions. I live in an often windy city myself (Antarctic winds, no less!). Have the Dutch built bike paths that somehow work to reduce those famous North Sea winds? Would shrubs and hedges planted along bike paths do much to reduce the wind? There’s nothing worse than a strong headwind for cycling and a strong crosswind isn’t much better.

    Here in Melbourne we have other problem that the natural world inflicts on us. When it’s not almost English (or Dutch!) conditions in mid-winter we have the inevitable 30+ degree days during summer (incl. a few 40+ degree days in February) where bike paths shaded by tall leafy trees would be such a relief to cyclists. Unfortunately this never seems to be considered. Time for a change in that thinking, methinks.

    1. I’ve been looking at solutions for Singapore, where the world’s best raincoat could not save your underpants if you got caught in a tropical downpour. They have the wealth and population density to justify covering greenways (or “park connectors” as they like to call them). Concrete and even green-roof canopies have the advantage that they would shed coolness on riders because of the long thermal-lag.
      On another point, Gerard Poels’s rain counter website might convince 1% of car-dependent Dutch to ride more. Rain canopies would be more effective:)

      1. Concrete! Oh no. Trees please. It would help with the urban heat island effect too, wouldn’t it?

        Cycling under the Dutch(!) elms in summer along Royal Parade in Parkville is such a relief on hot days and the only place I can think of where you can ride directly under very leafy shade for a mile or so. Even on St Kilda Rd the trees are too far away for much shade when the suns directly above around midday. Pretty sure, I think.

        1. Concrete can be used as a nice base for a green roof (and perhaps a small walkway on top???) Add some planting to the sides (eg flowering trees, I loved that in Bangalore, India!) and hey presto, instant park extension cum green cycleway. Bit expensive, though.

      2. In Amsterdam, along the Middenweg, they built a canopy from reeds, I believe. Not to protect people from rain, but from bird droppings from the herons nesting in the trees above the foot- and cycle paths. I don’t know if it’s still there, the birds might have moved on and I haven’t been to the Middenweg since Ajax moved to Zuid-Oost.

      3. I would have thought your biggest worry about cycling in Singapore during a monsoon would be losing track of where the road was and cycling into one of those 6 foot deep gullies…

        I used to get taken to school at RAF Tengah in a 3 ton truck during the monsoons… and those ditches at the side of the roads were very deep…

    2. That’s because many councils are planting trees in the way of potential cycle tracks, to shade parked cars! Grr!

  7. Interesting. Here in Vancouver, it’s famous for being a “rain forest”. (It’s only part of the year and we even have droughts in the summer sometimes.)
    People learn that much of the time, the rain is slight and easily ignored. If your clothes tend to wick away moisture quickly to some extent you just keep going. You get wet and dry off continuously.
    The heavy stormy days are different. Those are the days I take the bus. I know how to bike in it and have rain gear but don’t bother but some people do. You can buy special rain gloves and rain boots. There are whole industries making rain wear for active people.

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