bicycle · bike · carradice · poncho raincape · rain

Making a bicycle rain cape



This is an essay on my experience with various rain capes over the years, and how I came to make one of my own.  

 

Here is a guy who is doing it right. Bike has fenders; cape drapes over handlebars covering hands and legs, and it fits him very well with minimal flapping in the wind. Carradice DuxBack cape pictured.
 

It took many years of riding bikes in the rain before I eventually gave the rain cape a serious try. Having tried all sorts of expensive Goretex or H2O-No jacket and pants, and Showers pass E-vent garments, it just seemed there had to be something better. All bicycle rainwear eventually will fail me if the ride is long enough. I will be wet from the rain, mixed with my own sweat, which can’t evaporate fast enough. When I arrive at my destination, I am dripping outside and wet inside, and I bring a puddle into my destination where ever I go. Stripping off the failed garments just spreads the water to other parts of my body in cold, wet rivulets, and creates a lake on the floor underneath me. Easy to find the wet spot where the bike rider arrived. The only thing worse was trying to put all those cold wet garments back on for the ride home.

My very first bicycling rain cape was a plastic thing I got as a teenager from a camping store. Riding in the rain caused it to flap and snap, while my legs got wet. I would slow down to reduce the flapping. All the flimsy fabric seemed like a parachute. Riding thru a short downpour worked well though. It was quick to put on and remove. While it would help in a downpour, most of the water would come up as spray from the wheels. I didn’t realize yet that fenders were required for using a rain cape. Decades and lots of other raingear passed by before I would give the rain cape another try.
My first good quality rain cape!
 was from the Center for Appropriate Transportation (CAT), the Ultrex model, still available, about $80 without the hood.
Mine did not come with the optional hood
It is made of nylon with an Ultrex (similar to Gore-Tex) layer applied to the inside. The outside has a DWR (durable water resistant) finish on it that should be renewed at least twice a year, so that the water beads up and rolls away. The easier the water does falls off the outside of your cape, the dryer you and the cape will be. Renewing the finish is easy; just wash it with a DWR fabric product, and tumble dry it, or use an iron set on low it to set the treatment. When this is done, any water falling on the cape wants to badly roll the HELL off of it in the shape of a ball. It’s like magic.
It was a revelation using this cape while riding with rain. So easy and simple. I stashed it in my bag and left it there. I was never concerned about a cloudburst again. I would always arrive at my destination relatively dry no matter what clothing I wore, even if it was an hour bike ride away. Riding in the rain was FUN. During this time, I started waxing my leather shoes with Sno-Seal, which would keep my shoes and socks dry as well. I stopped looking at weather predictions, knowing that I was always ready for rain. And where I  live in Portland, OR, it’s a good idea to be ready for the rain all the time.
A close up of the commuter of the year photo I submitted. Normally my hands are covered by the cape.

I was “Commuter of the Year” according to River City Cycles in 2008; they saw this photo as a testament to my resolve as a bicycle commuter. 26 miles round trip; 3 nights per week no matter what the weather. In the picture, my hands are exposed (normally they are covered by the cape). Protecting the hands with the cape is one of the best things about using a cape. As long as I kept up the DWR coating (washing/ironing once a month or so during heavy use) it did a good job in repelling water. This CAT cape for me had less than ideal amount of fabric to protect my hands in the drop-bar position.

After a 2 or 3 years with a LOT of use, the Ultrex coating started to peel off at the areas of the most abrasion; the hands and the collar. The cape was flappy and was starting to look a bit tattered so I looked for something else, and ended up with a Carradice Pro-route, a bright yellow cape.

A properly applied Carradice Pro route cape. This person likes it so much, he wears it  in dry weather.
While a bike shop may order this for you, few would stock it. It’s a very bright yellow affair with a bit more material up front to cover the hands on a drop bar bike. One size fits all. It is designed with an upright riding position in mind. On my drop bar bike, it would be a bit tight; stretched between my waist and hands/brake levers. I liked mine, but after a couple of years it started to wear out just like the last one. A waterproof membrane began to peel away from the heavy used areas. It was light (about 12 oz dry, without the hood that I cut off) and rolled up into a small bundle.  Both this and the CAT cape needed a complete air drying before stowing, or they would get a moldy smell. While I did like how it was light and easily stowed, similar to the CAT poncho, I was ready to try something heavier and more substantial.
Next, I tried the Carradice DuxBack (pictured on the top of the post), a waxed cotton rain cape. It comes in regular and large size (unless you are very small get the large!).
This Duxback (water rolls off the ducks back) is a very different type of rain cape because it is made of waxed cotton. It’s noticeably heavier than the previous capes (about 20 oz without hood, compared to 12 oz). The coverage was great, and there was less flapping because of the heavier material. I felt like I was riding with my head poking out of a stout tent.

The hood comes attached to it. It’s an odd looking conical thing that limits vision and seems too small to accommodate a helmet,  so I just cut it off. While riding in the rain I found it to be quieter and less flappy. Like the CAT cape (and unlike the Pro-Route cape) it was not tight around my waist and hands on my drop-bar bike. The cut was more generous. It has straps that cinch around the waist and hook over the thumbs or brake levers, which help keep the cape in place. These straps proved unnecessary except in the highest winds, because the fabric was heavier.  I loved it! It was easily rolled up into a lump that I could fit somewhere. Not that much bigger a load than the ProRoute or CAT cape.

After a year or two of using the DuxBack intermittently, I had a ride in a heavy rain and over the course of an hour got rather wet! Water seeped in thru the fabric and along some seams. This garment is meant to be waxed now and then, and I guess it was time. Carradice makes their own wax, which is not easily found in the US, but I used a fabric wax bar that I found locally. A great how-to on re-waxing the garment is here. The next heavy rain event showed that the cape was (mostly) water tight. But the way water gathers on the waxed cape is different than on a DWR surface. Instead of balling up and rolling off, beads of water tend to crouch and cling. The cape stays wet much longer, and when water gets inside it, it will stay wet inside.  Putting on a cold wet cape is not fun. I can hang the wet DuxBack cape up in the cold dark garage, and it will still be wet 3 days later. I still loved my waxed cape, but I couldn’t help thinking that there was a better material out there.

Advantages of rain capes:
1) It covers the hands, arms, torso, most of the legs, and most of the bike, with just one easily applied and stowed garment.
2) It’s very fast to apply and remove. Less than 10 seconds; without getting off the bike. Between cloudbursts, I can ride without any rainwear!
3) Movement of the bike creates a considerable amount of ventilation underneath. Fabric that is breathable is hardly necessary.
4) Removing the cape takes only a few seconds, and doing so will not make me wet like jacket/pants rainwear does. I can arrive at my destination dry, in normal clothing, and looking like I just stepped out of a car.
Disadvantages of rain capes (with my observations):
Fenders are required.  (they protect from mud and dirty street water whether it is raining or not).
Not very aerodynamic (adds a few minutes to my hour long commute).
 Flaps in high wind. (it can flap depending on wind/fabric/and fit. A cape that fits well and made of stout material may hardly flap at all).
A headlamp must be located away from the handlebars so it won’t be covered up by the cape. (There is no way around this. The headlamp mount must be at front brake or rack)

Electronic devices mounted on the handlebars will not be visible. (no way around this)

The front wheel is not visible, (this takes some getting used to; it’s weird at first)
 Shoes are not protected. (The feet can get wet because a cape does not provide enough coverage there. I use leather shoes that I treat with a wax (SnoSeal), making the shoes highly water resistant. A mudguard with a generous mudflap greatly lessens any spray, and it is only after cycling for a long time in heavy rain and thru puddles when my socks will get wet. Matching chaps are available for some capes, although I find them to be a hassle.)
 The head gets wet unless there is a hood. (Most capes come with a hood, but I find they make it harder to see what is behind me, and a helmet offers enough protection from water)
 
I will look like a dork. (or maybe I will look like Strider from Lord of the Rings)
A rain cape of Sunbrella Plus

Sunbrella fabric is used for outdoor furniture applications, awnings, and boat covers. Casting about for ideas, I thought of an umbrella we have that goes with our outdoor table. It’s made of Sunbrella fabric, and it had been out there for years in the elements.  I tested it by pouring a cup of water into a fold. The water made a giant bead and just stayed there. An hour later, nothing had changed. It was totally dry underneath. Maybe this is the rain cape material I am looking for? Time to think outside the box.

Then it dawned on me. A fabric meant for standing around or walking in is not the best choice for an activity like riding a bike at 15 mph. Now it seems so obvious.

The regular Sunbrella fabric for furniture and pillows is quite supple and about 8oz/sq yd. That’s what the umbrella I tested was made of. It’s breathable and remarkably water resistant. Then there is the Sunbrella fabric for marine applications (boat coverings and awnings) which is substantially stiffer because of the application of a resin. From this class of Sunbrella fabric, there is the regular (9.5 oz sq yd), the Sunbrella plus (which has an added polyurethane coating underneath to increase water resistance, about 10 oz sq yd), and Sunbrella supreme, which is completely waterproof/non-breathable and a rather heavy 13 oz sq yd. All the Sunbrellas are breathable fabrics except for the supreme version, which has a flocked finish on the interior.

I ordered a couple yards (60″ wide) of the Sunbrella Plus, and it came in the mail a few days later. I opened the package and found it to be some rather stiff fabric! No flapping around with this stuff. The intended exterior of the fabric (slightly darker) allowed water to bead up and roll off mostly. A film of water would remain on some of the outside material. But it IS water-tight; no water could make it thru. The other side of the fabric is completely hydrophobic. All the water balls up and rolls off, leaving the material completely dry. I liked this because it means the cape will never be wet on the inside. A bit of gravity will make the inside of the cape as dry as the Sahara.

Since the DuxBack had the best fit for me, my thought was to copy it’s design pattern. I measured the 4 panels of the cape and transferred the measurements to the new fabric.

Carradice large size Duxback measurements. Hems not included. Not to scale exactly.

Pretty simple construction. A long front panel, shorter back panel, and 2 side wings that are mirror images of each other. I added a half inch to each measurement so I had a quarter inch hem.

Some chalk lines going in.. DuxBack hanging in the background.
After cutting the pieces it was quite straightforward sewing them together. I used regular household sewing machine which worked okay on 2 layers of this stout fabric. I put it on and found the shoulders were a bit wide, so I took the hem in where it would form around my shoulders. That made a better fit. I made a cut down the collar under my chin so the opening would be big enough so I could pull it over easily with my helmet on. I didn’t see the need for a zipper or an elaborate collar.
The basic sewn cape.

Next I put reflective tape around the lower edge and collar area. During my first rainy ride, I found that the seams did not leak water. Not a drop. If I find that a seam sealer is needed, I will probably use Iosso sealer, which is what they recommend.

Reflective tape sewed on. Draped over chair. The picture makes it clear that this is not a saggy or flimsy cape.
The first ride in heavy rain left me with a big smile. This is some serious rain protection. It’s a solid tent around me, and makes the other capes seem flimsy. A downside is that it does not fold into as small of a package as the others. While I could just roll the other capes into a ball and stuff them into my bag, I really need to fold this one. But this observation is not a big deal, and I intend to use this cape going forward.
The cape folded up. It won’t quite fit in my pocket…

On a ride using other capes I would normally see sweat/condensation/moisture gathered the inside of the cape after a ride of an hour or so. There were just a few beads of water inside of the Sunbrella cape after a long rainy ride. And they fell away just by holding it upright.

I found there was more airflow as well. The nature of the stiffer Sunbrella fabric makes it tend to stand off the skin and clothing, allowing much better air circulation.  This difference is HUGE and cannot be overstated. You really have to try it to understand.

I will use the cape to cover the bike while I am at a destination, so the bike itself stays dry. Since it holds its shape so well, I can just drop it over the locked bike and leave it. I am now considering ways to lock the cape to the bike. The material alone costs about $80.

The weight of this cape is equivalent to the DuxBack; about 20 oz dry (both without hoods). But as I noted before, the DuxBack takes a lot longer to dry. This Sunbrella cape presently stays almost completely dry on the inside, while on the outside, in the same cold, dark garage, it can be mostly dry in less than a day. This is much faster drying time than the DuxBack which takes at least several days to get dry in the same environment. I like the idea of waxed canvas, but it does have drawbacks. The reluctance to shed water is the biggest one.

So far so good with the new Sunbrella cape, but many more wet winter commutes and rides is what I need to really know if it is truly the bees knees. I will update this post before summer about how this cape worked for me.

A side note: the Boncho is a kickstarter project that has received some attention. It’s a rain cape with a springy metal wire inside that allows it to keep shape as it covers the handlebar area. The whole thing folds in to a compact frisbee shaped object that is easy to carry around. I wish them success in putting this innovative idea forward. It’s a creative take on the rain cape.

 

Update: after more than a year.
It’s been a couple of wet winters. How is this cape on rides and commutes in steady, penetrating, light rains or heavy downpours?

This cape blows all the others I have used out of the water.

Imagine… I’m dressed like I’m going to the office for a meeting, riding the bike into a massive thunderstorm, enjoying the electrified air, without any rain gear on. When the rain arrives I throw the cape on and keep riding, and experience the dramatic weather while staying comfortable, like I’m safe inside a stout tent (I stay dry aside from my head of course, and maybe the lower pants legs. Shoes are treated with SnoSeal so they stay dry).

The feeling of dread with approaching precipitation has been replaced with a sense of (almost) looking forward to enjoying it!

I will never go back to lighter weight materials for a rain cape again.

All the other capes I have ever used before (and liked very much) are like crap compared to this one. I use this cape even if precipitation is quite light, because it’s so comfortable. The interior stays dry, and the cape always stays in place. While my plan was to install a waist strap and hand straps to hold it down in a wind, I find the straps are simply unnecessary. In blustery conditions, the substantial fabric just stays in place by itself. Even when I ride over bridges on windy days where the lighter capes would blow up over my head, this one hardly made a ruffle.

The seams are still not sealed, and they still don’t leak. Most of the sewing in the cape is just a single stitch.  It’s rather odd that it is water-tight, but that’s how it is.

I made a short cable that has ends which fit over my U-lock, and can keep the cape safe from a casual thief (its the yellow line)…

A thin cable looping thru the U-lock gives a measure of security. The cape itself  is a waterproof cover for the whole bike. The wheel of this bike is pivoted under, making the bike look short and tall.

Having the cape draped over the bike keeps the bike dry, and it is a good place to allow it to drain. At the same time, I can leave it outside with the bike, and not subject my destination to a dripping garment, causing puddles on the floor. When I walk into that coffee shop… for all they can tell, it looks like I just got off the bus or walked in from the parking garage.

Time will tell how well this cape holds up, but so far over almost 2 rainy seasons there is no change in its performance. The material remains stiff and shows no signs of breakdown. I have rolled it up to stash it in the bike bag countless times. I take it with me if there is even a remote possibility of rain. It got stained with grease/dirt in one area; I tried cleaning it, but couldn’t get the stains out. The next cape (if I make another) will be black, and made of the same Sunbrella plus material.

Will it keep it’s stout nature and water resistance over the years, especially in the places that see the most abrasion (like where the hands and brake levers are)? This material is designed for constant exposure to the elements, and is guaranteed to hold up for something like 5 years in marine applications, so I think chances are good.

END
 
 
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2 thoughts on “Making a bicycle rain cape

  1. Hello Drew.

    Thanks for the information about making your own cape! I decided to make a cape similar to yours. Sunbrella fabric was a bit expensive in the UK, so I used some 1000 denier cordura nylon, PU-coated, which I bought here: https://www.profabrics.co.uk/collections/heavy-weight-water-resistant-outdoor-camping/products/1000-denier-cordura?variant=8358970883. I think it is vaguely similar to what you used.

    I found the cape too short at the front – it wouldn’t stay put over my hands. (I am 6′ 3″, and ride quite an upright bike). I added an extra foot of material at the front, and right-angled triangular panels at the sides, so that the additional panel at the front is vertical. This does a very good job of stopping the cape coming off the handlebars, and also keeps my legs fairly dry.

    As you say, the heavier, stiffer material really makes the cape stand off the rider and avoids a sweaty back. I’m now very pleased with the cape, and I wouldn’t have thought of doing it without your page!

    Like

    1. Hi Stephen, thanks for your comment. Sunbrella is expensive! I think it resists water better than PU coated nylon though. It has been totally waterproof for me for the first 2 years. But it started to leak a bit at the areas that see the most wear (at the handlebars) after 2 years of a lot of use. I treated it with the 303 fabric guard, and that restored its water-shedding ability. You can treat cordura to make it shed water with various applications too. I may try a heavy nylon for a future cape. I did make another sunbrella cape; will put up a post about it sometime.

      Like

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