Southern California Bicycle Fender Primer

Over the last several days, San Diego has experienced some good storms, and I’ve spoken with many other life long residents, and we agree that this is the kind of weather we remember as regular events in decades past. We are in the middle of a 10-year drought that has made newcomers think it never rains here. But I remember Mission Valley flooding on several occasions as a kid and teenager, and rain seemed more a part of life when navigating schoolyards and lockers in the 80s and 90s that it has recently. I think our recent wildfires also tell us something.

Regardless, the current wet weather begs an important question about equipment for utility cyclists: mudguards. That’s the fancy British name for fenders (“wheelbrows” may enter the lexicon over time). I have three bikes that have fenders year-round. Two other bikes have fenders in the winter. Does this make sense in San Diego? I’d like to think so. Fenders are appropriate for cycling in the two important ways that almost everything ought to work in cycling: function and aesthetics.

Why don’t we drive fender-less cars or motorcycles in Southern California? Considering other parts of the country, we get comparably less rain. However, just as with the wheel wells and plastic appendages of motor vehicles, bicycle fenders keep road grime, sand, and salty costal debris from your clothes and drive train. I’m not the kind of rider who degreases and cleans his chain after every training ride. And certainly most utility riders don’t either (hence the term “utility’). Fenders keep the drive train cleaner for a longer period, so your derailleur-clad commuter bike is ready to go at 6am without a half-hour of maintenance. Sand and salt are not your chain’s friends, and fenders keep that stuff off too, allowing for some rides on the boardwalk.

Furthermore, we are a Pacific climate, and get fog, mist, dew, and indeed rain. Fenders will prevent you showing up to work or the café with a stripe up your back. We wake up to dew-drenched mornings even in the summer, and if you ride early or late, fenders will keep the moisture off you and your bike. I also agree with Grant Peterson when he says you should ride in the rain – even if you have nowhere to go. It’s invigorating and fun, if you have the right equipment.

Regarding equipment, you need the right bike and the right fenders. The New York Times Bicycle Section (formerly know as the Style Section), has a feature today about “stopping the splash” and testing various fenders on a Redline cross bike in Seattle.

The tester, John Mauro, seems quite competent, being a Northwesterner and the commute director of the Cascade Bicycle Club. I must say that the bike is rather fugly, but as a cross bike with fender mounts, the Redline does have levels of functionality that are missing in most road bikes. It was a good test, although I find it humorous to read about the weight of the fenders. Does it really matter if something incredibly useful is an extra 5oz than another? Weight as the CRUCIAL factor in cycling marketing and purchases has really marginalized utility cycling. Unless you’re lugging around a 50lb Dutch bike, most useful bikes are useable regarding weight.

As one might expect, the full fenders tested worked well, the partial fenders didn’t, and the wooden models are nice unless you’re in a downpour. Because they don’t have raised edges, they can’t keep out the splash once the water comes up though them. I have a pair of Woody Fenders for my single speed, and they work well for San Diego. They are also flexible and easy to install. As are the SKS Edge full fenders, which were not tested. The Velo Orange aluminum fenders were “frustrating” to install, which maybe true of metal fenders. But with practice, it gets easier. I’d prefer Honjos or Berthoud stainless models, which are made in Japan and France, respectively.

But the fugliness of the Redline cross bike brings us to the question of aesthetics. A proper city bike ought to have fenders. Think about the British 3-speed, the prototypical transportation bike. Granted, it rains a lot in the UK, but the metal fenders really make the “look” of such a bike, and their functionality is always at the ready.

There used to be a rule in randonneuring events that bicycles must be equipped with fenders, which are a courtesy to other rides if it rains. Mudguards are part of the proper aesthetic of a long distance bicycle, which has its own requirements for practicality.

Imagine if the New York Times ran a story with a beautiful, well-appointed utility bicycle with clearance for full fenders that produce a proper fender line. Such a photo spread would send the message that cycling can be functional and stylish, without the baggage of trendiness (track bikes and Dutch bikes are great – but the Times gravitates toward chic, to the exclusion of other possibilities). Perhaps something like the bikes made for the Portland Manifest Constructors Challenge:

Fenders may not be necessary in San Diego — but why not have ’em?



  1. thom

    Huzzah for fenders! If the front fender doesn’t come down far enough, though, it’s a major bummer, might as well not even have it there. I definitely needed mine on Monday, or else I would have gotten even more soaked to the bone. 😦

    And, as a newcomer, I’m glad this kind of weather is more typical. I’m looking forward to more!

  2. Esteban

    Ah – you need a mudflap! You can fashion one out of a plastic bottle, or get a fancy one from Rivendell or a leather one from Velo-Orange. Pretty darn effective, I may add. The flap will keep your shoes from soaking up spray.

  3. velohobo

    I’ve never been riding in dry weather thinking, “good grief, I sure wish I didn’t have these stinking fenders on my bike!” but, I have ridden in the rain on a fenderless bike cursing myself for not fendering up before heading out.

    I have plastic fenders on one bike and metal Berthouds on another. Sure, the metal one weigh more, cost more and are fussier to mount, but they should last for years. The plastic fenders showed wear after the first season and will need replacing soon.

    I’m a bit obsessed about weight and riding less encumbered, but some things are worth the extra few ounces. In my opinion, a good set of metal fenders are essential.

    Great post,

  4. Esteban

    Jack – thanks. I completely agree. Once metal fenders are on there correctly, and barring catastrophe, they can and will last the lifetime of the bike. I feel they are completely worth it. Look at all those old 3-speeds, rusted and running with their heavy steel fenders – still work! (its those steel rims that hold a lot of the extra weight on those bikes).

  5. aj

    It’s an interesting point you raise about the Redline cross bike actually accepting fenders. This is one of the travesties promulgated by the “Sport” oriented bicycle marketing culture in this country. The majority of bicycles on show room floors cannot take standard fenders or racks. There is a shift happening, and even major producers are now making “urban-friendly” bikes, but the offerings are still very limited for the average consumer.
    Also, the point made about the morning dew is extremely relevant. Nearly every Summer morning the roads are wet at sunrise, and the grime readily coats legs, bottles, and bikes without fenders.

    • Esteban

      Thanks for the validation, AJ! We don’t live in the desert. That’s about an hour to the east!

      I’ve noticed the new “urban” options from the major manufacturers — its clear that they’ve been paying attention to the new builders in the custom scene, who channel A.N.T., Rivendell, Bicycle Quarterly, etc. Looks like the “hybrid” may go the way of the Huffy. Maybe grandma could get a nice, practical bike off the showroom floor.

  6. Franklyn Wu

    I used to shun fenders in my racing-bike–days, now all three of my bikes have fenders. They make a huge difference in drivetrain maintenance and bike cleaning, and this is coming from a guy who cleans his bike after every ride (or weekly for his commuter). Maybe you should send this piece to the editor as an Op Ed.

    By the way, the Tanaka metal fenders, made in Japan, are really nice, and can be bought for pretty good price. My first metal fender installation was a disaster, but after 3 sets, I am becoming more proficient.

  7. Pingback: Why not use mudguards / fenders? « Bike Monkey Magazine
  8. Adrienne Johnson

    Look out! I am going to get a little bike geeky here : P

    I have fluted VO aluminum fenders on my mixte


    SKS fenders on my Batavus

    Which are better? Couldn’t tell you. The metal ones provide more coverage but can be loud and need to be taken care of to prevent bending and scratching. My SKS are not quite as large and do not protect those behind me as well but they do not make strange noises when small rocks go through them, they have fantastic hardware that will separate if something gets stuck in them, and they are quiet in all situations. They have lasted through 2 winters and show no signs of wear even though they are on my main squeeze.

    Fenders are GREAT! I never want a bike without them.

  9. Ron

    Just installed a set of VO stainless fenders on my VO Rando bike. A lot of cut and fit, but I got it. The rear fender line is not right, but I really do think the chainstay and seatstay bridges are too close to the wheel to allow the rear fender to be centered.
    I put them on to keep dirt and grit out of things – living in Arizona we don’t see much rain…

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