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?