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How to ride in the Rain
Scared of riding in the wet stuff? There’s no need; with a little know-how and a little preparation, riding in the rain can be just as safe and just as fun as riding on a nice, sunny day. Here’s how to ride a motorcycle in the rain.
The heavens have opened and it’s pouring. You can’t see very far down the road thanks to the spray coming off other vehicles. Your visor is misting up and you’re not entirely sure how you and your bike are going to handle the rain. Slow down a bit. Relax. Pay attention. After all, it’s only water.
The Right Equipment
Riding in the rain for a long period of time? You’re going to get wet. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on rain gear or what exaggerated claims the manufacturer makes, it’s just going to happen. Period. But, there are steps you can take to stay comfortable, warm, mostly dry and, most importantly, safe.
The thing is, that when it rains, you’re going to get cold. And getting cold will decrease your ability to concentrate and your ability to control the motorcycle. So, riding in the rain shouldn’t simply be an effort at gritting your teeth and sticking with it, you need to prepare.
The first thing to consider is likely visor fogging. With moisture in the air, every helmet we’ve ever tested has fogged up. Well, with the exception of Icon helmets, which are designed in rainy Portland and somehow gifted with magical anti-fog properties. Your more expensive helmet can be, too, simply by fitting a Pinlock, Fog City or similar insert. These really do work perfectly so, even though it’s dry today, go ahead and order one and install it in your clear visor. You’ll thank us when you’re caught in a storm.
Also on the subject of vision: ditch the dark visor for a clear one, and if you’re regularly riding in the wet, consider a yellow (clear yellow, not gold iridium) shield. These increase contrast and therefore vision in bad conditions. Endurance racers swear by them.
Every helmet maker ever will tell you not to apply Rain-X or something similar to your visor. However, we’ve been doing it for years with no ill effects. It causes water to quickly bead up and run off, aiding vision. It’s said to reduce the effective life of your shield, but we’re replacing our clear visors once a year anyway due to scratches and whatnot. So it’s definitely worth considering if you’re regularly riding in wet road conditions.
The next thing to consider is your hands. They are the first things to get cold, and you need their fine control to delicately operate the controls. If your hands go numb, you aren’t able to ride safely. Period. So keep them warm and dry. Look for a pair of gloves with a name brand waterproof membrane like Gore-Tex or eVent. Because you want to retain control, gloves get bonus points for laminating that membrane to the outer shell, thereby eliminating one layer of stuff moving around between you and the levers. Gore-Tex X-TRAFIT has just such a lamination process and is used on the latest waterproof gloves from Alpinestars and Dainese.
Now you want to consider your bike’s riding position. If your arms sit level on the bars (such as on an ADV or Standard bike) or sit higher (as on a Cruiser) you’ll want gauntlets that go over your jacket, then cinch tight. If you’re riding a Sport Bike, Sport Tourer or performance Naked and your arms slope down, you’ll want gloves that fit under your jacket, so rain running down your sleeves doesn’t enter your gloves.
In a pinch, a pair of nitrile shop gloves or those cheesy plastic mitts gas stations give out at the Diesel pumps will help keep you dry and warm. Heck, even Marigolds have been known to help; that’s what Barry Sheene would wear under his leather race gauntlets.
That same name-brand waterproof membrane advice goes for your jacket and pants or suit. Make sure zippers come with rain flaps so moisture doesn’t pass right through and look for a neck and cluffs that cinch tightly to keep out the water. One-piece suits like the Aerostich Roadcrafter do a better job of keeping you dry than two-pieces, simply because the rain can’t sneak in around your lower back. A regular application of NikWax or Scotch Guard can help keep out the water, too.
Then there’s the tricky subject of boots. For some reason, manufacturers have yet to find a way to make a decent pair of waterproof motorcycle boots that also provide good feel and safety. Part of the reason is probably that boots sit in the spray coming off the front tire, so are essentially being powerwashed the entire time you’re riding. Look for boots that include a waterproof gusset in the entry flap that goes nearly as high as the boot itself, keep that name brand membrane in mind and regularly apply a silicone boot spray or similar around the sole/body stitching and any other hardware and you might get away with only damp feet. Wear wool socks, they’ll keep you warm even when they get wet. And they will get wet.
Which brings us to the subject of what you wear under all that. Because rain is, absolutely, no argument, going to get inside your outer layer, your inner layer(s) also need to work to keep your warm and dry. A good ol’ fleece jacket works well at that, as do wool sweaters. You’ll also want a balaclava or scarf that doesn’t soak up water to protect your neck. Seal Skinz socks do a great job of keeping your feet dry, even in ventilated race boots.
And, on top of all that, consider the reduced vision everyone on the road is sharing. Wear bright, reflective items to help drivers see you through the spray.
What Happens When It Rains
Water falls out of the sky. Duh. But that water also does some unexpected stuff.
Road surfaces are porous. In the dry, those pores soak up oil and other substances, which are then lifted to the surface by rainwater. The most dangerous time to ride is in the first hour of a heavy rainstorm, when all that junk has been lifted to the surface of the road, but not yet washed away.
Road accessories seemingly designed for safety also become positively treacherous. The paint marking lanes and other such stuff becomes icy-slick when it gets wet. So stay off of it. The same goes for manhole covers, tar snakes and those idiotic steel plates major American cities place all over roadways when they’re under maintenance. Those things are just death in the rain. Look ahead, plan ahead and ride smoothly. Never allow yourself to be caught riding over this stuff then suddenly find the need to panic brake. It simply won’t happen.
Water sitting on the road surface gets between your tires and the road, reducing grip. That’s why there’s all that tread on your tires; its only job is to remove water from between tire and road. The rule of thumb is that the more tread there is, the more effectively water will be removed.
Over cars, motorcycles benefit from narrower tires that slice through puddles. So, hydroplaning is rare. But it can happen. Anything that looks like it might be deeper than half an inch should, if possible, be avoided. Or, if you have to ride through it, take it through at steady throttle while bolt upright. Stay off the brakes.
As the recent flooding in Colorado sadly illustrated, fast moving water should be avoided at all costs. If a stream has broken its banks and is flowing across the road, alter your route to avoid it. Attempting to ride through it could kill you.
What You Need To Watch Out For
Even on a nice, clean, level road surface, grip levels are going to decrease. You won’t be able to brake or accelerate or turn with nearly as much speed or force.
This applies to everyone else on the road too, but car and truck drivers tend to be a little less aware than bikers. You’re already riding defensively, in the wet you need to be even more careful around other vehicles. Their vision is reduced, their braking distances are increased and the odds of someone spinning across the road into you or just generally doing something unpredictable and stupid grow enormously.
That same spray also reduces your own vision, making it harder for you to see ahead, plan ahead and take evasive action in plenty of time.
What You Can Do
Slow down. Seriously, just slow down. Not only does doing so ask less of your tires and grip levels, but it will give you more time to look ahead, identify hazards and come up with a plan for avoiding them. It’ll give you more time to read road signs and decrease your braking distances too.
You also need to focus on riding more smoothly. Harsh, abrupt application of power, brakes or steering can exacerbate the limited grip on offer, causing premature loss of traction.
Loosen up, too. A white knuckle grip on the bars exaggerates reactions and prevents your bike from working out problems itself. You don’t need to react to every little loss of traction or bar wiggle, let the bike handle those things for you. It can do so if you’re not clinging to the bars with a death grip, arms locked.
When using the brakes, the same method as riding in the dry applies: slowly squeeze the lever to load the front tire and compress the suspension, then gradually increase force until you achieve the desired degree of deceleration. You can brake quite hard in the wet, you just need to do so smoothly and progressively. Actually, that applies to all your controls. Be careful of the back brake, decreased grip can result in locking it up even sooner and doing so in a corner might wipe you out.
Same thing with the throttle. Accelerate a little more gently, a little later and just try to be smoother. Should a slide occur due to acceleration, don’t slam the throttle shut, just hold it still, look where you want to go and the bike should do the rest.
Ron Haslam once told me his trick for wet racing was to counter intuitively by using a lower gear to keep revs higher. Higher revs equals more power, which may sound like a recipe for a slide, but more power also equals less throttle applied for a given amount of acceleration. Because of that, the rear tire is less prone to dramatically spinning up should traction be lost, allowing you to more easily correct the situation. The rules to remember: High gear, low revs, big throttle and a big slide. Low gear, high revs, little throttle and a little slide.
When it comes to other vehicles, simply give them as much room as possible. And keep your eyes on the prize: getting to your destination safely. This isn’t time to try and start a fight with someone because they’re tailgating you, just move aside and let them pass; you’d rather have an unsafe driver in front of you, where you can control your distance from him, than behind you, where he’s in charge.
As you slow for a traffic light, start braking even earlier than you need to for the altered road conditions. This helps to control traffic behind you, bringing it to a controlled stop rather than surprising them with anything unexpected. It’s sort of like herding sheep.
At traffic lights, if it’s safe to do so, stop ahead of or between other traffic, using it as a free crumple zone. If you have to stop at a red light all by yourself, sit between rather than square in the middle of the lane and flash your brake light to draw the attention of distracted drivers.
Late at night, in a rare Los Angeles rain storm, I once had a driver plow through a red light at 50+ mph with all four of his (completely bald) tires locked, missing me and my bike by maybe half an inch. Because I was sitting on the lane marker rather than in my lane, I lived to write this article.
Last but not least: ABS and Traction Control. These work and should top the list of features you want on your next motorcycle. All the above safety advice still applies, just with a nice helping hand there to make you a little bit safer.
What are your tips for riding in the rain?