If you’re the kind of rider who isn’t going to let a little rain stop you from enjoying your sport, good for you. But if you’re also the kind of rider who thinks you can ride the same way in the wet as you do in the dry, all we ask is that you remember us in your will. Riding in the rain requires a change in technique––and more important, in attitude––to keep you from becoming just another of the many greasy smears on the road this winter.
It’s well known that the first rain of the season lifts up the oil and diesel deposited on the asphalt by car and truck traffic, leaving the pavement slick. But even after the slippery stuff washes away, paint stripes, tar snakes, and manhole covers remain, all with the traction equivalent of a silent-movie banana peel. Urban streets especially turn into low-grip minefields, so slow down in town, use your brakes gently, and don’t stop with your rear tire on a surface that could cause wheelspin when you take off. Get on and off the gas and brakes smoothly if you enjoy riding with both your wheels in line.
As parts of the U.S. highway system slouch toward parity with the Dakar Rally route, more and more road hazards go unrepaired, some of which are tricky to spot in winter. That seemingly broad, shallow puddle up ahead might really be a 6-inch-deep pothole filled to the brim with muddy water, just waiting to swallow up an unwary motorcyclist’s front wheel. Watch the cars up ahead to see what happens when they hit it. A big splash and bouncing taillights probably mean you’ll want to take the long way around.
Camouflaged sinkholes are just one of the reasons to slow down and increase your following distance to the car ahead. Cars might suck as transportation, but even in the rain they can outbrake you right out of your boots, and with modern soundproofing the driver might not even hear the thud of your bike hitting the trunk. Give the car ahead of you even more room than usual, and if you’re the one being tailgated, don’t get territorial and defend your piece of the road. Pull over and wave the space invader by, because the paramedics won’t have time to hear about how you stood your ground while they’re prying you and your bike out of the grille of a pick-up truck.
After you adjust your riding style for slick conditions, next comes the attitude check, and sometimes that’s the hardest part. For some riders who aren’t used to riding in bad weather, or aren’t ready for it when it happens, the harder the rain falls the higher their stress level rises. This stress manifests itself as a death grip on the bars, knees clamped tightly on the gas tank, and abrupt control inputs better suited to a round of Whack-A-Mole. Their lines through corners become choppy, and they wear themselves out trying to hold the bike upright against the awful crash they’re convinced is right around the next bend. Not only do all these reactions make that dreaded crash more likely, the fatigue they generate makes it harder to concentrate on the real dangers they need to watch out for in addition to the imaginary ones.
The cure is simple, but it takes practice and a willingness to explore the outer limits of your comfort zone. Next time it rains, suit up and go for a short ride, focusing your awareness on the road surface, the cars around you, and your own reactions. Do everything––accelerating, braking, cornering, changing lanes––smoothly and gently until it becomes instinctive. Ride as if all car drivers are blind, and you’re invisible, and react accordingly. Give the right of way freely, and don’t force the issue with drivers whose minds are obviously on something other than the road.
Increase the length of your rides as you get more comfortable, and one day you’ll find yourself sloshing down the road with the same confidence you have in the dry, along with a better outlook toward riding in bad weather.
Track tires designed for maximum grip on dry pavement don’t have many sipes to channel water away from the contact patch, so they’re more prone to hydroplaning on standing water. Road tires have more sipes because they’re more likely to be ridden on wet roads. But even road tires can hydroplane if the water is deep enough, or if the speed of the bike is too high.