Article | Riding in the rain

Stephen Fry – once a motorcyclist himself – recounts an occasion when a hospital doctor noticed that it had just begun to rain outside and said “Ah, prepare for the organ donors”. “What?” asked Fry. “The motorcyclists” came the doctor’s reply.

It’s a grim little tale although it neatly captures the risks we face on wet roads. Apparently this contributed, in part, to Fry eventually giving up on motorcycling.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that I find myself writing a post about wet weather riding at the height of a British summer. What set me off on this is that I’m about to embark on a planned week of road trips on the bike that will serve as my summer holiday this year. Current indications suggest the meteorological gods have decreed this is also likely to be one of the wettest weeks of the year so far.

I’ve encountered riders who profess to positively enjoy riding in the rain; alas I’m not one of them. That’s not to say that I can’t do it, or that it provokes any particular fears for me, but between the physical discomfort and the diminished opportunities for more ‘spirited’ riding I tend to see it as something to be endured rather than actively enjoyed.

Actually, above all else, the thing I’ve always disliked most about riding in the rain is that it makes my bike filthy. And whilst I’m largely unconcerned by a dirty car, a dirty bike I find much harder to remain relaxed about.

There’s often debate about whether rain is bad for bikes; the consensus seems to be that it’s not a problem in moderate amounts, as long as chain and cables are all kept adequately lubricated, and electronic components remain dry. Although, cumulatively, long-term exposure to the elements will eventually tarnish most materials.

I recall one occasion when I rode past a large building site on a rainy day. The roads around the site had become covered in cement dust which the rain had turned into a slurry of gloopy wet concrete. Inescapable, over a matter of a few hundred yards this gloop sprayed across my bike, into every nook and crevice. By the time I got home the engine heat had baked it into a vile grey crust over almost every component. It took an age to clean it all off and I still continued to find hidden pockets of it for months afterwards. So it isn’t so much the rain that’s the problem, rather the spray that becomes a medium for depositing dissolved grime with ruthless efficiency.

Then, of course, there is the necessary evil that is rock salt, the substance used to grit British roads every winter. Whilst this is a cheap and efficient way to prevent roads from freezing, once dissolved in rainwater rock salt becomes viciously corrosive to any metal or alloy surface. If you ride through the winter then only the most immediate and diligent cleaning regime will prevent your bike from suffering for it. And it always takes a few weeks of spring rains to finally wash it all away.

And with winter’s salted roads comes what I always call ‘the great slime’ – where impacted salt traps moisture on the road surface for weeks afterwards, dramatically reducing grip levels.

But, if there are pleasures and satisfactions to riding in the rain, then these are to be found in the need for more precise riding technique, control, and risk awareness. Every rider needs to gain experience with and understand the specific demands of wet weather riding, and to be able to respond appropriately.

Wet leaves on road

So, a quick summary of the primary threats and challenges we face in wet weather:

  • White lines, painted road markings generally – completely treacherous once wet.
  • Manhole covers – ditto.
  • Wet leaves.
  • Visibility – your own and others’ ability to see you.
  • Aquaplaning – far less likely to get away with this than a car would be.
  • Physical discomfort, cold slowing down reaction times.

Assuming you’ve avoided all the obvious slip hazards, still, in the wet every action such as braking, acceleration or lean angle requires far more finesse and a gentler, progressive input, with a wider margin left in place for dealing with the unexpected.

MotoGP’s Chris Vermeulen, at one time the undisputed master of wet weather racing, states that the key to his success was primarily about this smooth finesse. Here he offers some insights into responding to wet weather:

“The most important thing in the wet is to be smooth with everything you do. Obviously there’s less grip and the bike is less forgiving, so you have to be smooth with all your inputs into the bike such as throttle, brake, clutch and moving your body weight. Every action you do on the bike upsets it more.”

Chris Vermeulen, wet weather master

“You need to keep the bike straight for as long as possible and spend less time on the edge of the tyre. That means different lines to riding in the dry. You don’t arc through the corner as much; you want to stop and start the motorcycle more in the rain and keep the corners shorter. On a wet road you don’t want to use all of your lane because there can be slippery gravel, moss and leaves on the edge of the road.”

“But you never can fully know grip levels on the road, like you can on a racetrack. We go round lap after lap on the same circuit and there are track marshals there to warn us if there’s an oil spill. We know what is in front of us. On the road, you have no idea what dangers lie ahead.”

“I wouldn’t make any bike changes. It’s usually not raining when you head out for a ride, but then it starts to come down and you probably don’t have a chance to adjust it, so you need to know how the bike feels with your usual set-up.”

Motorcyclist lightning danger

Then there are thunderstorms and particularly lightning, which poses a genuine risk to motorcyclists.

Car occupants are protected in the event of a strike because the vehicle body acts as a Faraday cage that conducts the lightning safely around them. That principle doesn’t apply to motorcycles – if struck, the bolt is most likely to hit your helmet and exit through your feet, flash-frying everything in between. Apparently, the commonly held belief that rubber tyres provide protective insulation is completely false. With a car it’s the metal shell that offers the protection, not the tyres.

The advice here is that if a motorcyclist can see lightning in the sky above and around them then it’s time to get off the road. If possible, take shelter beneath a bridge or overpass (or better still, indoors!) until the storm has passed; most electrical storms tend to move through quickly. Avoid tall trees that stand alone – whilst they may offer some protection from the rain they are a potential lightning rod in the landscape. Also avoid being near to any grounded metal structures. And if you really are caught out in the open with nowhere to go, then stop the bike, move away from it some distance and keep your body as low to the ground as you can.

While being struck by lightning is a common metaphor for a rare event, figures for the US alone show that between 2006-2014 there were 276 deaths, plus many more injuries, caused by lightning strikes, so in fact it’s a risk that should be treated seriously.

So with all this in mind I now contemplate my potentially wet week on the bike. Hopefully the worst that’ll come of it is that I’ll need to thoroughly clean it by the time I’m done.

Stay safe out there!

David Harper