Posted by: silverback | 2013/01/14

the art of riding in the rain

All apologies to Garth Stein, author of The Art Of Racing In The Rain (HarperCollins, 2009), which is a magical novel that touches on almost all of my favorite subjects – racing, dogs, spiritual growth, and dreams. I highly recommend it.

We were just gifted with an utterly astounding mid-January weekend with springlike temps in the 70’s! The entire motorcycle community was abuzz with near-electric excitement. We don’t get days like this, not in the middle of winter. So plans were made, tires were aired, shields were cleaned,  the fine layer of dust wiped off midwinter leathers. We were to meet around midday and head south, where the temps would be even warmer.

Since I don’t have a a functional street bike at the moment, I was on my girlfriend’s Suzuki GSXR600, which is a very capable bike. The only issue with this bike is that the front tire is of questionable age and compound, from a decidedly third-tier manufacturer (whose name rhymes with “ginko”). I have no first-hand experience with these tires, and this one has not given me any overt problems, but I can’t really put a whole lot of confidence in its performing well when pushed. So I will not push today. I will be smooth, and I will bring myself and the bike home in the same shape we are leaving.

We make our final meeting of the day and begin to roll along our intended route. Almost instantly, the mostly clear skies give way to mostly cloudy ones, and the mostly dry roads quickly became mostly damp. Apparently the weather that had moved on through up in the north part of the district was still lingering here. Well – too late to turn back now, the route is set and we’re rolling with only hand signals to discuss things. That’s one of the things I love about riding motorcycles – not much midstream horse-changing once the helmets are on. Gas stops allow for minor course corrections if the consensus allows.

I am among a very small minority that truly enjoys riding in damp-and-drying or even fully wet conditions. They require different approaches, but ultimately the same mindset. Many times on a dry, clean road, a rider can afford to let his attention wander a little bit. Particularly on a familiar road – riding in a group, at a reasonable pace, the experience is almost a meditation. I nearly automatically hit conservative brake markers, select the right gear, execute the apex within a few feet of where it ought to be, and carry on into the next corner. At seven-tenths or less, I do these things almost without thought – so much so that if I turn my attention to the fact that I’m doing them, they become less smooth. I’m sometimes startled by the sheer number of things my hands, feet, fingers, eyes, and body are doing just from years of developing these habits. When conditions get less consistent, though, I must become a bit more attentive while still letting these inputs happen unconsciously.

rossi-rain-indianapolis-motogp

Click here for a list of excellent riding tips from a number of Pros.

In damp-to-dry conditions, the rider has to be intensely present & conscious of the surface. In full wet conditions, I must be intensely present & aware of the machine. In both cases, I need to be fully in the moment.

I enjoy the technical challenge of reading the pavement when patches of dry are beginning to pop through. I think adjusting one’s line to befit conditions is an under-emphasized skill. This is often important in rain as well, as there can be water pooled nearly anywhere – entry/braking zone, at the apex, or in the acceleration zone at the exit. By staying entirely present, and focused on the path of the bike, I’ll make slight adjustments  to where I’m placing the bike as I enter a corner, or on my path from one corner to the next. In drying conditions, obviously, I look for the drying spots – these are the places where, if possible and sensible (in the context of where I need to go), I’ll finish my heavy braking and make my turn inputs. If the dry spot is on corner exit, that’s the place I’ll try to get the bike picked up & more aggressively add throttle. I view it almost like rock-hopping across a creek. If I can logically connect the dry spots, I will. All my inputs are still smooth, I still leave a little room for error or for misjudging the available traction. Since usually the dry spots form where other vehicles are adding heat to the pavement from braking and turning, these spots usually make sense. Often however, they are merely products of sunny spots versus shaded or cooler, north-facing areas – one must remain in tune, intuitive to where he is in relation to his surroundings. Again, I must remain PRESENT. Because sometimes, rounding a right-hand uphill corner from sunshine into shadow under fairly heavy throttle, the road suddenly becomes fully wet.

Dani Pedrosa does not fret, in the wet.

Dani Pedrosa does not fret, in the wet.

Don’t panic. Hold what you’ve got. Slow hands. Freddie Spencer says “Fast riders have slower hands.” Nowhere is this more true than on fully wet pavement. Smooth inputs are crucial. Recently, I was instructing on a rainy day at a Sportbike Track Time trackday at Barber Motorsports Park. I had inexplicably missed the forecast for rain, so I was on track with full slick race tires in a downpour. At the crest of Turn Two, my bike, upon no input from me, began to swap ends. Since I had done nothing to start the movement, there were no corrective actions I could take. So I did nothing, save sharply inhale. In a very short amount of time, the bike caught traction and straightened itself out, allowing me to carry on. I also tell students when riding in the wet, to think about their front tire more, and to try not to make inputs that drastically change the load on the front at any point in the corner, but especially before the apex. Brake in a straight line, earlier is better. Trail off the brakes as I make my turn input, and then gently apply the throttle as I come off apex and get the bike stood up.

So back to that uphill right-hander into a shady wet midcorner…the bike is already turning, so the same rules apply. Be smooth. If I chop the throttle, startled by the sudden surface change, the sudden weight transfer will load the front tire. If I panic & try to stand the bike up quickly, not only am I likely to end up in the wrong lane, but I’m making a steering input, changing the load on the front. If I continue to add throttle as if the pavement were dry, I’m transferring weight off the front tire, also likely to spin the rear, which will set an unpleasant chain of reactions and overcorrections in motion. Steady. Slow hands. Finish the corner on the same line. Don’t add any more throttle – the bike is already accelerating a little. Ride the machine – if nothing has changed, make no further inputs. Read the surface now – look for the next place I need to be, my next braking point. Stay Present. Be Fully Aware. 

The thing about these challenging conditions to me is that the mindless meditation and habitual control inputs becomes overlaid by the scrim of right now.

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Responses

  1. Glad you enjoyed the book. 😉

  2. I have so much to learn. Most people forget more then what I know about good riding techniques.


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