Singing In The Rain (200//03)

(From the editor - this should have been published in the December issue - whoops - sorry David) 


As we enter the time of year when many riders put their bikes into hibernation and discuss exciting topics such as what settings to put on their Optimate charger and what pressures to put in the tyres for the lay-up, I thought it would be appropriate to speak up for those of us who ride all the year round.  Apart from the obvious hazard of icy conditions when no rider would choose to be on the road (however temporarily!), riding in cold, wet conditions need not (should not!) prevent you from enjoying your biking – all you need is to observe some basic principles.

 The catalyst for this article was memories of the ride back from watching the BSB at Donington Park in some of the most challenging wet conditions on the road since the ride back from the WSB at Silverstone or the Donington WSB in April, or the ride back from the Brands Hatch BSB, or the SAM ‘Les Twistes 07’, or the Ride-Out to Bruton I led in March, or…….. Come to think of it there are an awful lot of wet days in UK! 


 Having spent many years riding in West Coast Scotland where the rule of thumb is “If you can’t see across the Loch it is raining; if you can see across the Loch it is about to rain!”, I would like to pass on some personal observations of wet weather riding and I hope it will also provoke additional/alternative experiences from other members, perhaps those who have had to ride in all weathers professionally (for whom I have the greatest respect).


 Why don’t more people ride in the winter?  Some have a simple (and understandable!) aversion to feeling cold and uncomfortable - but this can be overcome with the right kit, others have a belief that you can’t ride quickly in the wet – so why can racers put in lap times just fractions of a second more in the wet than the dry?  (the sight of Rossi going round Donington in the 05 MotoGP in appalling conditions is something I will not forget) Let’s instead look at some of the wet weather principles.



Bike Preparation.


Tyres.  Unless you ride on ‘trackday rubber’ all modern tyres should cope with the wet but whatever you use obviously needs to be in good condition with a tread pattern and depth appropriate for winter riding and dispelling water – don’t just rely upon the legal tread limit to motivate you into replacing them, give them a good inspection to ensure good tread depth on all sections.



Electrics. Electrics and damp do not mix, make sure electrical connections are clean and dry then spray them with WD40 or Scottoiler FS365 to help disperse any water.  Ensure your battery is in good condition  - cold starts will take a heavy toll.  Similarly the alternator needs to be in good shape as it is likely to have to cope with additional load of recharging the battery and powering heated grips (a thoroughly recommended addition for winter riding!).



Engine.  Check oil condition and level.  If in doubt change it as old, sludgy, oil will take longer to get up to temperature and will not provide the same level of protection.  On cold days make sure the engine is warmed up before riding.

Brakes and Suspension. Give these a thorough check before winter riding.  Salty roads will take its toll and corrosion can start depressingly quickly on lightweight alloy parts, causing brakes to seize on if left for even a few days.  The only solution is to rinse off the salt after every ride.   If you do not have access to a hose (I don’t), use a hand-held garden spray to spray the callipers and suspension units.  Beware using high pressure sprays as they can drive the salt deeper and compound the problem.



Luggage.  Water has a knack of finding its way into most forms of luggage, particularly when riding at speed so even with ‘waterproof’ hard luggage I take the precaution of using waterproof inner bags so that there is ‘strength in depth’. Tank bags can be particularly vulnerable so that maps, ferry tickets, cash (folding kind), radios, MP3 players etc can all suffer.  Remember too that searching for some elusive item in a downpour can expose all the others! I have found the only reliable solution is to assume they are all likely to get wet and wrap them individually in something waterproof.




Staying warm and dry is fundamental.  Good quality waterproofs will make all the difference, ideally in a breathable textile such as Gortex, otherwise condensation can build up inside and it will feel as cold and clammy as if it was leaking.  Check the condition of your jacket & trousers, particularly at the seams, and if necessary reproof with a repellent such as Nikwax. Use several layers both for insulation and to allow a degree of temperature control. When layering, make sure though that you don’t allow all the zips to align or there will be a direct path for draughts and damp to penetrate. When choosing long-johns or one-piece undersuits, remember that the problems associated with responding to a ‘call of nature’ can be exacerbated in cold weather so ease of access can be a bonus!  Modern lightweight sports kit is both warm and wicking, will not restrict movement and dries much more quickly than cotton or wool. If all else fails if you are caught out in a cold, wet downpour, an old but effective standby is to wear a few layers of newspaper and a binliner under your jacket.  Knee joints can get cold and stiff and there are a number of sports injury type elasticised supports available that keep the knees warm and supported.  With the extra bulk associated with all these layers, it is worth a trial run before embarking upon a long journey to ensure movement is not restricted and also that pressure points do not exist, particularly at the knees which can otherwise become excruciating after a while.  The minimum should be to get fully kitted up, including helmet, and then try various ‘squatting’ positions to check fit and movement.



Balaclavas keep the head warm and also make getting wet crash helmets on and off easier and more comfortable.  Neck warmers come in a variety of styles and forms and I think they are essential for winter warmth. Water will always get through though, so I also tend to wear a towelling scarf (you can make 4 from an old hand towel) around the neck warmer.  It is worth taking several with you and then when you stop for fuel etc you can replace the towel with a dry one.



Boots can make big difference to comfort; cold, wet feet can spoil any journey and even the best leather boots will become porous after a while.  Gortex linings are good and there are a number of coatings such as Nikwax you can apply to leather boots to repel water. A couple of pairs of socks will help and if all else fails, polythene bags over your socks will keep the water out and make getting damp boots on easier!



Cold hands not only have a major effect on comfort, they can  affect how you control the bike and so it is vital to make every effort to ensure your hands stay as warm and dry as possible.  Personally I find that it is my thumbs that go first and the effect can be excruciating.  Heated grips help but in extreme conditions even they are not the total solution. Off-road type hand guards can deflect the wind and help to reduce the effect of wind chill, as can ‘handlebar muffs’ although I find the latter very disconcerting to use, particularly if riding at speed when wind pressure can force them back onto the brake/clutch levers with  interesting effects – until you recognise the cause!  There are a number of inner gloves available which can make a difference, particularly those designed to stop the wind penetrating.  The main problem with any glove comes when they get wet.  I have tried literally dozens over the years but have yet to find the ideal glove as they all seem to be a compromise of some form – feel, warmth, fit, water resistance etc.  The warning sign is when they get soaked and the lining comes out as you pull them off – the battle to get the lining in and get the gloves on again is not for the faint hearted!  I have sometimes resorted to carrying a piece of dowel or old biro tube to be able to push the fingers back into place!  Even with those gloves that the lining stays intact, getting wet gloves on and off can be a trial so where possible take a change of gloves or, if it is a long trip, several pairs, with you. For some reason it seems as though the “get what you pay for” rule doesn’t apply in this case as I have some very expensive ‘top brand’ gloves that are awful and some ‘cheapos’ bought at the bike show which have survived well. [perhaps there is a case for members sharing views on their favourite kit – biking kit that is].  The polythene gloves available free at all filling stations to protect pinkies from the smell of diesel fuel make excellent emergency inner gloves if you are caught out in wet weather with your ‘summer’ gloves on.  Similarly “Marigolds” take a lot of beating as they can be worn inside or outside riding gloves, depending upon their size, and give good grip. When all else fails, stick your gloved hands inside a polythene bag!



Allied to the topic of gloves is whether you should have the cuffs of your jacket ‘in or out’.  Generally I have found that it is better to have the jacket cuff outside the glove cuff, otherwise water seeps down your arms and quickly tops up even the most waterproof gloves. Some may have the luxury of having jacket cuffs that permit both – an inner cuff that can sit inside the glove cuff and then the outer that fits over the gauntlet cuff. Good in theory but I have found that sometimes sods law takes over and you still get wet hands!  Some riding positions and/or speeds will make it more or less likely for water to either go up your sleeve or down into your gloves – experience will tell!


Helmets are a matter of both style and function so it is up to you but I have found there are some common features.  The most important for the visually challenged is whether to wear your spectacles or not.  It is vital to weigh up the relative merits of what you can see through your spectacles with what you can see when they are either misted up or covered in rain. That is obviously a personal thing but in my case there is no contest and if it is raining I will not wear spectacles as even if you think you will keep your visor closed, there will be a time when either rain gets in anyway or you need to flip the visor and suddenly your spectacles are useless.


Visors should be clear and scratch free. Inserts such as Fog City can have a dramatic effect and are recommended, failing that there are a number of things you can rub on the inside of the visor to prevent it misting  - including the Diver’s favourite, saliva!  There are also a number of things you can apply to the exterior of the visor to dispel water. Of these my personal favourite is Nikwax VisorProof that makes the water ‘bead’ and roll off.  This coating will however deteriorate as the ride progresses and it is important to renew the coating as soon as the effect starts to wear off.  How often that is depends on the conditions but even when you are in a hurry, a two minute stop in a layby between fuel stops in order to dry the visor and re-apply the coating can make an amazing difference.  Another simple but effective tool is a thing called a ‘Veewipe’ (I’m not sure who sells them nowadays) which is a simple rubber squeegee blade that fits over the finger of a glove and enables you to use it as a windscreen wiper blade on your visor.  Alternatively, when all else fails it should be possible to stuff a piece of towelling between the screen and the dash to grab and wipe the visor at traffic light stops etc.



A basic change of kit, kept in a compact but lightweight waterproof bag (I have a roll-up bag I use for canoeing) can be an immeasurable morale booster when the unplanned happens – to have a warm, dry change of clothes – whatever they are or look like - can be an extraordinary morale booster when everything else looks bleak!



A word on drying kit – direct heat does not help and can actually damage kit. Hot air is better but if you choose to use a hairdryer please ensure you get the owner’s permission. Hair dryers are not designed for prolonged operation and the replacement cost of an improved-specification model (with/without dinner) can be significant!  Moving swiftly on…………





It should not be necessary to say to SAM Members that the key is smooth, progressive,  riding but that is precisely what is needed; acceleration and braking should be done with the bike as upright as possible and both in moderation!



The greatest risk occurs with the first rain after a prolonged dry spell - the road surface can’t cope, nor can most drivers!  The surface is covered in oil, rubber, dust etc and the rain makes it coagulate into a low-friction covering for the unwary. This is compounded by the fact that many drivers will find that their windscreen wipers at best smear the surface of their windscreen into an opaque lens whilst their washer bottle contains only enough for the first three squirts - which is a recipe for “SMIDNSY!” (“Sorry mate, I didn’t see you”).  Many cars seem unable properly to demist the interior within the three nanoseconds most drivers are prepared to wait before driving off and the result is that a lot of vehicles on the roads in the wet spend the first few miles of their journeys ‘fogged up’,  particularly when wet passengers are picked up – the result is SMIDNSY!  Mirrors are often neglected in the pre-launch checks, again the result is “SMIDNSY!”.  The risk is highest at school start/finish time.  For some reason the minority of children that are capable of walking to school in the dry are totally unable to do so in the wet so that the number of harassed parents driving their offspring to/from school will be increased (don’t get me started on the 4x4 school taxi….).  This will not only increase the overall number of vehicles on the road but will lead to a corresponding loss of spatial awareness of these drivers as they hunt ‘their space’ to stop – with or without signal – to drop off/collect their offspring – cue yet more “SMIDNSY!”.  However, - If you ride in dark or camouflage coloured gear (why?!) and choose not to ride with headlights on and if you habitually ride in ‘tyre track 1’, do not be surprised if the result is “SMIDNSY”!



Look for any changes in the road surface which might result in dramatic changes of adhesion and take care to avoid road markings as the reflective surface can be particularly slippery.  Wet, cold conditions will mean that most tyres will take much longer to get up to their designed temperature and so will not have as much grip as expected.  Beware standing water and ‘puddles’, the former can result in a classic ‘aquaplane’ loss of adhesion and the latter can hide significant potholes or missing/dislodged drain covers. (If you do find yourself ‘aquaplaning’, don’t panic, ease off the throttle and avoid sudden braking or changes of direction).  Beware too other motorists’ reactions to puddles as they either swerve to avoid them or drive through them to drench you in cold muddy water (some 4x4 owners seem to see this as a justification of their off-road capability!).


In rural areas avoid riding too close to the edge as water run-off is likely to have deposited loose gravel & leaves on the riding line whilst blocked drains can present more hazards.


Wet conditions are going to cause a lot of spray and this can cause real dilemma when moving to overtake a large vehicle that is effectively throwing up a wall of water behind it, I believe the answer is that as soon as you have made your decision to overtake, go for it! – use lots of acceleration to break through the spray and minimise the time in the ‘danger zone’.  Often the effects of spray are worst when the rain is no longer torrential and the muddy spray starts to dry upon your visor – the solution is to keep a damp cloth handy in a plastic bag and/or a small water spray bottle so that you can stop periodically and clean your visor.


Bad weather causes pedestrians to make a dash for shelter, often with a random article of clothing or luggage to protect their head from the rain (and obscure their view – “SMIDNSY!”), this may include a leap across the road in front of you to get to their car where they open the door regardless of whether or not you  are driving past!


Beware over-courteous drivers – they may suddenly stop to let a pedestrian cross, despite the state of the traffic lights or will forgo their right of way to let a vehicle pull out of a turning – their activities may also enrage other drivers who may surge forward/change lanes etc to compensate.


On the positive side, bad weather is more likely to encourage other road users to use their lights so that they can be seen - though this of course means that it can also be harder to spot the motorcycle (“SMIDNSY”).



When the temperature drops towards or below freezing, special care is needed and if it really is icy then even the most determined biker should think twice as it is virtually impossible to make safe progress in icy conditions.  In marginal conditions, remember the fact that some patches of road will freeze first and thaw last, the effect of windchill can be dramatic and cause ‘black ice’ to catch  the unwary.  Other drivers can increase the risk – particularly those who make only a token gesture of clearing their car windows and peer through a partially scraped windscreen, wrestling with demister controls as they pull out – “SMIDNSY!”.  Watch out for gritters – give them a wide berth as the pain of being ‘sandblasted’ by grit and salt as you pass is only part of the problem, worse is the effect on your bike as the salt dissolves any alloy parts (particularly brake callipers) that you have failed to douse in cold water after the ride!

The effect of cold on the rider can be significant, tests have shown that reaction times and mental processes are reduced to the extent that the effects can be as bad as drinking and driving and remember that at 60mph, wind chill will make 0˚ feel like -40˚. The comments made earlier over the choice of kit and the importance of thermal layering will help to reduce the effects of cold but there is a danger of the prolonged slow chill that you only realise when the core body temperature has dropped dangerously low and the options for warmth may be limited, particularly on isolated roads.  If you are likely to ride for long distances where facilities may be remote, make up a small survival/revival pack that includes a self-heating can of coffee an ‘instant’ handwarmer, high energy snacks (mars bars, raisins etc) and a space blanket/bivvy bag in case you have to stop miles from the nearest assistance.




Before you embark on a long journey in bad weather it is worth having a ‘practice run’ to ensure all your kit works/fits – what seems ok in the show room may be very different when sitting on your bike to expose the gap where cold water will penetrate and spoil your enjoyment. If you get fully dressed before venturing outside, can you open pockets, get to your keys, get on the bike etc?  Have you tried sitting on the bike with all the layers in place? – don’t wait for the long trip to find that your circulation is cut off after 30 minutes or that the balaclava/buff combo prevents any thought of ‘lifesavers’.


Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.  Some winter rides can be stunning and are there to enjoy.



If you still want to stay in and polish your bike, or your helmet, during bad weather – please be extra considerate to those who like/need/are forced to ride in the rain when you venture out in your car!



Happy Puddlejumping!




David R Charlton




PS:  Completing this on a flight returning from a business trip in Malaysia (not name-dropping, honest) I was struck by the fact that the attitude to bikers is different in the Far East: there the bike – based on Mr Honda’s C90 – is everything from personal transport to the family car to the Ford Transit equivalent and the awareness of both rider and driver is significantly better than in Europe. Three things of note are the fact that almost all riders literally wear their jackets ‘back to front’ i.e. they don’t have any openings at the front; riders filter between lanes of traffic with no apparent “dog in the manger” instances from car drivers of ‘shutting the door’ to block progress and also that most bridges have ‘shelter areas’ where riders are expected to be able to sit out the worst of the downpour (monsoon!). – When will we see this on our roads?


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