Water never hurt anyone...
There are few things as challenging as bad weather when you’re on two wheels, but if you make it home after a day of riding in the wet stuff, you can feel a sense of immense accomplishment.
For some of us, our bike is our sole form of transportation. After years of daily-ing my motorcycle, I came to enjoy the odd spot of bad weather. You pick up a lot of skills riding on wet roads, and I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to fear the weather.
Here’s how to ride a motorcycle in the rain. First the “too long, didn’t read version”:
- Slow down
- Be smooth
- Relax your body
- Remember that vision is bad for everyone – including drivers
- Avoid paint, metal, tar snakes and cat’s-eye reflectors on the road
- Get good gear
For more on those points, keep reading.
What Happens When It Rains
You get wet, obviously. The road gets wet too, and that causes a lot more grip issues than just water alone. Road surfaces soak up oil and other substances during the dry periods, 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.
Paint, cats-eye reflectors, and tar snakes all become a lot more slippery in the rain. The worst is metal. Manhole covers, and those idiotic steel plates major American cities place all over roadways when they’re under maintenance are death traps in the rain if you’re not ready for them.
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 the tire and the road. The rule of thumb is that the more tread there is, the more effectively water will be removed. A rainy day is not the time to be using a set of slick tires you bought from your racing friend. Actually, no time is, but that’s a story for another day.
Motorcycles benefit from having narrower tires that slice through puddles and are less likely to hydroplane than a car but it can happen. If you do find yourself hydroplaning, avoid the temptation to get on the brakes as it will only make things worse. Put steady, strong pressure on the foot pegs, relax your grip on the bars and ease out of the throttle, slowing down until you regain grip.
If you have to ride through deeper water make sure you stay upright, smooth, and steady. A constant throttle is your friend; your brakes and a chopped throttle are mortal enemies. I’ve done 100s of feet in water that’s inches deep, and the rules are always the same. Keep your vision high, your inputs smooth, and your momentum steady. While I won’t hesitate to ride carefully through a pit of low-level flooding caused by rain pooling, I would never, ever try to ford a flooded river or over a submerged bridge.
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.
Relax your body – when you tense your arms and your fingers your responses are jerkier, more aggressive, and less precise. All the exact things that make low-grip situations worse.
You need to focus on riding more smoothly. Remember The Mighty Ducks? Soft hands all the way in this scenario. Steer with your feet, not your arms. Gentle pressure on the pegs one way or the other is a good way to smoothly manage your direction, and keep those eyes high so you can make slow, deliberate changes to your path.
You don’t need to react to every little loss of traction or bar wiggle, let the bike handle those things for you. Contrary to popular belief, your motorcycle actually wants to stay upright, thanks mostly to the gyroscopic forces of your wheels and even your crankshaft. If it skids a little, or bogs in a deeper part, a measured reaction is what will get you through. Relax, enjoy the sensation of your bike moving around a bit more than your used to. It’s fun, if you let it be!
Breaking Through Braking Myths
Braking is always approached the same way, only you should amplify your good habits in the wet: 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.
Some people will tell you to avoid the front brake and use the back more in the wet. Those people are very, very wrong. Do not do that. 1: Your back brake lacks the feel you get from the front brake. What do you find gives you more feedback? Your gloved fingertips, or the sole of your thick boots? 2: Your front brake still provides far, far more stopping power than your back ever will, even in the wet.
You can use the back brake more if you want to, and you can get more value from it in the wet if you use it smoothly, carefully, and mindfully.
Actually, that applies to all your controls. Accelerate a little more gently, a little later and just try to be smoother. If the back wheel lights up in wheel spin—don’t panic! Maintain constant throttle, lift your vision further down the road and wait until it all comes together. Then, if you feel the need to take a moment to compose yourself, ease your speed back down and regroup. Or, smile, because you just did a big sexy power slide in the wet and got through it safely.
Riding in the rain, just like riding off road, is all about being smooth, gentle, and precise.
Cars don’t always react to the weather the way we do on a bike. That means the onus is on us to make the space. Let cars pass you more often, take your space on the road with some assertion. I like to ride in the left-hand wheel track of the right hand lane in the rain. It allows me to keep out of the puddles pooling near the kerb, and also prevents drivers trying to pass me on the underside – where those same puddles can impact their steering unexpectedly.
Always, always, look in your mirrors when braking, but be especially vigilant in the wet. Low grip means it’s easier for a car to run up your backside at a stop light or sign, and low visibility means they’re more likely to see you late and panic brake. You won’t hear the tire squeal the same way in the rain, so use those mirrors constantly.
I always brake a lot earlier in the rain. Not because the stopping distance has increased, but because doing so gives the vehicles behind me more time to react to my changing velocity.
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 to the outside, rather than square in the middle of the lane, but not on the paint. Doing this means anyone who does blow the light due to a skid will safely slide past you – hopefully.
The Controversial Part
ABS and Traction Control are godsends in the rain. ABS in particular. I know, I know, you “don’t need no electronic nannies I know how to ride”. I’m sure you do. ABS still helps you avoid disaster in low-grip situations, and it will improve your safety. Traction control too will help, and it works best if you relax and don’t try to react to a skid by chopping the throttle. Neither of these rider aids cancel out any of the advice we’ve given. You still need to be smooth and balanced. I guarantee you though that ABS and traction control will increase your chances of getting home with a soggy smile on your face.
A quick note on gear. Get good gear for the rain. The worse you feel, the worse you’ll perform, and in bad weather that can be deadly. We’ll cover gear off in another article.
As long as you take care of yourself, and keep your wits about you, riding in the rain can be extremely rewarding – even fun. Just remember that visibility, grip, and comfort is decreased for everyone. So slow down, relax your body, and make the most out of one of the more educational experiences you can have on your bike.
What are your tips for riding in the rain?