Be Aware of Wet Road Conditions

Know that some things on the road can be slippery when wet.

Be aware of wet road conditions
Although you may take the necessary precautions of wearing the right riding gear, be sure to know of the other on-road hazards out there that you can experience when it rains.Photography by Mike Pons

Though I don't like cleaning the bike afterward, I do enjoy riding in the rain. Some riders, especially here in California where rain is rare, respond to this statement with the sort of reception usually reserved for an announcement that aliens have abducted the speaker. After all, why would anyone want to ride a motorcycle when the roads are slippery, it's hard to see, and you're getting wet?

"Because," replied Tom dryly, "I'm not getting wet." (Anybody else remember the "Tom Swifty" genre of puns?) I can also see better on a motorcycle than from within a car, and the various advantages of a motorcycle in traffic (superior view of the road, maneuverability, more escape routes, etc.) pay extra dividends when the roads are wet and drivers are in over their heads.

The key element of being able to enjoy a day riding in the rain is good rain gear. These days, virtually all rainsuits from reputable motorcycle accessory firms will keep you dry in a torrent. The factors that set some apart are: ease of entry, conspicuous colors and comfort. I have a Gore-Tex two-piece suit from Motoport that satisfies all of those requirements; though I switch to a one-piece Hein Gericke when I want extra warmth. Waterproof Alpinestars, Firstgear or Motoport boots, and any one of several styles of waterproof gloves complete the job. I can ride all day in the rain in complete comfort and arrive at least as dry as if it had been sunny.

Once you have dressed for the rain, you have only two issues to confront: traction and vision. Traction seems to be the primary concern for most riders, usually because they aren't sure how much grip they have available. While some surfaces—metal fixtures such as manhole covers and bridge gratings, painted areas, and places where built-up oil and grease have not washed off—become much slipperier when wet, you can actually call on a surprising amount of traction on clean asphalt or concrete. How much? The easiest way to test traction is to feel for it with your rear brake. Assuming you know how much deceleration you can develop on dry pavement before the rear tire breaks loose, you have a gauge of what's available if you repeat the test when the road is wet. This also assumes that you have a reasonable amount (say 3⁄16 of an inch) of tread depth. If you do this at moderate speeds on a flat, straight road, it won't become a thrill ride. Avoid locking up the rear wheel on a steeply crowned road, where it will tend to slide downhill and out of line.

You can do a couple of things to improve traction. Premium aftermarket tires are virtually certain to give better wet-road grip than original-equipment tires. With its new CruiseMax tire, Dunlop says that most cruisers will run out of ground clearance long before they come up short on cornering traction on a clean but wet road surface. Other good tires will provide similar performance. A slight increase in tire pressure also improves the wet-weather traction of any tire. Increasing your tire pressure by five p.s.i. or less helps to cut through the film of water and prevent hydroplaning.

Some situations should be confronted with extreme caution. Railroad tracks can bite you hard when they are wet. The standard advice is to try to cross railroad or other metal tracks at a right angle. When they are wet, this is imperative. Otherwise, you risk having the tire slip into the groove alongside the track, which will immediately ruin your whole day. Other large metal road surfaces or metal sections running parallel to your direction of travel—some expansion joints, for example—are equally hazardous and should be approached cautiously and upright. A thin strip of metal can usually be crossed while leaning over mildly; tires slip, then catch again after crossing. However, a large metal surface—such as a bridge grate, a manhole cover or a cattle guard—may permit the tire to slip too much to recover traction. Painted surfaces can be almost as slippery as metal.

Places where the oil doesn’t get washed away can be thrilling. Watch out for surfaces where water gets carried in but doesn’t fall on the road with the force or quantity to remove the oil. Toll booths and parking garages offer a chance to experience this sort of excitement. There is a 200-yard tunnel not far from my house. The oil in there makes it a bit slippery when it’s dry. When it rains, the surface is like buttered Teflon. Because the tunnel curves, it’s a potentially deadly spot for motorcyclists, especially those who ride in expecting relief from the wet road.

Turning on such a slick surface demands an ultra-smooth approach. Getting on the brakes hard or making a sudden steering input could put you into the guardrail. So you want to slow down before you go in there and keep the throttle neutral all the way through (and be ready for cars that might get unstuck and block the whole mess).

That smooth approach will serve you well on all wet roads. Make your turns a bit more gradually, downshift smoothly, and avoid abrupt throttle changes. Get on the throttle progressively and perhaps use a taller gear to reduce the forces reaching the rear tire. Apply the brakes in such a way that the tires are not loaded abruptly. Also, make sure that drivers around you have time to react to your moves.

That brings us back to vision. The ability of other drivers to see us could be the single biggest issue a motorcyclist must confront in the rain. With dim light, obscured windows, and a streaked and possibly fogged windshield, the driver of a car may have a very difficult time seeing the world ahead. If you are wearing black—or even worse, a neutral color like gray or olive drab—you blend into that gray world. A bright yellow rainsuit is probably the best choice for conspicuity; white is also an excellent choice. Fluorescent colors also help during the day, and retro-reflective striping or panels on your gear help at night. A visible helmet color also makes a difference at night. You can confirm this when you are out in rainy weather. Notice how early you pick up a pedestrian who is dressed for conspicuity. Compare how close a dull-colored person gets before you see him.

How about your own ability to see? Even with a face shield that’s wet on both sides, you probably have a better view of the situation around you than the average car operator does in the rain. However, your view can be impaired by face shield fogging or a windshield that rises into your line of sight. Unlike a face shield, a windshield is well out into your focal range, and the water on both sides makes it hard to see through. Rain-X does help disperse water on both face shields and, more importantly, windshields. Anti-fogging solutions and the Fog City Fog Shield effectively stop fogging; although Fog Shield is not recommended for use at night because it tends to create ghost images. Even if you don’t have a commercial anti-fog solution, a thin layer of hand or dish soap will reduce fog.

The demons come out on a rainy night. Each of those raindrops on your face shield or goggles picks up a pinpoint of light from every light around you. Riding behind a windshield that is too tall to see over is extremely difficult, which is why we caution against that configuration. Oncoming cars can completely obscure your vision. A timely wipe of your face shield can help, but you may be unable to see the road at all for a moment. Puddles may be completely undetectable.

On the other hand, dimmer lights—such as taillights—reflected in the road ahead, can show you features of the road surface that your headlight doesn’t illuminate. My preferred strategy is to follow a vehicle with lots of taillights, watching the point where they are reflected to pick out potholes, seams, or objects in the road. Watching the vehicle will also warn you of large puddles.

Even at night you have a few aces to play. One advantage of a motorcycle is your high view point, compared to a person in a car. At night, this allows a better view of the road surface because you have a steeper angle of view. As a result, it’s easier to see striping, and other shallow features. You can also use the reflections from wet surfaces to your advantage. Wet utility wires can warn of a car approaching over a hill. Brake lights reflected under a truck can alert you of an impending stop.

Since effective clothing permits me to stay warm and dry in the rain, I enjoy the pleasures of a rainy day the same way I do a sunny day. The air is clean, I make better progress through congested areas than cars can, and I experience all of the other pleasures of riding.