Foul Weather Riding

Dec 28, 2018

When I first started riding back in 1981 I was definitely a fair weather rider. If there was pummeling rain, shivering cold, blistering heat, hard blustery winds or any combination of these I wasn’t too interested in venturing out for a ride. As time went on and I started doing longer and multi-day rides I realized that you can’t always wait-out bad weather conditions. Oftentimes you have to just ride through it to keep on schedule with your plans, especially if you’re riding with or meeting others at some far-off destination. Gradually over time I started figuring out the things I needed to do to be comfortable and safe in these adverse conditions. In this blog post on Foul Weather Riding I’ll touch upon some of the things that have kept me safe over the years. I divide it into four logical parts; bike preparation, clothing, bike handling and mental preparation.

BIKE PREPARATION: While it may be true that some bikes handle the elements better than others some commonsense tweaks can make bad conditions more tolerable. No matter how hardcore you are, or want to be, a windshield will save you a lot wear and tear while riding through rain, wind, hot and cold temperatures and especially when putting on the miles at highway speeds. Now before you go thinking I’m a softy I’ll admit that I spent my first several years of riding with no windshield… and yes I was doing long highway rides. I did fine and my forearms became Popeye-strong holding on at 80 MPH but as time went by I learned how to be more comfortable so that 1,000 mile+ days were tolerable.

In short, you need a sufficient windshield and bags to carry all your stuff securely and in dry comfort (hard bags preferably as they don’t require rain covers). You also need to be sure there are no outstanding mechanical issues to plague you and that your bike has been serviced and is ready for the road. You should add any accessories you feel will keep you comfortable and focused and practice riding with those accessories. In my case I added several including a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) and a double-insulated water bottle and holder on my handlebars. The bottle has a popup straw that’s easy to use with my gloved left hand while riding on long trips.

If you’re mechanical, with the right tools and knowhow, double check the work your mechanic does as things are often left undone or not properly done. This can be catastrophic if the wrong bolt is left loose. I’ve had bolts left loose on several occasions from a few different shops which is why I do all my own services now as many veteran riders do. Also, understand that the wear components on your bike are not necessarily the best in the industry but rather a compromise of sorts. If you take the time to research tires and brake pads for instance you’ll probably find (through user reviews and word of mouth mostly) that there are tires and brake pads that offer better traction and braking in dry and wet conditions than OEM. The tradeoff may be in a shorter lifespan and higher cost but you’ll need to decide for yourself if better braking in the rain or tire grip on the road going around that curve are worth the extra bucks in the long run. For me I buy the best rubber and brake pads I can buy. Do your research but don’t get too caught up in the “paralysis of analysis”.

Another item I feel is very important for managing foul weather are your lights (to see and to be seen by others). Headlights, taillights, brake lights, turn signals and marker lights. One night, with your bike in a dark parking lot, walk 75 feet then 150 feet away and look at different angles to inspect your visibility. Make sure your visibility is sufficient or else make the changes necessary. In my case I added LED lights to every light on my bike due to the increased light output, the decreased electrical draw and the instant-on aspect of LED lighting. Since the dual headlights on my Harley Road Glide were white (of course) I added bright yellowish-amber Motolights to my brake calipers.  From a distance the white lights tend to be drowned-out by ambient lighting especially on rainy days. These 50 watt Motolight LED’s are super contrasted and very visible to other drivers. I also added brighter Custom Dynamics turn signals and brake lights and a third brake light up on my TourPack that flashes a few times upon braking. This gives me an effective triangle of brake lights. Other than maybe some better side lighting there’s no doubt I’ll be seen by others.

CLOTHING:  Although there are many opinions and choices when it comes to motorcycling clothing there are what I call the essentials. These include a proper helmet, riding jacket, riding pants, riding boots, riding gloves and raingear. With this group you can be assured of being protected in foul weather, from airborne debris and in case of a fall.

            Helmet: Even if you live in a non-helmet state like me you’ll need a helmet for riding in the other states and to help fend off rain, bugs, stones and the cold. Nothing like a hard beetle, juicy moth or yellow jacket hitting you in the face at 65 MPH. Whether you choose a half, three-quarter or full helmet is up to you as each offers different plusses and minuses. I personally use a three-quarter for much of my riding as I like the airflow and the added protection over my half-helmet. I like full-face helmets at certain times but don’t use them any longer mainly due to the field of view restrictions. I also enjoy the convenience of the integrated face and sun shield of my three-quarter helmet. You may even find yourself with multiple helmets like most of us.

            Jacket: There are many options for riding jackets from leather to synthetic, waterproof and non-waterproof, shoulder-elbow-back pads, vented, bright colors or black, etc., etc. In my case I enjoy wearing some good leather for local a regional rides mainly for its added protection. If it rains I just throw a rain suit over it. For long rides or really cold temps I prefer a good synthetic riding jacket like my Klim Latitude Misano. I find the synthetic keeps me warmer while wearing the same amount of insulation probably due to the leather holding the cold more than synthetics. Also, many of the better synthetic jackets are well-vented and waterproof so I can easily adjust while riding as the temperature changes or if it rains.. a helpful feature on long rides.

            Pants: For pants you have the choice of jeans, riding jeans and riding pants and I’ve used them all. Most of the time I wear jeans or Kevlar riding jeans (like the Defender jeans from Diamond Gusset) which have Kevlar fabric sewn into the knees, butt and hip areas (very helpful if you take a slide on the pavement). If it rains I stop to pull over some rain pants. For long rides I have a pair of Aerostich AD1 Gore-tex riding pants which have knee pads, very durable fabric and are waterproof so I can keep going rain or shine. These pants are not vented so they don’t breathe very well in the heat and humidity. These can be worn over jeans, long underwear, short pants or just underwear (not recommended).

            Boots: For us motorcycling purists there’s nothing like a great pair of heavy leather, steel toed boots with a Goodyear lug sole for top protection. Nowadays though you have many choices even including riding tennis shoes. But if you truly want to protect your feet and ankles tall quality boots are the ticket. I still have my original Harley Davidson steel-toed Engineer boots I bought back in 1982. They’ve been re-soled once but are an incredible hunk of quality leather. I have a couple others I use as well but quality leather with a good gripping sole are important. Make sure you keep your leather cleaned and conditioned with your favorite product. In my case I use Obenauf’s Heavy Duty Leather Preservative a few times a year but there are other good brands as well. With care I expect my HD boots to be around another 30 years.

            Riding Gloves: If you’re like me you’ll end up with several different types of riding gloves. Although they’re all full-fingered, leather-palmed gloves, I have a mesh pair for hot weather, thick leather pair for modest temps, cold weather insulated gloves and my Gerbing heated gloves for when it dips below 40F degrees. I also have heated grips on the bike which are needed along with the heated gloves in freezing weather. Oh, I also have a pair of synthetic Gore-Tex lined gloves when riding with my synthetic Klim jacket. With the leather gloves if it rains hard I pull on waterproof three-fingered over-mitts made by Aerostich. They’re a little freaky to get used to but work well.

            Raingear: Unless you’re able to avoid the rain like the plague you’ll need to invest in raingear (jacket, pants, gloves or glove covers and perhaps boot covers). You can go with an expensive HD Gore-Tex rain suit as I did many years ago or you can buy something like the Frogg Toggs “Road Toad” jacket and pants for about $80 – $90. Some are made with waterproof fabric and some just have water resistant fabric but none will keep you bone dry if you’re in pouring rain all day. If I take the time to put my suit on carefully I’ll stay mostly dry all day in the rain. For comfort and safety sake invest in good raingear.

BIKE HANDLING:  The number one point here is keeping your bike upright. The good lighting you installed will help you to be seen but positioning as you ride is crucial. Hopefully you already know not to linger in a car’s blindspots but there are many other situations (too many for this post) you need to be aware of so that you are visible to other drivers. While positioning to be seen is more important in foul weather being able to properly manage your clutching, throttling, braking, steering and balancing simultaneously are critical in staying upright. No matter how proficient you become you should continually practice the coordination of these 5 key elements in dry weather, including slow speeds, and “think” about what you’re doing and the results. It’s with constant practice that you’ll develop and be in tune with the feel of your bike and the road in all conditions.

Quick story… one slightly rainy day while riding home from work I was transitioning from a highway and entering the Baltimore beltway. With very little traffic around I simply hit the throttle a little to cruise across a few open lanes to the lane I wanted to be in. As I moved across the lanes I felt a vaguely familiar feeling which I quickly recognized as my rear tire losing traction and starting a power slide. I immediately let some off the throttle to give the tire a chance to regain its grip but didn’t over-react with my steering or trajectory. Fortunately all went fine but had I not had the experience of this under more controlled conditions it could have ended much differently. Remember, practicing never ends… an important lesson I learned while pursuing my Advanced Open Water Scuba Diving Instructor certification many years ago.

MENTAL PREPERATION:  Mental preparation truly begins before you buy your first motorcycle in making sure you’re of the right mindset and willing to practice and learn how to be a good and safe rider in an unsafe world. Fortunately there’s a direct correlation between the effort you put into riding practice and your safety on the road. The more you think about and practice generally the safer you’ll be… and riding in foul weather is no different.

Before you head out for the day you should take some time to make sure your bike is prepared and your clothing is adequate and adjusted properly. Be sure to pack additional clothing for all weather extremes because they can and do happen during even a one day ride. As conditions change during your ride give thought to how this will affect your comfort and handling of your bike. Really think about it and adjust your control management “touch” accordingly. If necessary pull off the road to add/remove gear to stay comfortable. This is important as the less comfortable you are (cold, hot, damp, tired, etc.) the less focus you’ll have on bike management at a time when more focus may be necessary. If you find yourself becoming tired or distracted pull off the road and take a break. It’s amazing what 10 minutes sitting with your eyes shut can do to your mental alertness.

As you enjoy your ride you should be visualizing the ride with its twists and turns. Look around and be aware. Look at the road conditions near you and think of what could be around the corner. The color, hue and sheen of the road surface up ahead are a good predictor of what’s to come. Pay attention and know what it all means. Understand your lane positioning as it relates to the road. Be one with the road (had to slide this in ;-). Read, practice and think about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and the result.

In closing I’ll just say that with my love of the outdoors I’ve come to bicycle, hike, camp, fish, rock climb, scuba dive, kayak AND ride my motorcycle in all conditions and combinations of conditions over the years. I’ll head out in the early-morning bundled up in 50F degree temps with fog, then have the sun reach high in the sky and turn blisteringly hot at 97F degrees with humidity, then get hit by a passing rainstorm(s) with driving winds only to arrive home in the late evening to chilly temperatures once again. Lots of adjustments happening to be safe and comfortable in these conditions but this is life out in Nature… and Nature is where most of the beauty in this world lives.

Fortunately with motorcycling it’s possible to carry all the gear you’ll need for the changing conditions. You’ll just need to learn to be good at predicting the weather then stopping to adjust your clothing as necessary. From all the practicing you’ve done you’ll also be able to adjust your riding management on the fly as conditions warrant. With this you’ll be better able to keep the rubber on the road and your bike upright.

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