Harry “Doc” Wong is addressing the faithful from his small chiropractic office in Belmont, California. He’s been leading free riding clinics around the Bay Area since 1994, but this one is special.
“Good morning,” he says. “Today we’re going to have rain, wind, flash floods, and blown-down trees. In other words, a perfect day! Did anyone bring a chainsaw?”
Welcome to the “Monsoon” ride, a semi-annual event that targets the worst weekend day of the year in San Francisco’s Bay Area. This year, that day came on January 8, when NOAA was predicting a massive storm, accompanied by wind and flash-flood advisories. In the coming hours it would rain more than an inch – and every drop of it would fall on our heads. Twenty riders showed up for punishment.
It’s possible that Doc appeals to the best and worst in Bay Area motorcyclists. People want to be better, smoother, and safer riders, and he helps them get there, leading free clinics on dual-sport riding, long-distance touring, ergonomics, suspension setup, first aid, and other topics. He estimates he’s trained almost 50,000 riders in the last couple of decades. They also want to be faster, crazier, and in this case, wetter. He helps them get there, too.
Wet Weather Basics
All the rides start with a classroom session. “Riding in the wet makes you a better, smoother rider,” he tells the group. “You can’t just grab the brakes. In the dry, you can get away with all kinds of stuff. Most of us make mistakes all the time, but they’re subtle enough, or we’re going slowly enough, that they don’t cause a traction problem. But rain will make you respect the weather and ride smoother than you did before. And guess what – that’s the way you should be riding anyway!”
Doc says there are two keys to staying relaxed and riding in truly awful conditions:
- Grip the motorcycle with your legs
“Who should control the handlebar, the wind, or you? You should! And the only way you can do that is to be as loose as possible on the handlebar. Grip the motorcycle with your legs, so no matter what the wind does to you, it doesn’t torque the handlebar. Your arms stay relaxed.”
- Weight the outside peg
“In the dirt, riders always weight the outside peg, which enables them to slide. On a streetbike, you’re not purposefully trying to slide, but if for some reason, the wind pushes you or the surface is slippery, and the bike does go, you’re in a perfect position. When you do those two things – grip the tank with your legs and weight the outside peg – all of a sudden your hands loosen on the bar.”
Fortunately, for our twisted little assemblage, the sun soon disappears and the rain begins to slant down viciously once again. Doc seems relieved. Before we head for the bikes, he explains the concept of counter-countersteering.
“If you’re sliding or think the bike might go down, you can actually steer into the turn and pick it up again,” he says. “You have the ability to ‘counter-countersteer.’ That means putting pressure on the outside bar (on the right for a left-hander, for instance), rather than the inside bar.”
Equipment requirements are minimal, but Doc insists on two things: “You need a Pinlock shield insert or anti-fog spray for your helmet. And you need to be warm. If you get cold, your nervous system begins to shut down, your coordination decreases, and your judgment will be off. Use electric clothing if necessary.”
Time to Ride
Outside, the bikes belong to no particular genre. There are a handful of thumpers with knobbies, a Suzuki V-Strom, a Triumph Sprint, an Aprilia, a Honda CB1100, and a passel of BMW GS bikes (800 and 1200). Tires are in good but not spectacular condition – no one seems to care.
Equipment choices range from megabuck Klim gear and obligatory Aerostich onesies to the plainly Neanderthal: line worker suits and old raincoats. A smattering of plastic bags are also in evidence. It’s mostly a tattered thrift shop of old crap, but it doesn’t really matter – none of it will look very good in a few hours.
Doc doesn’t mitigate his normal route just because it’s the biblical deluge. It includes Skyline, Tunitas Creek, Lobitos Creek (a little gem I’ve never done before), Bonny Doon, Smith Grade, Empire Grade, and China Grade. All told, it’s a crazy, a relentlessly snaky distance of about 110 miles.
Once we’re underway, the pace is impressively restrained – I only see one wheelie all day, and it’s a small one. However, at one point I’m following a guy who’s doing some dreadful early-apex turns on Stage Road. Just as I was thinking, “Dude, if there’s a car coming…” there was a car. He stuffed it in a ditch to avoid the head-on and had to be extracted from the mud. No harm done, other than to pride and a little plastic.
I’ve always perversely enjoyed rain riding, especially since doing a few CLASS trackdays at Laguna Seca in downpours. Doc’s advice builds on what I learned there, which is to minimize inputs to the bar when traction is questionable. As the day progresses, I find myself squeezing the tank with my legs as a means to keep my upper body loose. At one point, when the back end squirts sideways an inch, I allow it to come back in line with no drama.
At mid-day we stop in a small, nearly empty restaurant in Davenport. The waitress is clearly confounded by the soggy mob, which looks a little like a motorcycle club and a lot like a prison gang on the lam. Before long the floor of the restaurant looks like a pool deck after swim class, and everyone is telling profanity-laced lies about what good riders they are. Soggy gear is hung from every protuberance. It’s a joyous disaster.
Suddenly, as if on cue, 20 cell phones go off in a simultaneous chorus, with an unusual alarm: it’s the Emergency Alert system, warning of an impending flood. For Doc Wong, this is better than Christmas. “I have good news!” he says, standing on a chair, smiling mischievously. “It’s a flash flood! Perfect!”
It takes us a while to get underway again, as riders mud-wrestle themselves back into their waterlogged gear. I also notice that it doesn’t smell so good in there anymore, and I have the sneaking suspicion we may be partly to blame, so it’s clearly time to leave.
Once home, I drape my clothes all over the house, and pretty soon things are hissing and steaming. Out in the garage, I notice my motorcycle has achieved that particular transcendence that comes from truly extreme conditions– it rained so hard that it actually looks cleaner than it did at the beginning.
Not the most efficient way to clean a bike, perhaps, but maybe the most fun. Thanks, Doc.
Learn more about Doc Wong’s free clinics here.