When you really think about it, one of the determining factors in whether or not someone sticks with the sport of motorcycling is the frequency with which they meet the ground. Crashing sucks, and if you do it often enough, it could be a reason to quit the sport. Keeping the motorcycle upright, then, leads to successful, enjoyable journeys, and having fun on two wheels inevitably is the reason why we keep doing this.
If you’re reading this, then obviously you know full well how much pleasure can be had from motorcycling. Those perfect days with beautiful sunshine and curvy roads can do a number in brightening someone’s day. Then there are those days when the sun doesn’t shine. For whatever reason Mother Nature is pissed off, and when she decides to release some steam in the form of wind and rain – less than ideal riding conditions, to say the least – what do you do?
This was the position I found myself in this weekend, as a guest rider aboard a Honda CRF150R modified for supermoto duty, during a five-hour endurance race. I’ll tell the tale of my race at a later time, but the moment that stuck out for me was during my second stint, when the track, shining in sunlight a few minutes prior, suddenly turned dark and grey thanks to some menacing rain clouds. Droplets of water began collecting on my faceshield – mental rain, racers call it, because the droplets are just enough to get your mind worrying about the track surface even though the pavement still has plenty of traction – and I had to gauge how hard to push without falling down.
It was a tough task trying to decide how hard to push, and the varying grip levels can play havoc with a rider’s psyche. A rider lowsiding in front of me was the answer I needed in determining what grip levels were like, and without rain tires at my disposal, the mission now was simply to keep the bike upright.
I’ve heard coaches use the phrase “Slow Hands” when describing a rider’s movements. A rider’s hands should be slow and deliberate (and relaxed) in order to give the motorcycle inputs without upsetting the chassis or the tires. In dry conditions, often a rider can get away with cheating on the Slow Hands drill because the grip levels provided from the tires and pavement are enough to mask these mistakes. But the emphasis of Slow Hands was put into clear focus for me when the heavens opened up.
With a wet surface and relatively slick tires with minimal siping, abrupt braking is a recipe for crashing. Instead, I had to remind myself to gently – but deliberately – squeeze the brake lever. Doing so would let the tire’s contact patch dig into the ground, whereas a sudden jab at the brake could cause a lockup … and crash. This is a big reason why we’re fans of ABS.
The same technique applies when getting on the throttle. Whacking the gas wide open on corner exit is a recipe for disaster, whereas twisting the wrist with intent, not anger, can allow the rider to gauge available traction. A small moment of wheelspin is recoverable, and tells the rider to ease a little next time. Conversely, no wheelspin signals there’s more available traction.
In corners, smooth and steady is the ticket when conditions are crappy. Manhandling the motorcycle through a bend might work in the dry, but it is a recipe for disaster in the wet. The potential loss of traction can happen so quickly that there’s no recovering. Meanwhile, if you relax on the bars and ease the motorcycle through turns, any potential slips or slides can be recovered.
Endurance racing has a lot in common with your typical street ride. It’s not always about outright speed, but instead about bringing bike and rider home in one piece. No matter what you ride, where you ride it, or when you go, we’re always judging how much grip we have available. When it’s bright and sunny outside those calculations are pretty easy, but when the conditions go south, are you prepared? I enjoy riding quickly and dragging a knee on the ground every now and again as much as the next guy. But I also enjoy the challenge of staying upright in the face of adverse conditions.
Relatively speaking of course, crappy weather shouldn’t be a reason not to go riding. Embrace it. Learn from it. And practice. Rain riding is fun!