Beginner tips for wet-weather riding

Riding in the wet is a fact of life for UK motorcyclists, but even monsoon style rainfall is nothing for the prepared motorcyclist to be afraid of. In fact you can learn to love riding in the rain with a combination of just three things: advice, confidence and practice.

First some advice:

  • Wear appropriate clothing. A cold, wet rider is a distracted rider and won’t be fully on their game. Two piece waterproofs are convenient but the real deal is the one-piece waterproof suit, which will keep you drier, warmer and happier (well, at least until the water pooling in your crotch breaches).

motorcycle-riding-in-rain

  • Check your tyres.

Pressure: Wet roads require tyres at the correct manufacturer’s pressure (which you can find in the manual or on a sticker on the bike somewhere, typically on the swing arm or under the seat). You shouldn’t reduce or inflate tyre pressure to account for wet weather.

tyre pressure marking swinging arm

Tread: Your bike must have the incredibly lax UK legal minimum tread depth of 1mm across the central three-quarters of the tyre. You can use a tread depth gauge to measure this but most modern tyres offer a handy moulded-in tread depth indicator to conveniently show the level of wear. Tread depth bars look like little bumps between the tread lines (or ‘sipes’ if you want to get technical). The idea is that when the wear bars contact the road you know at-a-glance that your tyre is worn out:

So here’s a new tyre with a wear bar circled:

Credit: Pirelli

And here’s an old one ready for replacement with its wear bars surfacing:

tread bars worn

A word about aquaplaning: Because bike tyres are so narrow, aquaplaning (when a tyre’s sipes cannot clear water quickly enough and it begins to ‘float’ on the surface with predictably exciting results) is an extremely rare occurrence. Nevertheless tread is there for a reason – to clear water. Why not be a Safety Susan and change your tyres when they reach 1.5 to 2mm depth?

Profile: One of the most important aspects of a motorcycle’s tyre is its profile (or its shape across the wear surface). When your tyre is new, it will have a nice, even curved profile like this:

motorcycle tyre profile

 

Later in it life, it will begin to square off, as more material is worn from the centre of the tyre compared to the edges like this one:

bridgestone-bt45-tire

See how its profile looks flat? This creeping wear can be difficult to notice as it happens over many thousands of miles, but it’s one of the biggest factors in how your bike feels and responds to your input.

Commuters and motorway riders are most at risk of tyre squaring from long distance or heavily-loaded riding on largely straight roads. As well as the flat portion of the tyre making the bike feel like an over-loaded wheelbarrow during gentle cornering, the steeply profiled shoulder transition which is created (arrowed in yellow on this Bridgestone BT45) produces squirmy and unpredictable handling during even modestly enthusiastic cornering. Not enjoyable on wet or greasy roads.

Credit: xbhp.com
Credit: xbhp.com

Top Tip: Take a picture of your tyre’s profile with your phone when it’s new and use this during its life as a reference. It’s an easy way to keep tabs on creeping profile change as your tyre wears down.

  • Accelerate and brake smoothly. Even if your bike is fitted with such magical trickery, don’t rely on traction control and ABS braking to solve your every problem – learning to ride well is an active, not a passive experience and an electronic nanny won’t teach a rider anything. Ride instead as if you’ve got a saucer of eggs balanced on your instrument cluster. Accelerate without losing any and you’re doing it right. When it comes to braking, as always, favour the front brake by using it progressively but remember to balance your braking by lightly using the rear in combination. Didn’t break any eggs after you stopped? Celebrate with an imaginary omelette.
BMWR1200GS rider modes
Credit: BMW Motorrad
  • Use lower gears at slightly higher revs, especially during cornering. It seems counter intuitive but using higher revs and narrow throttle openings in lower gears helps your engine to act as a predictable and accurate speed regulator instead of eager-puppy power source. This is especially useful in the wet and no more so than during wet cornering. As a new rider, you may think ‘DANGER!’ on hearing your engine revving slightly higher during cornering, assuming quite reasonably that a relaxed, low revving tone equals relaxed, safe riding. Try to get over this.

Why are slightly higher revs better in the wet? If you enter a corner carrying a higher gear at lower revs, you risk having no engine braking to fall back on. This is undesirable because if you misjudged your entry speed and need to reduce it further, you may find yourself having to to touch your brakes – a bad idea in cornering and especially so in the wet.

Equally, trying to maintain an even power flow to your rear wheel in a corner – vital in the wet – can be especially tricky if your bike exhibits a stuttery, unpredictable response from light throttle openings and low revs. This manifestation is is especially noticeable on some modern larger capacity single and twin cylinder bikes – especially those fitted with fuel injection. If your bike exhibits the herky-jerkies (actually a result of a complex mix of factors rather than just poorly mapped fuel injection) help keep things smooth by using slightly higher revs to combat any annoying surging or lurching.

  • Plan ahead. As you’ll remember from those fervid Highway Code study sessions, stopping times increase by a factor of at least two in the rain. On a motorcycle with its tiny rubber contact patch, giving yourself plenty of time to react is crucial. Don’t speed. Don’t tailgate. You can’t stop like a car. In wet weather, a car has the equivalent of four stout Wellington boots. You have a pair of flip flops.

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  • Relax. A relaxed rider is more likely to ride smoothly – the key to safe wet riding. When you began learning to ride, you were probably rigid with stress the first few times you did it and only realised when your instructor finally managed to pry you from his CBF125 twenty minutes after the lesson ended. Being stressed when you do something new is normal. The same goes for riding in the rain, so as you ride, remind yourself “arms flexed, shoulders loose, relaxed grip”. Just like when you’re in the pub in fact.
  • Finally, don’t be a fair weather biker. Going down the “I’ll just ride on sunny days” route is the worst thing you can do at the start of your biking career. Gaining confidence in the rain comes from the combination of getting the right advice but just as importantly knowing how to apply it – and this can only come through practice. It might be a hassle to clean your bike afterwards and you’ll find the incredible urge to go to the bathroom arrives only after you’ve fully zipped up your waterproofs, but it’s a plain fact that all-weather bikers become better all-round bikers. And if that’s not a good reason to get out in the rain then really, what is?

Header image credit: AP

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