Riding in the wet!

Riding and driving under any conditions obviously requires attention, skill and awareness of hazards. When riding in the wet conditions then there are so many others factors to consider also and those hazards become more acute too!

One of the primary considerations of riding in the wet is to modify your riding philosophy!….”What?” I hear you say!

Well a riding philosophy is simply a specific mental approach to riding under certain sets of conditions. As a leading example:…”I’ll ride slower on wet roads!” Herein lies the change in philosophy…we acknowledge there will be wet roads, less grip on the tyres, therefore we should ride more slowly to compensate.

I often talk about riding conservatively in deteriorating or reduced conditions. This simply means adopting a moderate philosophy…riding well inside the performance envelope of the bike and the rider and leaving lots of room for error and an increased margin of safety!

But riding slowly isn’t just the only modification…as I said it is a philosophy! It is an approach to riding in general in wet conditions that will distinguish you from other riders and road users.

Firstly let us consider what are potentially the additional wet weather hazards!

  1. Cold & Wet tyres means less grip. The water creates a boundary layer between the tyre and road surface which leads to inefficient interaction between the two.
  2. Wet conditions means reduced braking efficiency and increased braking distances. Harsh braking can destabilise the ride and cause a loss of grip. Harsh braking can lead to skids, where the front wheel can lock up and cause the rider to fall off, or the rear tyre to lock up and skid, which may fishtail along the road before losing control. Any harsh braking, especially on a turn can lead to a slide and an accident.
  3. Wet roads lifts embedded contaminates in the road onto the surface, thus increasing the boundary layer, thus less grip. These contaminates can be, fuels, oils, grease, chemicals & salts etc.
  4. Wet roads can create standing water and flooded roads. These not only create dramatic changes in ride stability especially at higher speed or on a turning radius but they can also mask deformations of the road surface which can seriously destabilise the ride, i.e. potholes, cracks & debris.
  5. Wet weather may disperse or cause debris, grit, mud & vegetation e.g. tree branches or twigs & leaves to fall onto the road, which may add to reducing grip and general stability.
  6. Any smooth surface will become even more slippery in the wet, e.g. painted lines, manhole covers & metal grills etc will all become very unstable surfaces in the applicable riding profiles.
  7. Riding uncomfortably without appropriate wet weather clothing and equipment will overtime affect the rider’s riding performance and concentration levels. Anything that may distract the rider from focussing on the road will have a negative affect…how much is purely subjective.
  8. Reduced visibilities in the wet…either from condensation on visors or goggles or from rain droplets on the visor outer surface. From rain on windscreens to road spray and visibility through rain or drizzle which all collude to inhibit optimum visibility and early recognition of hazards.
  9. Riding in the wet may create visual illusions and the rider or driver may misinterpret road surface conditions…from coarse to smooth, from wet to flooded, from shiny painted surface to standing water etc.
  10. The wet conditions stretches the capability of both driver and rider, so the rider needs to be aware of reduced performances and potentially erratic driving or riding. Riders may be struggling with the wet conditions and so will drivers.
  11. Wet weather sucks!…for some! Riding in the wet has a general psychological affect which may cause the rider to tense up, become nervous and uncomfortable, not enjoy the ride or experience etc. The first way to overcome this is to wear weather appropriate equipment and slow everything down and smooth out your riding style and allow lots of space in between vehicles and gradual braking. Some people will never like to ride in the wet, but although I prefer the dry days, I always like the challenge of riding in the wet and testing new techniques, clothing and equipment. I always try to make it a learning experience and never feel I have to rush to get anywhere.

So how do you ride conservatively on wet roads, either on straight highways or twisty country roads? 

Well firstly there is the defensive approach…give yourself lots of time and space to manoeuvre, space between vehicles, move away from any oncoming danger or vehicle!

Then concentrate of gradual control inputs which creates a smooth ride. Ride in a more upright position, avoid aggressive acceleration and rapid and harsh braking! Gradually build up and reduce speed, whilst always maintaining a greater margin of error and safety.

Avoid higher lean angles on bends and avoid riding, accelerating, braking on painted & metal surfaces…especially on a bend. Alway try to make your power changes and braking inputs when the bike is in the upright position.

Never be in a rush to get to your destination…especially so in the wet! Give yourself extra time for the journey, depart earlier or just be ok with arriving late. Better to be late than not at all! 

In general ride at a slower speed than you would do in the dry…Just reducing your speed by 15-20% which is approximately 10-15 mph off standard higher speed road limits will give you so much more control and more time to detect and avoid and potential hazards. This of course does not mean you should never ride at the higher speeds, but it just means that you do should not aim to always reach the higher speeds…Use them wisely!

Adopt a more centre lane road position! Some would argue this is incorrect, but I will explain the rationale behind this:

When riding, we generally want to have the best view of the road ahead, so in general riding you could argue that the rider should ride in the centre of the road for a straight road and that will give a good buffer zone for emerging side traffic, and the rider should approach a bend towards the outside of the bend, whilst remaining within the lane. This will give the rider the best view of the road around the bend and note any oncoming traffic.

The problem with this approach, especially in the wet, is that it brings the rider closer to factors that will destabilise the ride. If the rider takes the outside line and this brings them closer to the side of the road, where there is likely to be more laying debris, this may cause a loss of grip and control. We see this quite a lot in accident scenarios!

If the rider takes the outside line and this brings them closer to the middle of the road or crosses over into the oncoming lane, then the rider may encounter debris in the middle of the road and may have to take avoiding action late on, which may destabilise the ride.

The point here is, if you are going slower then you do not need to have such an ‘extreme’ view of the road ahead. Therefore generally riding in the centre of the lane will provide the best buffer.

That being said, the rider should still position themselves away from oncoming or emerging hazards, but should not be so polar in method.

Whenever riding on wet roads, there will likely be standing water, which the rider may wish to avoid, if this can’t be avoided then a substantial reduction of speed should be done to ascertain the condition of the road surface below the flood water. Many times the rider’s best path is to ride ‘off line’ in order to avoid the greatest hazard…in this case the standing water. However if going off line then means the rider will encounter another equally if not greater danger, then they should choose the least hazardous path and hold their line, however again reduce speed and sometimes be prepared to stop.

I have been asked many times before, when riding in the rain, where should the rider position themselves behind another vehicle.

Well, certainly in heavy rain and with a lot of standing water on the road, the rider should keep a substantial distance behind the vehicle in front, to enable the driver ahead to note the rider, but also to give the rider lots of time to avoid any sudden braking or emerging hazard from beneath the car e.g a pothole.

When trailing another vehicle, it can sometimes be useful to follow in ‘the tracks’ of the car wheels. Those wheels will have dispersed water from the road and there might be a path with less water on it for the rider to ride on. However, this really is a subjective call and is determined by the level of water in the first place.

Whatever the situation, the trailing rider should allow adequate time to view the road ahead and constantly monitor the surface and conditions. Sometimes the best course of action is to not follow the tracks but to exploit the road camber. Look for the high points on the road where the drainage will be best and ride along those parts, however again be sure that it does not conflict with any oncoming hazards.

Many of the accidents that we see on wet roads are mainly to do with spacing and delayed observation of hazards, over reacting, over controlling, harsh braking thus leading to a loss of control. Of course sometimes there is high speeds involved, however in general terms, these speeds are rarely substantially above the road speed limits. It is just too high speed and too little reaction times and misreading of the conditions.

And finally…Braking! As with anything to do with riding…especially in the wet, everything should be gradual. 

Firstly by riding more conservatively will in general terms mean than there will be less requirement to brake harshly. Gradual reduction of speed and going down through the gears as you approach a ‘slow point’ and then a gentle squeezing of brakes will bring you gradually to a stop. Many of the accidents is where we see snatch braking…especially on slippery surfaces or on bends and the rider loses control.

In general terms the braking should be more evenly distributed between front and rear. Apply front brake and rear brake initially and gradually. Apply greater pressure if required to slow down more quickly. Then gradually releasing pressure on the front and increase on the rear, until the bike has substantially slowed, then reapply pressure to the front to slow to a stop.

By applying a lot of front brake, the bike will tend to nose dive and propel the rider forward, also causing the weight on the bike to move forward. This causes the rear tyre to raise off the surface and has less traction, therefore less braking efficiency especially when using the rear brake. By nose diving the front, there is also a greater performance requirement of the front tyre which may bring it to its limit a lot sooner.

The idea is to brake ‘flat’ i.e. apply both front and rear brake in proportion so that the bike doesn’t dive and doesn’t take off at the front either, by too much rear brake. By applying both brakes we are pulling the centre of gravity of the bike straight down and the tyres are working more equally under load, therefore they will be less likely to reach their limits, thus an improved braking efficiency.

When we brake ‘flat’, the rider should not feel any tendency to move forward or rearward. The gentle and timely braking should allow for a slow and gradual reduction of speed.

This riding technique will reduce the requirement to ever need to perform an emergency braking manoeuvre, however of course there may be situations where you will still need to brake harder. You may feel that you have to use a lot of front brake in an emergency, but actually adopting the ‘flat’ breaking approach just with slightly and modified added pressure will still perform well. With any emergency braking there will be a tendency to ‘snatch brake’ thus applying to much pressure either front or rear and applying it too quickly, thus leading to a skid…regardless of whether the bike is fitted with drum, discs or ABS.

The rider who acknowledges the conditions and modifies their riding style and approach accordingly will more likely have an uneventful ride and more enjoyable ride…regardless of how wet the roads are.

Can you ride conservatively in the wet?

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