Singing in the Rain

November 1 2007

Do you talk to yourself when riding? I do, although not loud enough for anyone to hear me. I try to concentrate on the road and traffic demands by keeping a mental dialogue going with myself. I know what you are thinking, “This guy definitely needs therapy”. I study the road and traffic as I ride and I try to predict what drivers around me might do next. When approaching an intersection, I slow down and move a bit to the right if I see a car coming towards me. If the car turns left across my path then I am more likely to be able to avoid what I predicted might happen. I call it traffic chess, and it keeps me alert to ride as if I am invisible to other road users.

Sometimes other drivers do dumb things that we couldn’t have predicted. I survived a very close call recently when a car driver in front of me did the unthinkable.

I had been very busy at work and that meant I needed to drive my truck more than my bike for the previous three weeks, so I hadn’t been on my street bike for a bit. I had to go to Toronto for a meeting and I decided to ride despite the rain. I have ridden a lot in the rain over the years and don’t really mind it as long as I have good tires, rain gear and extra time to take it easy. I had just changed lanes moving off of Highway 400 southbound near Toronto. I was in the left tire track of the far right lane doing just over 100 km/h. There were two cars ahead of me on the exit lane. The white car was directly in front of me in my lane and right beside him was a black car (in the middle lane). All of a sudden the driver of the white car started to move left without checking or even putting a turn signal on. He almost hit the car beside him. As soon as I witnessed this idiotic move, my yahoo alarm went off. I covered my brakes, lightly pulled on the front brake lever and checked my mirrors. Scrubbing off a bit of speed down to 90 km/h saved me because in the next few seconds the white car’s brake lights came on and its back-end stood up as the driver hammered on his brakes. I could see that there was no longer a car in front of this moron so why was he stopping quickly on the highway without pulling off onto the shoulder? Without thinking about it, I got on the brakes. I didn’t lock them but applied them progressively harder. The Yamaha FZ1 I was riding has huge front rotors and great brakes. Once the weight transfer came forward and flattened out the front tire I pulled harder on the lever. I slowed down fast but I realized there might not be enough time to stop. Luckily, I had enough following distance to slow down and then get off the brakes to perform a quick swerve to the left. I went by the stopped driver with my horn blaring and glanced into the car. The idiot male driver was reading what appeared to be a map. In my mirror I was horrified to see him pull a u-turn right in the middle of the lane. He then drove north (in the southbound lanes) until he could get past the guard rail. With another u-turn he headed back south. I vented with lots of swearing and wishing that I had been driving a big dump truck with bad brakes.

That was a close one. As I continued my trip to Yamaha’s head office, my little analytical voice was trying to see how I could have avoided getting my heart rate up so high. I decided that I had been doing what I could to be safe. I was sober, had almost new tires, a good three-second following distance for the conditions and had not panicked.

I am convinced that I did not panic because of practicing emergency manoeuvres on all kinds of bikes for many years. I had taken the FZ1 to a parking lot and worked on doing harder and harder stops until I felt comfortable with knowing how much brake to put on, and when, in order to stop within a certain distance. Having some braking judgment for the road conditions and the bike I was on kept me from panicking. I am convinced that in panic mode our brains resort to habit – some of us do nothing. Police analyzing motor-cycle/car accidents sometimes see no skid marks. For me, I had never braked that hard going that fast in the rain but I didn’t end up in the back seat of that car in front of me. Lucky?

In July, our staff went to a national road race at Mosport. We were teaching for Yamaha by providing free lessons and rides to children. After teaching we watched some phenomenal rain riding. The best racers were incredibly smooth getting on and off the throttle, braking and shifting. Most were still scraping their knee sliders on the pavement when cornering at very high speeds. Jordan Szoke made an unbelievable pass attempt by moving off the racing line to try and pass Francis Martin for the lead. It was raining hard and Jordan was leaned way over on the high-speed corner. The back end of his bike suddenly broke free and stepped out. We all gasped thinking he was going to crash. Jordan didn’t panic. He didn’t chop the throttle or touch a brake. He calmly kept the front end pointed where he wanted to go and the rear end came back into line. He passed for the win. My staff thought he was incredibly lucky. Maybe luck had some part, but I know that his years of sliding dirt bikes and smooth road racing in the wet had more to do with him not crashing.

Now, you don’t have to go road racing or look for dumb drivers stopping on the highway in front of you to practice rain riding. Take an advanced riding course and get input on emergency manoeuvres. If there isn’t a course nearby, make a mini holiday out of it and travel to a course. At the very least, take your bike along with a buddy to a safe parking lot and practice hard stops and quick change of direction swerves (not at the same time).

In the meantime here are some rain riding tips that may help you.

1) Riding Gear: Spend some money on good rain gear. You want your mind on the road and paying attention to traffic, not on how cold and miserable you are. Buy bright colours with lots of retro-reflective bits on it. Waterproof your leathers or the coloured dye will come out on you and whatever you are wearing underneath the wet leather.

2) A full-face helmet with a clear scratch-free visor is the most practical for rain riding. At least make sure your face and eyes are protected since raindrops can feel like bullets at speed. If your visor fogs up open some vents or crack the shield open a little.

3) When it starts to rain, try and get off the road for a bit. Light rain will mix with the toxic stuff (oil, antifreeze and exhaust drippings) on the road and make traction more challenging. I head for a Tim Hortons or shelter where I can put my rain gear on and wait a bit while the rain washes away the greasy stuff on the road. Please don’t stop under a bridge to stand near the slow lane and put your rain suit on. Too many riders have been killed by drivers who don’t see them. If you must stop at the side of the road or under a bridge, get off the road as far as possible. Leave your four-way flashers or lights on. Put your bike between you and traffic and face oncoming cars so you can see if a car is heading your way, you’ll have time to jump out of the way if needed.

4) Ride in the tire tracks of other road users and be aware that the centre of the lane will provide the least amount of traction. Be careful of some areas where heavy trucks may have depressed the tire tracks and that they can fill with water. You could hydroplane (surf) in them.

5) When it comes to buying motorcycle tires, get off your wallet or you could be sliding down the road on it. Good tires are expensive, but not if you consider that you only have two palm-sized patches holding you onto the road. Make sure your tires have great tread, proper air pressure and are not too old. Rubber hardens with age and sun exposure so stopping on rubber with the consistency of a hockey puck won’t work very well.

6) If you have a windshield make sure that you can see over it. Your vision will be distorted trying to look through a wet or scratched windshield. Most shops will be able to customize the height of your shield.

7) Be very smooth when braking, accelerating and downshifting when riding on wet pavement. Traction loss happens much faster and easier in the rain.

8) Practice smooth, progressively harder stops on dry pavement. Then find some gravel and do the same smooth stops there. Stopping on gravel more closely resembles the reduced traction that a paved wet road provides. Riders who only use the rear brake or use it too hard will probably lose traction at the back wheel and if they have no experience controlling a sliding rear wheel, they will usually fall down.

Most importantly, get out and ride in the rain. With good tires, riding gear and a relaxed schedule you can learn to enjoy rain riding. The worst part will be cleaning your bike afterward.

These are a few tips that may help and if you have any more ideas that work for you, please write in and share them. By the way, I am also looking for a used dump truck with bad brakes if you know of one for sale.


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