Advanced Riding Course: Wet Weather Riding Confidence

Niall Mackenzie turns diviner to explain the secrets of riding in the wet. Soggy satisfaction

I used be of the opinion that riding in the rain is like going to work, I can do it but I don’t particularly want to. I couldn’t grasp where the enjoyment came from getting cold and wet while constantly thinking that my bike could disappear from under me without notice. In my first ever 500GP for Honda, I was devastated when I crashed three corners from the chequered flag while lying 3rd at a wet Suzuka. After I emptied my boots of gravel and stopped crying I made a promise to myself to do whatever was necessary to sort out my wet weather riding. It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually over the years I’ve come to enjoy the challenge.

As always, being prepared is the key and this time being warm and dry is essential. There is nothing worse than being soaked and freezing after five minutes of riding, so when I’m setting off for a lengthy jaunt this is the ritual that works for me.

My first layer of clothing is full thermals then, depending how cold it is, I’ll wear one more sleeved top, then my two-piece Wolf textile suit and a two-piece rain suit. I’ve had the same (inexpensive) two-piece Alpinestars waterproof suit for four years now, which is windproof, rainproof and equally importantly, flap proof. My free Visordown neck warmer goes over the head, then it’s thin socks, followed by Tesco bags, then another pair of thin socks keeping the tootsies warm and dry. I’ll then pull on some clear plastic gloves (free for you at fuel stations or if you happen to work as a customs inspector) then with my RST mitts.

Finally I’ll fit my yellow ’happy’ visor to brighten things up, which also fools my brain into making me cheerful, despite the dull conditions. Racers use these all the time and they really do work. Talking of visors, most now have an anti fog coating so I’d leave the inside well alone but Rain X works well on the outside. Also, should you have problems with water running down the inside and you can’t adjust your visor, try running a strip of tape along the top of the helmet to help it seal.

When it comes to road riding, apart from checking tyre pressures there is nothing I would change from a good dry riding set up. I’ve heard of riders reducing tyre pressures for the wet but I totally disagree as this will only let the tread ‘fold’ in and reduce water displacement. Standard pressures are best and there is always a chance the roads might dry up so regular suspension settings are also best.

Modern road tyres give incredible performance in the rain. And they work even better with some temperature so although it is more difficult to get them warm in the rain it is worth riding steady for six miles to help raise temperatures.

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Wet weather riding

The first alteration I make to my riding for the wet is to use only one finger on the front brake. By doing this I’m not able to pull hard and lock the up the front wheel. In dry conditions I normally only ever use two fingers so if you use three or four digits in the dry then try to reduce your grip by at least one finger. The major danger zone while braking is the first moment before weight is transferred onto the front suspension so it’s very important to be gentle during initial braking.

With this in mind I like to begin the braking process with changing down a gear or two as it gently helps to get the weight transferred to the front tyre. I use extra engine braking by back shifting earlier in the wet, as it is much safer than relying purely on the front brake to scrub of speed. Once the front tyre is loaded then it is okay to increase pressure on the brake lever to slow things up. It is still okay to use the rear brake but I find it has very little feel in wet conditions. No matter if you are braking or accelerating if the rear locks up or spins up, providing you keep the bike upright then you are unlikely to get into trouble.

The tyre’s contact patch is at its optimum when you are fully upright so ideally you need to be fully off the brakes before leaning in. This is why I like engine braking, as you can quite often control everything with the throttle and avoid touching the brakes. As most road surfaces are cambered, the least amount of water tends to be in the middle so I like to ride just to the inside of the white line. You’ll also notice this is where the road starts to dry out first so this is where the best grip is.

The same rule of keeping upright for maximum grip applies on corner exits. I never get anywhere near a fully open throttle until I am bolt upright. I will always use a tall gear with low revs mid corner and then when I am at the corner exit, I find short shifting or changing up through the gears just before the engine starts to pull hard is the safest and most efficient way to build up speed. It may feel slow, but this delivers the most grip, giving good control while keeping the bike nicely balanced.

If you do have to cross any white paint, drains or cats eyes, do it with a neutral throttle (not fully on or off) and if you need to brake over the same hazards just ease off the pressure momentarily until you are back on tarmac again.

My final tip is to try to stay smooth and relax. Riding is the rain needs a lot less physical effort so while you must keep your wits about you, being less tense is important. So long as accelerating, braking and changing direction are all done in a gradual, steady manner you’ll get plenty warning before you get into bother.

If only I’d known all this in Suzuka then that podium champagne would have been mine!

Track riding

The riding techniques are pretty similar when it comes to wet track riding but improvements can be made by making suspension adjustments. Personally, if I was happy with my dry weather suspension settings, for full wet conditions, I would take three clicks off the front and rear compression and rebound adjusters plus 2mm off the front and rear pre load adjustment. If the adjusters don’t click but turn, I would reduce them by three turns. This softens the suspension giving more weight transfer and should increase tyre temperatures. Depending on the track and the bike these initial settings may be too soft so if that were the case I would gradually work my way back harder. Don’t be afraid to use plenty of engine braking to initiate weight transfer.

Again it is important to build up the pace gradually as the more laps completed the more temperature will be in the tyres. It is worth remembering that wet tyres cool down instantly, so even after a few minutes the bike will feel completely different if you rejoin the track.

Niall’s soggy tips

Things to remember

  • Get kitted out properly. You’ll always hate the wet if you feel cold and damp
  • Try using fewer fingers on the front brake. You need a lot less pressure in the wet compared to the dry
  • Change down early and use the engine for rear braking
  • Stay upright until braking is totally finished
  • Coast through corners in tall gears and short shift during hard acceleration once upright
  • Soften your suspension for wet track days
  • Relax and stay smooth and you’ll have better feel all-round