Why are some riders able to ride more quickly than others when the rain starts and the road is wet?

Why are some riders able to ride more quickly than others when the rain starts and the road is wet, or remains wet following the falling rain ?

The answer to this question is not simple,  nor has it a single solution to resolve the potential dilemma, if indeed there is a dilemma at all, some riders will be more than happy to adjust their riding in these conditions and accept they will be slower, or as in some cases, just not go out when the road is wet or it is raining or indeed in some cases, when the forecast is for potential rain. This article is for those who may wish to improve their riding when it rains, or when the road is wet. So what are the potential limitations when riding in the wet ? In essence very few, all of the factors which may potentially affect our pace in wet conditions are all controllable by the rider.

The single most important part of our motorcycle in the quest for grip are our tyres, and, thankfully, nearly every modern motorcycle tyre is capable of a high level of grip. I remember, on my return to motorcycling in 1999, being amazed at the grip modern tyres were capable of, having been on 250's from the early seventies and their "Bakelite" tyres and low levels of grip, the difference was amazing. It is because of advances in tyre technology that modern bikes have not only the engines and power outputs they now have, but also the brakes that are fitted to a modern motorcycle, only by having such huge levels of grip can modern motorcycles accelerate and stop as well as they do now, as the tyres now allow engineers to develop bikes with phenomenal power outputs and huge twin disc brakes capable of shedding speed at an alarming rate, without the modern radial motorcycle tyre, none of this would have been possible. Tyre manufacturers produce a range of tyres available in a variety of sizes and more importantly, in a range of compounds and tread patterns. These range from track day tyres through sports tyres and sports-touring,  touring tyres and "off-road" and custom to give examples of a typical range available from most of the big manufacturers. So the choice of tyre will seriously affect the potential grip under specific conditions, you will not get the grip needed "off-road" with a track day tyre, and an "off-road" knobbly tyre will give grip on a track day, but will clearly have limitations, so the choice of tyre should be down to the type of riding we are going to undertake on our bikes, and for the vast majority of us, this will predominantly be road riding.

If you have now decided on a tyre, how are you going to get it into, and more importantly, keep it in the temperature range the manufacturer has designed it for ? Tyres designated as  "sport" will need to be at a higher temperature to work effectively, getting a tyre up to its optimum temperature will be easier on a dry, hot summers day, it will need to be ridden harder than any other type of tyre to keep it in its operating temperature zone, so any slowing, stopping, and cooling through wet roads will affect its performance as the temperature drops. At the other end of the scale, off-road or "Adventure" tyres will work at lower temperatures and provide some grip on the road in the wet and cooler conditions, but the level of grip provided will not be optimum. So, for good grip levels at the sorts of conditions likely to be encountered all year round on our roads, will be those in the middle group, that is a choice of touring or sports-touring tyres. These types of tyre have a wide operating temperature range, warm up to this range quickly and hold heat for longer when they are ridden slower, or in adverse and wet conditions. Coupled to this many now offer an additional advantage in that they will be dual compound, and have softer more compliant and easier to get heat into different compounds on the outer shoulders, just where you need it when leaned over into and through a corner.

So, modern tyres give excellent levels of grip, that said, they will only perform at their best, if within their design limitations, and that includes being at the right pressure from the off ! Motorcycle manufacturers will spend an inordinate amount of money developing a motorcycle, and to enable it to perform at its best, will have a specific tyre pressure for each bike, you need to know what this is, and ensure that on every ride, they are at the correct pressure.

Given that tyres are probably up there as one of the most important parts of the motorcycle we ride when it comes to riding in the wet, what else will affect our potential performance when riding on a wet road ? The ability to keep a tyre in contact with the road is vital, no matter what the road conditions, but as potential grip slips away, it become even more important to keep all of the relatively small contact patch we run on, firmly planted on the road. This is affected by a number of factors, but primarily this is the responsibility of the bikes suspension, too hard or harsh as found on some high performance sports bikes will not allow the vital feeling you need from the front of the bike to be fed back to you, the rider as it may skip over small undulations and potentially loose grip even in the dry and make the bike feel insecure, causing you to lose confidence in the front end. Equally on some "soft-roaders" primarily for off road use will feel loose and insecure, and will start to lose grip sooner than most other types of suspension setup, causing you lose confidence and ride more slowly. Here again, the suspension we are at our best on will probably be the suspension we are riding on, as the vast majority of the bikes we use for rides, weekends away and longer holiday trips will be in the middle of the suspension range ensuring is  not too stiff or too loose for normal road riding. However, it must be up to the job, as many bikes suspension will need to be serviced, even if this just means a change of oil, rather than a set of new springs by 25 to 30,00 miles.

Whilst many of the more modern bikes available today come with all sorts of rider aids, ABS, traction control, anti-wheelie, anti-lock, active suspension etc,  these will not compensate for poor riding skills, and many very powerful bikes, some not that old, did not have any of these systems fitted, and they all managed to be ridden well, and quickly in the wet.

So, we have a bike with the right tyres fitted at the right pressure, the bike is serviceable with all of the components it is made up of working, what's left to affect potential performance in the wet ? Yes, you're right, the rider, the single most deciding factor on the bike at any time. So how are some riders more comfortable in the wet ? Well, the single most influential factor is confidence. Given the above, the bike will be in a condition to be ridden at speed in the wet, the thing that is slowing it in the wet, is the rider, so how do you get more confident in the wet ? To answer this  we need to look at many aspects of riding and start to give us confidence to push our boundaries, without taking too big a leap forward, and ending up outside our confidence level and causing a problem, as this will of course potentially shatter any confidence we had, and possibly put us back lower down the skill level we were before the event that caused the loss of confidence, if you see what is meant !

So, how is this type of confidence gained off the bike ? If you choose a racing series that is run on unmodified bikes and on control road tyres, you can make a start. These bikes are racing, that is, going as absolutely fast as possible on a track, riding up to the limit at all times in order to potentially win a race. So the figures below are from the Thundersports series of races, and, with the exceptionally dry Summer we have had, there were problems finding a track and two races that had one in the dry, and one in the wet on the same day, but, the race at Anglesey Circuit on the 28th August 2014 was just such a day, running 600cc 4 cylinder or up to 675cc 3 cylinder motorcycles. The 1st race that started at 13:05 HRS around the 1.55 mile circuit ran its course in the wet, lap time for the winner (who was presumably going the fastest), was1:15.402 seconds, that's 75.4 seconds. The race later in the day was at 15:49 HRS and was run in the dry, and the lap time of the winner, 1:09.503, that's 69.5 seconds. So the difference in time between a wet race and a dry race is 8%. Don't forget these riders will have been pushing their bikes to the available limit at all times, and were only 8% slower in the wet. These riders will be riding a smooth a silk to keep their lines every lap, as Advanced riders, on the road, whilst taking different lines to a racer, we will still be taking each corner in a recognised way, following a good line for visibility and safety. We now have to ask ourselves the question "when I ride on the public highway, do I ride to the absolute limit all the time?" or do I have some "margin for error" or other safety factor in play ? Even if you are riding at the limit of the grip available into a corner that can be taken at the fastest pace in the dry, say 60 MPH, then the same corner will potentially be able to be taken at 55 MPH in the wet. But on the majority of roads you will be riding, you will have a margin for error, or something will stop you seeing all the way through a corner, and you won't be taking it at the absolute limit, so if you are riding in this way, more reserved, the difference in potential grip will be less and at around 5% rather than the racers 8%, you will potentially be able to  take the corner at 57 MPH in the wet with no drama. So, taking in these factors concerning levels of grip on road tyres, how can we improve or performance in the wet. Well, one thing is as stated previously, don't rush off and take any corner much faster than you are comfortable with at present, build up slowly and get confidence at a couple of MPH faster than you are going now. The big risk here is once again the rider, if you are now heading into a corner, slightly outside you comfort zone, a few things will happen. Potentially you will tense, with tight shoulders and outstretched arms to the bars, this stops the bike from turning, and reduces all control and potential feedback from the front of the bike, and you will inevitably be leaning further over than before, so you must stay relaxed.  Your brain is there to keep you as safe as possible, and over many millions of years, has done a pretty good job, as we are all here today. Unfortunately, a hundred years of riding a motorcycle is not enough to genetically change our brains, so the "keep me safe" response will kick in if you are not taking control, a good example of this is "target fixation" where the brain is conditioned to protect us from any risk or potential hazard we come across, and forces us to keep looking at any threat, be that a kerb on the outside of a bend, or the large pothole in front of the bike, so you will just continue on towards the threat until you re-take control and turn away from the threat. This response is not helpful at 60 MPH entering a bend in the wet ! We must condition ourselves to look through the bend and concentrate on the vanishing point far in front of the bike. The fact that we will be leaning over a bit further than previously and our brain has come to accept, will also prompt a response and try to put the potential problem of "I'm falling over" right and make you stand the bike up mid corner, or slow down, so you grab a handful of front brake, not smoothly as we should, but as a "Fight or Flight" response and the brake is pulled on hard with the inevitable consequences, and once this has happened, you then become more apprehensive, and steer clear of putting yourself in this position ever again, so the downward spiral of apprehension starts.

Look again at the signs on some sections of motorway, the "keep 2 chevrons apart" signs. Ask yourself if these change in wet weather to "keep 4 chevrons apart" because there is less grip in the wet ? No they don't, and with litigation the way it is, I'm sure if it was possible, someone who had an accident in the wet on a motorway, when keeping 2 chevrons apart would be bringing a case against the Department of Transport for not warning them of the high risk. The belief that there is potentially a lot less grip in the wet than there is isn't played down by the Government, as the belief does slow many road users down, and this will help with accident figures.

If you have been to the Bike Show at the NEC over the past few years, you may have seen the stunt bikes in use on the perimeter roads just outside the main halls. They are on road tyres, and the year I saw them it was pouring with rain. The show consisted of pulling wheelies, and epic stoppies at each end of the fenced off area, if the grip wasn't there, how could they perform such stunts ? Here again, take this on board, and use it to enable you to come to terms with the available grip of modern tyres on wet conditions.

In essence we will need to ride as well, smoothly and confidently in the wet conditions we come across as we do in the dry, and give a small allowance for the fact there is slightly less grip in the wet than the same road in the dry, but the difference at the pace we will be riding on main roads isn't huge. One way of improving your wet riding skills is to ask someone who you have confidence in to help out, go out with them and learn how to be confident in the wet, it will make a huge difference to your riding pleasure.

 

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