We’d all love to ride in perfect conditions all of the time, but the weather can change dramatically from one minute to the next. As motorcyclists, we are susceptible to these changes in weather more than car drivers, as experienced road tester Adam Child explains…
As the old saying goes, ‘If you don’t like the British weather, just wait a few minutes.’ In the UK, we’re generally riding in ever changeable conditions, especially as we head into autumn, and it’s rare to have a full day in perfect surroundings. We can encounter rain, wind, and different light all in one day. In winter it can be even worse as the temperature drops as soon as the sun goes down. I personally enjoy riding in changeable conditions, and experience definitely counts. The late Joey Dunlop was a master at riding in changeable conditions around the Isle of Man TT course, as he knew where the damp patches would be and which sections dried out the quickest, and although we’re not tackling the world’s most difficult race track, hopefully our guide to riding in ever changeable conditions will help you the next time the weather is a bit sketchy.
Sixth sense – As a motorcyclist, we develop what is almost like a sixth sense. It comes through experience and we can almost smell the rain before it falls, or vice versa. We get an inclination there’s just been a heavy shower ahead and the roads may be wet. You shouldn’t just be focusing on the road ahead but observing what is happening around you. If your instinct tells you that conditions are changing, take heed.
Dark – Low light can be a huge problem, especially in the winter months. The blinding sun not only affects your vision but other road users too. Slow down at junctions and roundabouts as it’s easy for a car driver to miss a bike in low light. Take care and assume the worst. No one wants an accident, regardless of who is to blame.
If you know your ride is going to extend into the night, it goes without saying take a clear visor. If you’ve been riding all day – touring abroad for example – take time to clean your lights.
Cold temperature drop – As soon as the sun starts to drop, temperatures fall, and this can be very dramatic in a short amount of time. In Autumn and Spring, the change from perfectly dry grippy roads to sketchy almost damp conditions can happen in an hour. If you ride a modern bike it may be fitted with an ambient temperature gauge, use it. Below 10 degrees, you’ll start to notice the difference in grip, especially on a sports bike on sporty tyres. At anything below five degrees, again, reduce your speed accordingly. Unlike race tyres, which have a narrow temperature window, road tyres are designed to work in most conditions, but they do give less grip when cold.
If you don’t have an ambient temperature gauge use your sixth sense. Here is a top tip – if your hands are freezing, because of the windblast, then so is your front tyre; it hits the wind and cold the same way your hands do!
Damp after rain – It will always stay damp under trees for longer than unshaded roads, as the rain holds in the leaves, drops slowly and the sun can’t get to the asphalt to dry it out. Cambers in the road also affect how quickly the road will dry. Watch out for damp patches in the gutters on heavily cambered country roads. Anything in shadow will take longer to dry, behind hedgerows in the country, or tall buildings in the city. For example, around the parks in London where the sunlight can get through it dries much quicker than around the City, Canary Wharf, for example. Also some road surfaces dry just quicker than others by virtue of the material, so don’t assume that just because one patch of road is dry that it will be the same around the corner.
Damp when not expected– Always difficult to spot, crashes and accidents are caused because the rider didn’t expect it to be wet around the next corner. If you think it’s rained ahead look for clues. Do the cars coming in the opposite direction have their lights on? Wipers still moving? Are they wet? Can you smell rain? If you have any doubt, roll off.
Altitude – This doesn’t affect us too much in the UK, although some of the passes can have changeable conditions, particularly in the Scottish and Welsh mountains. For example, at the Isle of Man TT, the mountain section can be 10-15degrees colder than at sea level in Douglas. But in Europe when you’re exploring the many famous passes altitude can change the road conditions dramatically. I’ve ridden passes in Italy and Germany and come around a corner to discover melted snow has creating a small river across the road. In New Zealand I started at sea level in baking sunshine, then I was down to minus temperature figures after two hours of riding straight up, and eventually into snow.
Wind – On a bike, we are very susceptible to wind. There are two main issues, side winds and buffeting when overtaking. Again, if it’s windy you have to use your sixth sense, expect side winds over bridges, open fields, pass the coast or lakes. These are usually well signposted. Look at flags, trees, etc to observe which way the wind is going. Don’t hold on too tight, try and stay relaxed and use counter-steering to push against the force of the wind. Secondly, overtaking can also cause issues when it’s windy, you’ll feel yourself been pulled towards the car/truck when overtaking, then you’ll get pushed back out again as you complete the overtake. Be prepared and give yourself plenty of room.
And remember… it’s always worth checking the weather forecast before you go out. It’s not always going to be accurate, but it gives you a better chance of understanding what’s ahead, and what riding gear to wear. And if you do want to go out in summer gear when there’s a risk of a shower or two, try to take a rainsuit with you. These are not usually the most comfortable or fashionable pieces of bike clothing you’ll ever wear, but they usually fold up small and can be carried around easily in a pannier or backpack.