I started riding 2-1/2 years ago with the primary reason being to commute and save time (and gas) getting to and from work, thanks to Lane Splitting, which is legal in California, where I was living at the time.
Not long after, I found myself in Northwestern Oregon on a new job (I moved around depending on the work — that’ll be another blog post later). Well, as you know, it’s wet in the Pacific Northwest. It rains at least eight months of the year here. On top of that, it’s not possible to get a parking permit to park a car in downtown due to a two-year waiting list, and a monthly cost of $65 if you did have such a permit. Motorcycle parking, on the other hand, was easy to come by and a permit was only $6/month. So for me, commuting via motorcycle was mandatory. The only time I wouldn’t ride the bike to work would be if it was snowy or icy. Thankfully, that’s rare.
To prepare for wet weather commuting, I read reviews and purchased waterproof riding gear. There are several approaches you can take for this. One is to buy a jacket and paints that are waterproof. Another is to buy a rain suit to go over your regular riding gear. The latter method has an advantage in that the rain suit will act as another insulating layer when its cold. But, the downside is you have to plan ahead to put it on before it rains, or have to pull over and put it on along the side of the road.
I chose the former method. All of my gear is waterproof, with the exception of my mesh jacket, which is meant purely for Summer riding. My two main commute jackets are a Tourmaster Transition 2 and a FirstGear Kilimanjaro. I also have a pair of Tourmaster Caliber pants. My Alpinestars street boots are waterproof, and I have two pair of waterproof gloves, one from First Gear, the other from Frank Thomas. None are Gore-Tex, by the way. Gore-Tex stuff is nice, but incredibly expensive. Sorry, I don’t have that kind of money to spend.
Once you have the gear, you’re getting close to being ready. There are a couple more things you should do. First, your helmet Go get a bottle of Rain-X and treat the visor on your helmet. Only treat the outside of the visor, or it’ll make a huge mess. But this will make it much easier to see, especially when riding in traffic in the rain, with all the spray other cars are kicking up around you.
Next… tires. Motorcycles have a very small contact patch with the road, and when you add water to the mix, you’re asking for trouble. The tread on motorcycle tires, in my opinion, is woefully inadequate. You really should get some good tires suited for riding in the rain. I’m only aware of two tires that fall into this category right now — the Michelin Pilot Road 2 and Pilot Road 3. I’ve used the Pilot Road 2 on three bikes now and love them. They last very well; the rear tire typically goes 5000-6000 miles before wearing flat in the middle. The previous owner of my 2001 Yamaha FZ1 ran those tires exclusively, and went through a set every 6000 miles over the 60,000 miles that he owned the bike. So I put another set on just last week, in preparation for the rain.
Prior to this bike, I used to ride my Suzuki DR650 in the rain. Being a dual-sport bike, its tires are actually far superior (again, IMO) to even the Pilot Road 2′s. The tread is deeper, and there’s more of it. I’ve used Shinko 700 and Shinko 705 tires on that bike, and both have performed superbly in wet weather. But since my FZ1 is not new (or even close to it), already scratched and in need of several plastic pieces, I’m going to continue commuting on it instead of on my DR650. I will report back later as to how well it does. On my DR650, with the exception of braking, it stuck to the road in the rain almost as well as in the dry. And with a whopping 36 hp, it’s in no danger of overpowering its tires.
Now that you’re geared up and your bike is ready, it’s time to ride. The key to riding in the rain safely is to be smooth. Avoid any abrupt control in puts. Don’t lean the bike over as far as you might usually do. More than anything, leave a lot more space to stop, and either go very, very easy on the rear brake, or avoid using it at all. If your bike happens to have ABS or traction control, you’re in a much better position since it will take care of a lot of that for you. But, learning to get by without those technical gadgets will make you a better rider in the long run.
If, while riding in traffic, you do find yourself in a situation where you can’t stop in time, ease up on the brakes (or release them altogether) and aim between cars. It’s better to risk a “lane splitting” ticket (if you aren’t in California), or take off a car’s mirror or side-swipe them than it is to hit from behind — both you and your bike will fair better.
Now, if you’re the “timid” type that tends to freeze up in emergency situations, then honestly, you should reconsider riding in the rain at all, at least until such a time as you can overcome those feelings. Otherwise, you’re just asking for trouble. There are enough variables to contend with when commuting in traffic on a dry day; adding wet roads and reduced visibility makes it that much worse.