March 10, 2012

Reining in the Rain; Dancing with Grace

I've been meaning to write about the rain for quite some time; how it affects me and its effects on the road. We've had such good weather lately, I haven't been able to get anything down!


As a rule, I don't like the rain. It always means more cleaning for me, as the tires on my bike kick up a lot of dirt and rocks, and I simply don't like how the moisture gets everywhere (sometimes into nooks and crannies that I can't easily clean). Rain can bring about odd and intermittent electrical problems by causing corrosion to form in the bike's connectors and ground paths, and it can chill you to the bone if you're not geared up correctly. I really don't like being wet unless I'm sitting on a longboard waiting for the next set to roll in, or in a warm bath/jacuzzi! There is something very special about surfing amidst the rain in Hawaii; warm water turned cool from the winds, and the rain drops appear to be jumping up out of the ocean. Very surreal and empty, an existentialist plane with a rolling, black-water spiked surface. Here in San Francisco, the rain usually brings dark skies and a natural depression that causes most to curl up with a warm, snuggly blanket and some soup. But . . . . it can be incredibly fun and challenging to ride in the rain, and the ability to do it well is truly an art. The connection between bike and rider becomes that much more tenuous, but can also be enhanced by the danger and treacherousness of the conditions, in part from to the increased focus necessary just to keep it on two. For this reason, I tend not to shy away from riding through the mountains when the rains are upon us. Riding through a storm is a natural way to test your physical and mental capabilities against the elements, to test the fortitude (and water-resistant designs) of your machinery, and to cry havok and unleash the power of your will upon the roads.

Riding in the rain is a challenge that doesn't have to be so intimidating if you've prepared your body and your machine. Familiarity with your bike and tires is your most important safety factor to consider when rain riding, and having a keen sense of self-preservation also helps . . . along with the knowledge that you've prepared yourself and your mount.


It's essential to have quality riding gear that works and doesn't distract you. I would love to try riding with an Aerostich suit, but from what I've seen, there's no provision for internal warmth, just instructions for layering. Gloves that are too tight can be a nightmare, putting extra strain on the thumb/forefinger area which is critical for maintaining proper control of the throttle and brakes - particularly crucial for riding in the rain smoothly. I mostly use my thumb/forefinger to roll on the gas, but depending on the situation, I sometimes use the outside of my palm (pinky side) to manipulate the throttle, and I ALWAYS ride with my middle finger covering the brake lever. It's also the only finger I use when braking. BTW, after riding with some Galfer HH compound front brake pads, I can report that the OEM Honda pads were superior in initial bite/feel and overall braking force. The OEM's are supposedly manufactured for Honda by EBC, and that will be my next braking experiment . . . . once I source some new monoblock calipers from an '08+ CBR (drops roughly 1 pound of unsprung weight from the front end, and it's a direct bolt on for the older '04-'07 CBR's).


I have a good set of kit for riding in all conditions. I typically wear a two piece Alpinestars Drystar jacket and pants combo, complete with internal armor, removable thermal liners, and a nearly 360 degree zippered connection (really handy in the Bay Area, because it does get into the 30's at night, and windchill becomes a serious factor at freeway speeds), an old set of Buell branded winter gloves (twice repaired), an Oakley vest that's filled with Primaloft, and a pair of wonderful Alpinestars waterproof "moon boots", which do a great job of keeping my feet warm. I switch between an Arai Corsair 5 and a Shoei Hornet DS helmet, depending on weather conditions and expected amount of freeway time (the Shoei really gets buffeted at 75mph+ because of the MX style visor), but every now and then I pull out my old Arai GT Tracker helmet, in the familiar red and white Motoliam paintscheme. The vest is probably my main piece of gear, because it zips up with a high collar to keep the wind off my throat, and it has numerous pockets (6 external, 1 internal) to hold a ton of gear inconspicuously (tools, pens, rubber gloves to use as glove liners in the event of a major storm). Mainly, though, I use it to hold my iPhone in the chest pocket, and the material is thin enough that I can easily adjust the volume of whatever music I'm listening to. Yes, gear-nazi's, I listen to music when I ride - but not at the racetrack. Speaking of music, I also use some oversize Sony earbuds with 13.5mm drivers (standard ear buds only have 9mm speakers . . . and I need the bass). Anyway, the vest is great because it easily fits over any riding jacket I happen to wear on the day, and even though it's a grey/black digital camo print, people still seem to be able to notice me. Just kidding, I ride as if I'm invisible most of the time, and my HID headlight is amazing at letting oncoming traffic know that I'm there. Enough about gear, it's all about the riding, right?

I tend to set my bikes up to perform in both the wet and the dry. Many people don't realize how crucial the physical connection points between the rider and the bike are for maintaining control. Grips need to be tactile, they need to work when they're covered with water, and they need to match your gloves so you can hold on and hang off at will without worry that A) they'll slide off the bars, and B) that your gloves will slide off the grips. Spongey grips always piss me off, because it's a millisecond longer to transfer rider input to the bars if you have to squeeze through them. I don't have large hands, so thick grips are also annoying to me, and I prefer the thinner rubber from Renthal in particular.


The dual compound Kevlar grips I'm currently using are the best I've come across to date, with a softer outer skin over a hard/durable casing that directly contacts the bars.


As for the footpegs, they need to grip the rubber soles of your boots and not feel mushy. I notice a lot of manufacturers will add rubber pads to their pegs to help isolate the rider from engine vibration, but if you can't grip the pegs with your feet in the wet, you've just lost 2 of the 5 contact points you have with the bike. I use hard anodized ergal pegs with deep knurling that's sharp and aggressive. It grips the boots well, but when the boots are wet, they're noticeably "less grippy". The least important connection point (for me at least), is the seat. When the going gets rough, the seat is the last place I want to be (static on the bike) because I hustle around (like a monkey) always trying to get my body into the proper position so the suspension can work at its best. Motocross bikes usually have a nice, tacky surface that works at keeping the rider planted under all conditions, but it's generally not very comfortable for day to day riding because there's less "wiggle-factor" and some people report that they're susceptible to chafing if they're stuck to the seat for long periods of time. Never forget, the rider is the most important part of the bike's suspension - what you do with your body affects every aspect of the riding experience, and your legs/core are the best shock absorbers you have. Note the dirty rearsets on my bike, from the excessive amount of cable lubricant I used on my clutch cable (which then spritzed out onto my boot, haha).


Rain riding can be categorized into 2 scenarios - good rain rides, and shitty rain rides. Good rain rides take place when there's constant rain falling, or enough precipitation on the roads for standing water to gather. This is when the roads are clean and wet and it's simply adding another (relatively "concrete") element to the equation of rubber tires and tarmac. Shitty rain rides occur when there has been a light mist of rain, and the roads are slick with dirt and oil and generally have a half/half condition of water/semi-dry surface. If you ever watch the GP practices, you'll notice that there aren't a lot of riders who go out and push in semi-wet conditions. This is because there's not a lot of information to gather about how the bike works in the semi-wet, and it's a matter of tip-toeing around trying not to fall on a slippery track if they're running slicks or semi-slicks. Real rain tires won't last long on a dry or drying track because they're ridiculously soft. However, there is a lot of information that can be gathered in a full-on rain condition with rain tires. This is when the rider can learn the absolute limit that he/she can push the bike and how much the rain tires will let them get away with. I feel the same when it comes to riding in the rain here in SF. While I will ride in semi-wet conditions, I don't explore the limits because it's an exercise of pure survival. The cold exacerbates this, because it chills the hands and fingers and can lead to black ice in the dark corners of the mountains. What I do like is when it's actually raining, or better yet, storming. The roads are swept clear of the dirt and scum build-up, the oil that puddles in the middle of the lanes, and every other piece of garbage that collects from all the litterers out there.


From my facebook page, "There is nothing quite so invigorating, so challenging, and so life-affirming as a night time storm ride. It's black out; slippery, tense, cold, wet, delicate and gentle. It requires absolute faith in man and machine and angels while fingertips dance lightly across the controls. I would gladly race Endurance in these conditions." I should add, "There's nothing so humbling as riding through a storm".

I had just returned home from a super stormy (and windy!) ride that I wasn't quite expecting. I had visited a friend's place in downtown to work on a 1951 Honda CB77, and didn't realize that rains were predicted. This meant a nasty ride back in jeans and a light jacket . . . and nothing humbles you more than being caught out in the rain, the winds on 280 threatening to throw you off the overpasses, water seeping past your pantlegs and running down your socks (into your "waterproof" boots!). Two seconds into the ride, my smile grew and I was loving it - I felt just like a kid again.


Managed to get some shots of the transmission rebuild, as well.


Every time I look at my hands I see my mother's skin and the same knuckles, wrinkles, patterns, spots and weathering.


Thank you for giving me the courage to act fearless in the face of impending doom, Mom! But seriously, I owe a huge debt to my mother, for teaching me to follow my heart and my dreams, and believe in myself.


I feel so alive when I'm riding a bike in the rain. I feel like I'm challenging more than myself. I love how "fluid" everything becomes, and how much more focus I seem to put into riding. I love intimately knowing the fear before every corner, of not trusting the road because there are dangers unseen. I love the trust I have to put into my equipment, and I love knowing that every twist and turn completed is a victory, however small. In the city, there are manhole covers, train tracks, potholes filled with water, and everything becomes a shiny black question mark, especially in the dark. In the mountains, the traction is reduced and certain areas become even more tricky because of the moss/algae build up that happens under the trees, in the parts where the sunlight doesn't often shine. I love feeling the rain striking my body and my helmet, accentuating the wind and putting me on notice that the Elements are out there - and that I'm at their mercy. Rain soaked wind hits even harder!

Is it sheer bravado that makes me enjoy riding in even more dangerous conditions; that macho feeling that comes from knowing that most "fair-weather" bikers won't be getting their mounts out of the garage? Somewhat, yes. I simply enjoy knowing that I'm a more complete motorcyclist than most. I have ridden most forms of motorcycles from harley's and hard tails, to sportbikes, mini-bikes, dirtbikes and super-moto's, and in almost all conditions (save for snow - I have ridden frozen roads with snow on the sides, but never through snow itself). I encourage all of you to try riding different motorbikes as much as you can! There is no greater education than riding in mixed traction conditions.

I love how the dance changes when I'm riding in the rain. I love the interaction between the tires and the road. I feel like I'm skating when the wheels are cutting swathes through the corners, delicate and precise, vigilant for slides, almost holding my breath until I'm back upright and in a straight line. I have lost the rear on 84 (Woodside Rd), resulting a full lock slide that nearly had me on my head. Luckily, I just relaxed, stayed on the gas, and let the tires regain traction as I stood the bike a little more upright. Not to say it wasn't an "oh shit" moment - my left foot (inside leg) came completely off the peg. This is important to note: relax when you're riding. There's never been any good to come out of being tense and stiff on a motorcycle. In most cases, the bike will correct itself and keep going as long as the rider doesn't give it the wrong commands, like chopping the throttle when the rider is scared. And whatever you do, don't ever give it the full stick when the roads are slippery. It's very possible to crash when you're going perfectly straight (ask me how I know, hahaha).

I've always likened riding a motorcycle to surfing on two wheels. For me, the sensations are so similar, and the control aspects are in line with one another. Balance and arcs of cornering. "The Drop" - falling down the face of a wave - is just like the initiation of a hard corner, then your knee skimming the asphalt mere seconds after braking, just like digging a hand into the face of a wave to help pull an even tighter turn, or to reduce speed to pull into a barrel. Suffice it to say, I'm probably a better biker than I am a surfer these days, but some skills your body doesn't forget. Muscle memory is a wonderful thing.

And so here we are in March, almost ready for summer, but always aware that the rains are coming. There's a hint of sadness when the clouds roll in; ominous and foreboding. Strength of spirit and character goads me into stretching my limits, tests my desire to stay inside and hidden from the world, and asks me to rise up and face the streets. I will answer this request, with grace, gratitude, and a familiar feeling - and maybe, just maybe, I'll be reigning in the rain!

hahaha, and then it started raining just after I posted this and rode home!

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