Rain

by

Jeff Hughes

 

I awaken to a dry heat. As I step out of the bedroom door it feels like I’ve stepped into an oven. Jeez. Someone left the heat up and we’re all going to get sick.

Downstairs, the first one up, I open the balcony door to let some cool air inside. It’s still pitch black outside but I can hear the patter of rain. It’s both cold and wet.

I put the coffee on and step into the shower. In a surprise, by the time I come back out most everyone is up. It’s mighty early for most of them.

We might as well have gone ahead and slept in. It’s a miserable day for riding. Cold, foggy, and wet. After a while we walk up the hill to The Junction for breakfast. Even with a leisurely breakfast, the weather hasn’t improved any by the time we’re done. No one wants to go out. There are a bunch of movie videos on the shelf and Neil selects The Pelican Brief. That keeps us entertained for a couple of hours.

By late morning, everyone is getting antsy. Finally Andy announces he’s going out for a ride. John and Neil and Eric tell him to wait up, they’ll go with him. Left behind are Kevin and Forrest and myself. We watch more TV, I read a book I’ve brought along, and after awhile Kevin puts on the left-over chili for lunch.

I keep looking outside. Though wet and foggy, the sky is bright. I’m reminded of that one day on a trip years before when we stayed at the Inn down at the bottom of the mountain. The weather that day was similar to today. John and Dave and I had been out riding all morning and had circled back around. When we stopped at the store at the bottom, who should we run into, but Suzanne and Melanie. They had come up with Mac and Tom, and – like us this trip - were staying in a condo on top of the mountain. Observing the ugly weather outside their window, the two men had decided to hang out inside their condo, while Suzanne and Melanie chose to go out for a ride. I remember looking up at the fog-enshrouded mountain that day and realizing that Mac and Tom had no way of knowing that down below things were, if not great, nonetheless much better. They could have been out riding.

I wonder if today we are similarly being deluded by remaining on top of the mountain, up amongst the clouds. Especially as the hours tick slowly by and our friends continue to remain absent.

The sky remains a tantalizing puzzle, a tease. At 3pm, knowing there are only a few hours of daylight left, I finally decide to go. To see what’s below.

It takes a few minutes to get ready. My bike is a wet mess and I take a few minutes to wipe it down. It quickly gets wet again, of course, but things like the pools of water on the seat are gone. More time is spent climbing into my electric fleece liner, my Aerostich Roadcrafter riding suit, Gore-Tex gloves, and Arai helmet. And since I don’t know what down-below holds or how long I might be gone, I take my tank bag with all its camera gear and the rain cover to protect it all.

Descending the coiled loops of asphalt heading down the mountain, I’m first struck with pessimism. Whatever promise I might have seen up top in the bright sky certainly isn’t apparent here. Instead, I’m wrapped in a dark, gloomy fog and the rain, though light, is steady. Finally though, nearing the bottom, I break out into relatively clear air. It’s such a welcome relief that I almost don’t mind the rain.

South on 219, I really don’t have a plan. Whatever else, it’s clear that I wasn’t missing a whole lot. My hope-against-hope that it might be mostly dry down off the mountain, maybe even with patches of dry pavement here and there, is quickly dashed. The sky is solid gray, with a light, steady rain. But the effort to get packed and dressed was more than trivial, so I continue on.

I’m glad I did.

The K1200RS feels wonderfully compliant, tracking steadily over the wet roads. My touch on the bars is gentle, easing into and out of the throttle and the brakes. I’m holding near 70mph, not all that much under my usual dry-road pace along here. But it feels good. Amazingly good.

In no time at all I’ve arrived at the mountain north of Marlinton, one of my favorites. Even today, in the wet, I flow around its turns at a good clip. Like scribing arcs with the tip of a narrow sword. Easy, gentle. With just a hint of aggression.

And as I roll out of the last curve, towards the summit, I laugh at myself, suddenly realizing that this is a lesson I somehow have to keep re-learning. That beautiful, warm, sunny days aren’t the only nice times to be out riding. Sometimes it’s actually fun to be out when things are wet and ugly. There’s something special about being warm and dry and comfortable in spite of the miserable weather you’re riding through.

 

 

One of the advantages of riding that we motorcyclists often point to is being out in the weather, interacting with the environment in a far more intimate way than do our friends in their 4-wheel boxes. And it’s certainly true that most of us find that close interaction – the tactile feeling of immersion - to be one of the pleasurable aspects of the sport. It’s a little ironic, then, that so many of us studiously avoid that same interaction as soon as it turns a little wet. Some riders outright fear it.

None of which makes sense when you think about it. Rain is an inevitable part of the environment for most of us. Stretch the miles on those weekend day-rides, out a ways from home, and sooner or later you’re going to be caught in rain. Go on a few multi-day trips and you’re bound to spend some of your time riding in it. And if you commute regularly on your bike it’s a cinch that you’ll get plenty of wet weather miles.

So we might as well accept the notion that riding in the rain is a normal part of our experience.

The key, of course, is good gear. Most riders grudgingly spend forty or fifty bucks on a waterproof-but-doesn’t-breathe rain suit and call it a day. It’s no surprise, then, that their wet weather experience pretty much sucks.

Make Gore-Tex your friend. Invest in quality, waterproof, breathable riding gear – including boots and gloves – and you’ll soon experience that oddly satisfying feeling of being warm and dry even in a torrential downpour.

Having done that, it’s just a matter of being smooth with your control inputs. Modern tires are amazing and there is far more traction available in the wet than many riders realize. Just watch a rainy day MotoGP or Superbike race and that is readily apparent. But that traction is brittle – when its limit is reached it goes away suddenly, with far less of the progressive feedback that dry tarmac provides. So soft on the throttle, soft on the brakes, overlapping transitions, and avoiding abrupt direction changes are the watchwords for the day.

There is a final benefit to wet weather riding: the sense of utter mastery that comes when the roads finally dry. I remember a track day years ago at Road Atlanta where the morning sessions were run in horrendous conditions, with a steady, cold rain. The asphalt surface at Road Atlanta provides excellent wet weather grip, but even still it was a chilly and stressful few hours. As we neared the noon lunch break, though, the rain began to slow and the sky to brighten. And by the time the first afternoon session got underway, the sun was out and the track was rapidly drying.

That afternoon was one of finest slices of riding I have ever experienced. The feeling of control, of being able to rail with absolute confidence, was dramatic.

And so it has been on countless other track days and street rides over the years. Rides that started in the wet, but then dried up after awhile. These rides are wondrous, sprung from the confidence that emerges from the extraordinarily nuanced feeling for traction that develops after long hours in the wet.

I’m not for a moment going to pretend that riding in the rain is as much fun as riding on a beautiful, sunny, 70-degree day. But given their inevitability, rainy day rides certainly have a place in our library of motorcycling experiences. So we might as well embrace them, understanding that not only are they not nearly as bad as we often make them out to be, but they actually have positive things to offer.

As I turn my bike back towards the condo, still enjoying that feeling of being cozy and dry while the BMW cuts through the wet landscape, I remind myself I need to remember that.

 

© 2008 Jeff Hughes