By May 18, 2011

Random Motorcycling Tip #22: Being Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Motorcycling has been a life-changing experience. It is one of the few things in my life that has exceeded my expectations. I try to ride whenever I can, and that often means riding in conditions that are less than ideal. Being a motorcyclist means that sometimes we ride in the cold, heat, wind, rain, snow, flooded out roads, fog, dense traffic, and often a combination of these.

Most people who own motorcycles limit themselves too much because they are looking for the “perfect” day to ride. A friend at work told me with a straight face that he only rides when it is between 67 and 72°F and sunny. “Not too windy, either,” he said. Another friend of mine remarked, “the weather must be nice today, I can hear all the Harleys.”

If you really want to get the most out of motorcycling, and if you want to become a safer rider, you need to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“You rode in the rain?” I hear this almost every time I come into work when it’s raining. It doesn’t matter if the weather is a little sprinkle or a torrential downpour. Yes, I ride in the rain, and here’s why: sometimes you can’t choose to ride in perfect weather. Maybe you’re on a road trip and you get caught in a sudden cloudburst. This is not the time to learn how to ride in the rain.

Wet road surfaces are fine to ride on, as long as you know how it changes your ability to turn and brake. It can be unsettling to have raindrops all over your visor, and if you don’t wear full gear, you’ll discover that being hit by raindrops at highway speeds hurt.

You shouldn’t find this stuff out when you’re on a long trip, or on a group ride, or whatever.

I’ve talked before about how motorcycle riders start their careers with an empty “Skill” bucket and a full “Luck” bucket. No one knows how big their Luck bucket is, but the hope is to fill the Skill bucket up with good riding experiences before the Luck bucket runs out. Learning to ride safely in the rain is a key skill for a true motorcyclist. Start filling your Skill bucket by riding a little bit in the rain on surface streets. I recommend areas that you are very familiar with. Roads take on different characteristics when it rains; for example a very large pool of water would form on my home street back in Virginia. Learning about this during an easy ride during the day meant that I avoided a nasty — and potentially dangerous — surprise when I rode in the rain at night.

The real benefit of gradual exposure to uncomfortable conditions is when multiple conditions stack up at once. Do you know how well your gloves protect your hands during cooler temperatures? What about if it’s raining and cold? Do you know your riding limits at different speeds before your hands or feet get too cold for safe riding? Again, finding these things out by riding shorter, predictable routes is a big part of living as a safer motorcyclist.

If you live in a state like Virginia where it rains very frequently you can’t be choosy about your “perfect” riding weather. Based on my records for 2010, I would have lost over 40 days of commuter riding if I chose to take the car on rainy days. That doesn’t include days where it looked like it would rain — those are days I rode to work with my rain gear on.

The key to riding in uncomfortable conditions is practice and preparedness. Being prepared with the right motorcycling gear is critical. I wear full protection at all times — full-faced helmet, armored jacket, additional chest and spine armor, armored pants, motorcycling boots and motorcycle gloves. My gear has additional insulated liners for when it is windy and cold. I also have wool glove liners and even heated gloves. I wear wool or wool-blend socks all-year round to help keep my foot temperature regulated. If it is raining hard I have a separate set of rain gear designed specifically for motorcyclists and wear a reflective vest. I have a set of waterproof “overgloves” to keep my riding gloves from becoming saturated.

Sounds like a lot of stuff, doesn’t it? I guess it is, but it keeps me safer and reduces the feeling that I am a slave to the environment. Layering my motorcycle gear on a cold day means I can ride safely when it’s 50°F, when most of my fellow riders are complaining that it’s too cold.

So when do I say when? My personal line is when there may be snow or ice on the ground. A wet road is manageable; icy or debris-littered roads are too dangerous for me to ride on. I also try to draw a distinction between comfort and safety. For example, my fingers get cold during the winter, even with my glove liners in and heated gloves on high. However, my fingers still retain their dexterity and feeling, so I can safely operate the clutch, front brake, and throttle.

Retaining feeling and functionality in my hands is the main reason that I bought my overglove liners from AeroStitch. Riding in the rain was no big deal. Riding in the cold was no big deal. Riding in the rain and the cold was dangerous before I bought the proper gear. Leather gloves get soaked in the rain. Even “weatherproof” leather gloves can become thermal hazards as the outer leather layer gets saturated. Your hands may be dry inside, but the wet leather serves as a heat sink on cold days.

The waterproof overgloves make sure that my hands stay both dry and warm, and this is critical for motorcycling safely. I enabled safer riding in a broader set of conditions by spending less than $50 and buying the overgloves. After spending many thousands of dollars on your bike, don’t you think it’s worth $50 to ride it more often?

I’ve talked a lot about rainy and cold conditions, but down South you have to be careful about heat exhaustion as well. I once wore perforated leather riding gear in 120°F heat after humidity adjustment. It was very very hot, but I stayed hydrated and soaked my cotton t-shirt at every stop. I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience again, but I know that I could if I had to. Most of my “hot” weather riding was done in the low 100s, and I frequently commuted to work when other motorcycle owners were in their cars with the A/C on.

If I am going on a long trip in the heat, I wear moisture-wicking tops and bottoms. This helps pull sweat away from my skin to my protective gear. I also stop every 60 to 100 miles and force myself to drink at least a liter of water. If you can, avoid refrigerated water on the road — I find that it becomes harder to drink ice cold water when you are super hot. Of course, specialized riding gear for warmer conditions is a must. I am not a fan of mesh gear, but make sure that your jacket allows for good airflow.

Again, start slowly. A 600+ mile trip in the heat is not a good way to learn about how your body will react to warm weather riding.

It can be dangerous to ride in uncomfortable conditions, but with practice and preparedness your riding “season” will grow along with your fulfillment of motorcycle riding. I never thought I’d like riding in the rain, but it’s one of my favorite times to ride now. The sound of raindrops on a helmet is unique, and I take pride in knowing that my skill and experience allows me to ride in environments where other motorcycle owners give up.

Stay safe, and keep the shiny side up!

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2 Comments on "Random Motorcycling Tip #22: Being Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable"

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  1. Ed says:

    I know my wife is interested in riding, I have not yet determined if I am or am not.

  2. DrFaulken says:

    Hi buddy!

    If you haven’t already, I suggest you go back and read all of the random motorcycling tips to see what kind of paradigm shift riding requires from cars.

    I also strongly recommend taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation beginning rider’s course. In your part of the country there will be more classes offered, but more new riders looking to sign up. Expect a wait.

    If you are both still interested in riding after both of those things we can chat if you want.

    I personally think that your area is a rough part of the country to learn how to ride a motorcycle in, given the traffic and mix of driver skills.

    Motorcycling is a fantastic pursuit and certainly helped me become a better person. Good luck!