The best thing about The Rider’s Digest not being a supermarket-shelf glossy, is that it allows me to write about some of the less attractive realities of motorcycling. The kind of things that all of us have to deal with once we get past the illusion of the permanent honeymoon that the lifestyle rags pass off as biking. If I feel the need to write about the real nitty gritty of life on the road – the better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health stuff that you find out about after reality kicks in – I know I can do that in the Digest.
Biking is just like any other relationship. Once you’ve lived with someone long enough to have witnessed them at their worst, picked up their used Always Ultra (with wings) and seen the skid marks and snail trails in their least attractive underwear, you are considerably less inclined to believe that the ‘Babes’ with the flawless skin and the perfect Mohican muffs in the glossies have anything to do with the deal you signed up to – and more fool you if you bought into all that aspirational bullshit in the first place.
Accidents (and their aftermath) have been well covered within these covers in recent months so you can turn off your wince receptors because I’ve got no plans to revisit that particularly nasty reality. The ‘Grapes of Wrath’ have always been a serious pain in the arse for a surprisingly large number of bikers but I hardly feel that an in depth examination of piles (complete with pictures) is entirely the thing for a big anniversary issue. Nope, for those of you who’ve missed the clues (like the title) this month I’d like to talk about rain.
I doubt there can be many motorcyclists who would claim that they actually enjoy riding in the wet and I’m sure that if you were to check into the backgrounds of those who do, you’d almost certainly discover that they also have bizarre religious or masochistic tendencies (but then at least the ones who like zipping up in latex Gimp outfits, don’t have to worry about getting soaked to the marrow!). When you consider that you spend the whole of your biking life entirely at the mercy of whatever the elements decide to bung at you, it’s hardly surprising that two wheelers are generally less than enamoured with the moist stuff.
The English language provides any number of ways to describe the negative implications of a good drenching. Expressions such as, “looks like a drowned rat”, or “soaked to the skin” perfectly sum up the physical effects and there are untold idioms like “a wet Monday”, “dampened spirits” and “wet blanket” that underline just how depressing it can be to feel that way. So for most motorcyclists it’s generally a straightforward equation: Rain = Moisture = Discomfort.
When I bought my first bike, 38 years ago, motorcycling gear was generally still pretty primitive. Boots, jeans and a leather jacket were more or less the standard for general all purpose abrasion protection but weatherproofing was a whole different ball game. Back then if you wanted to stay dry, you either wore something made of thick rubber or a Belstaff (and if that was going to do any good at all, it needed re-waxing as often as a glamour model’s bikini line!).
When I started despatching in the late autumn of 1978 I was wearing the aforementioned standard uniform, with a not particularly efficient Belstaff over my leather jacket. And that was it. I remember riding in a blizzard a couple of months later, with snow sliding down the semi-waxed surface of my top, and forming a glaciated pool in the bowl between my crotch and the tank. Down there where only Messrs Levis and St Michael stood between my family jewels and the worst that British weather had to offer, the effect was excruciating.
Even if you’re one of those ‘whatever turns you on’ types, who loves nothing more than dreaming up imaginative sexy things to do with ice cubes, you really don’t want to go there — not unless you are a serious masochist. When I dragged myself into the house at the end of the day and peeled my jeans off to check for damage, all I could find was what appeared to be half a hairy walnut shell. Warming it up initially increased the pain and it took about 15 minutes (including an explanation to my brother as to why I seemed to be trying to shag the bathroom radiator) before I could persuade my cojones that I was sorry for any trauma I’d caused them and that it was safe to come back out.
Not an experience I ever wanted to repeat so I got myself a set of Helly Hansons — the sort of kit favoured by trawler men and lifeboat crews. The trousers came way up the chest and were supported by braces, while the hooded pullover top had storm cuffs and a drawstring at the neck. With everything done up tight, you could ride in a downpour from first thing in the morning, until you knocked off in the evening, without a single trace of moisture penetrating the Norwegian rubber (plus when all your paper had disintegrated, it provided you with acres of biro friendly surface for scribbling jobs on)
There was nothing to touch them for keeping the elements at bay but internal dampness was a potential killer downside. If you found yourself in an outrageously warm office waiting “just another few minutes” for a collection, you could easily negate any weatherproofing benefits, when your internal thermostat started turning on the coolant. And because you were hermetically sealed all that sweat had nowhere to go so it would still be there (along with the remnants of a day’s farts) when you undressed in the evening.
And it’s not like perspiration was the only potential enemy within. If on a freezing cold, wet day, you foolishly succumbed to the temptation to wash a fag down with a cup of rosy, you faced a serious danger that you just might piss yourself. You come out of the cafe rushing because you weren’t meant to have been there in the first place and then the circuit’s busy because it always is when the weather’s crap. So you rush from one job to the next and before you know it the tea’s worked its way through — and you gotta go! And ‘cos it’s cold, you gotta go pretty damn quick. But there was no such thing as quick in Helly’s.
I shudder when I think of all the times I skipped from foot to foot, as I attempted the seemingly impossible task of getting through all my layers before my bladder exploded. I’d jerk the rubber jacket up to my chin and unzip the leather one underneath all the way down. Then I’d reach in and undo the braces and the poppers, which released the fold-in and allowed the waist to expand to about 48 inches. With shivering hands and shuffling feet, I’d carefully pull the front down as far as it would go without making the clips slide over my shoulders and disappear down my back (which would mean I’d have to struggle out of both jackets before I could get redressed). Then dancing like St Vitus on tiptoes, I’d stumble over buttons, before finally fumbling into my fly fronted long Johns. By this time Scotty in the valve department would have been screaming: “I cannae hold it any longer cap’n!!” for about five minutes, so the instant he felt my ice cold shaking fingers on my bits, he’d let it rip and my ‘ampton would suddenly leap into life leaving me about half a second to try to whip it out and attempt to point it somewhere away from me and my clothing. Occasionally I’d get lucky too; but as often as not I’d end up dumping the first half cupful of reconstituted tea inside the lip of my waterproofs. Riding off cursing the soggy (and rapidly cooling) consequences, I’d always swear blind that was the last time I’d ever stop for a cuppa in full kit.
But, I hear you say, with modern super duper Goretex riding gear, an up to date well-ventilated lid and modern high performance tyres, there’s no reason to allow a little precipitation to rain on your parade. And apparently it’s all true. There really is a motorcycling nirvana out there where wealthy people ride the latest registration bikes entirely wrapped in brand new, breathable, moisture repellent layers, all topped off with quality hide, Cordex and Kevlar. I accept that such things exist in exactly the same world and on exactly the same roads that I ride, slide, move and groove on; but insofar as it relates to my personal experience, they might as well be wearing shiny metal suits and whooshing round with jet packs.
As I’m sure you’re all aware, when there’s moisture about it’s not just creeping dampness that can cause you discomfort. Bouncing down the road while you watch your pride and joy wrap itself ‘round a bollard can be a pretty uncomfortable experience too. If it only rained on me but left the roads dry, I could live with that. Instead it lays down a shiny coat, which is designed to test tyres, suspension, brakes and nerve.
Aside from the nutters I mentioned at the top, the only other bikers that I know of who actually like riding in the rain, are the sort of despatch riders who are only interested in the money; good racers on otherwise uncompetitive bikes; and loony motocrossers (and they don’t care if they bounce off trees so you can’t really count them). So if you discount the pervs, the money grabbers, the losers and the lunatics, I doubt that many other bikers presented with a choice between sloshing in the wet and riding in the dry, would actually go for the watersport option.
Assuming that you’ve ridden a bike recently in these fair Isles, you’ll probably have noticed that this has been a pretty wild summer. The way the skies have done that bitch switch from blazing sunlight to Armageddon style midday darkness in less time than it takes to ride from the centre of town to the suburbs, I can imagine that even a few confirmed dry weather bikers have had the opportunity to discover the efficacy or otherwise of their equipment.
The idea for this piece came about when I was talking to a friend about an evening ride out to rural Essex back at the beginning of July. We’ve only got to know each other relatively recently, and have never been out on bikes together so he felt that he should ‘fess up before the planning went any further and let me know that he preferred not to do rain wherever possible. I had to laugh at his impression that I was some sort of macho biker, who’d simply belt up and set out for deepest Ford country in the kind of monsoon that was rattling the windows as we spoke. And sure enough when it came to the day we didn’t go because it was pissing down.
After too many years of despatching and commuting, nowadays if my journey isn’t attached to some sort of obligation, or an urgent necessity, I certainly ain’t going to set off in the rain. Why should I? It’s never been my idea of fun and as far as I’m concerned that’s exactly what bikes are supposed to be. If it rains when I’m already out, that’s a different story. I’m not the kind to duck under a bridge and hope it doesn’t do a Carol King (rain until September!) and in the warmer months it needs to be coming down pretty hard before I even think about stopping and putting my waterproofs on. Of course by that time I’m invariably soaked through, so I tend to just plough on hoping the sun will come back out and combine with the airflow to dry me out.
When I was a youthful despatch rider, summertime was the time for a little sartorial elegance and I saw no good reason to cover my light tan leather jacket and neat fitting Levis in sweat inducing rubber all for the sake of a little torrential rain (besides my Cuban heeled cowboy boots looked stupid sticking out the bottom of orange Helly Hansons). For similar reasons (plus the acute lack of space in my tank bag) I decided not to bother taking any weather protection when I went to the Bol D’Or back in 1981.
The plan was simple enough: Peckham to Paul Ricard in one day! And as a bunch of us left SE15 with the first rays of sunlight bouncing off our shades we were confident we could crack it. However, it was pissing down when we disembarked in Calais and continued to pluie for mile after mile after mile. By the time we reached Lyon it was dark and we’d accepted that we weren’t going to be in the South that day so we pitched our tents in the rain and collapsed into an exhausted soggy sleep.
It wasn’t the road conditions that had ruined our progress, it was the pit stops that had killed us. Every time we made one (which was as often as every 120 or so miles) instead of tearing up to the pumps and dashing the juice in, then roaring back out again, our breaks got longer as the rain got heavier, until every pull-in seemed to include untold cigarettes, coffees and trips to the toilets.
That was without a doubt the wettest non-despatching day’s riding I’ve ever done and it was still lashing down when we packed the tents away the following morning. Riding off in the squelching gear I’d peeled off the night before, carrying a tank bag full of equally wringing wet ‘clean clothes’, it was difficult to imagine squeezing much joy out of the remaining 9 days of the trip. However a few hours later I was sitting trackside in shorts, in the International village, basking under a scorching Mediterranean sun with the rest of my stuff rapidly drying on a bungee clotheslines.
So when the heavens really open, good tyres and the right sort of gear may be really important, but the right kind of attitude will serve you even better. Don’t forget, it never rains forever – even if sometimes it feels like it – and once the sun comes chinking back through, you never know what new magic and adventure it might deliver.
Be careful out there
This first appeared in issue 60 of The Rider’s Digest in the wet wet summer of 2002