One thing that terrifies many riders is something that we don't have to deal with here in Texas very often…Rain.
While teaching for Ridesmart I've gone several years without seeing rain at an event. But then last year we had several days that were rained out. Luck of the draw. But lets look at this from a different perspective. What effect does rain have on us while riding on a track?
Firstly, and most importantly, it reduces available traction. The water on the track absorbs heat so our tires dont warm up nearly as much as they do on a dry track. With less heat in them, the tires cant conform to the surface of the track the way they do at normal operating temperature, and as a result they 'skate' over the surface instead of gripping it. This can be felt as a 'loose' or 'fidgety' sensation at the bars, instead of the normal planted and secure feeling we’re used to. But is this such a bad thing?
As an instructor one of the most common tips I give to riders asking how to improve is this: "Slow down, add smoothness, think about what you're doing." What better way to do this than to ride in the rain?
When we have much less traction available the immediate reaction is to do what? Slow down.
With less traction, whats the best way to brake or enter a corner? Smoothly.
When you can feel your tires squirming all over the track, what do you have to do in order to stay upright? Think about what you're doing.
This isn't just a theory. Back in the early 90's when I was racing 2-strokes in Australia I attended every advanced rider school I could find. And due to the seasons in Australia being all southern-hemispherical, we raced all through winter. I can remember at least three race schools that were held on days that had one or more downpours. It was common so of course the classes continued regardless.
The value of this was initially lost on me but as soon as the exercises began I could see the benefits. One of the exercises held while cats and dogs fell all around us was a braking drill. The irony here was that while the coaches at this school wanted us to ride in the rain, they weren't particularly fond of standing in the downpour to watch and give advice as we came screeching to a halt. To mitigate their sogginess they were able to stand under a bridge. But this meant that the initial braking we were doing was on wet asphalt, which then transitioned to dry asphalt under the bridge, and back to wet asphalt again.
While I was initially terrified at the thought of applying maximum braking in the wet, it turned out to be the best lesson I ever had on what both my brakes and I were capable of. On command from the dry coach under the bridge, I set off at a decent pace to reach 40mph. As I watched the coach, he signaled to start braking. I smoothly applied the brakes, waiting for a signal from the tire that I was trying too hard. I could feel some feedback but nothing fatal so I kept braking harder. In a flash I reached the dry asphalt so immediately increased my braking force to capitalize on the increased traction available... In a second or two I was again on wet asphalt so reduced the braking as little as I dared. The first time was kinda pathetic and I was confident I could do better now that I knew what to expect.
Next time around I reached 40mph, waited for the signal then hit the brakes harder than before. I didn't squeeze a little then more, I just gave that lever all I dared. The front end dove down, the bars squirmed a little, but I knew what to expect so it didn't freak me out. I reached the dry section, squeezed as hard as I could, then eased off slightly when I reached the wet section again.
Each transition from wet to dry to wet generated different reactions from the bike. As I sat in line waiting for another turn I analyzed what those reactions were. I was feeling things from the tire, from the forks and from the brakes. As the rear suspension extended further with each pass it added to the sensations I was feeling, giving me more to think about. The point here is that doing this exercise in the rain sounded terrifying at first but ended up being the most beneficial braking exercise I ever tried.
Yes, there was a risk of crashing, but when isn't there? Sitting in line each time was the perfect opportunity to think about what I was doing, how to do it better, and how to apply these newly understood sensations to lapping faster.
Another drill we did in the rain, at least once, was cornering. Picture a line of riders, almost all licensed racers on dedicated race bikes, sitting in a line half way down the straight. It was a scene straight out of an MSF class (to use an American riding reference, completely alien to my Australian self at the time).
The coaches were all standing at the apex of a different corner and did some wild waving and gesticulating every time they wanted a new rider to come strut his/her stuff. The object of this exercise was to practice perfect body position and brake application while entering a turn in the rain. Initial attempts were pretty timid.
We were slow, as smooth as we possibly could be, and we concentrated intensely before, during and after. What better way to learn good technique?
After a few passes we all started going into the turns faster, using a little more brake each time. We looked through the turn to where the coach indicated and we used our peripheral vision to look down at the track to the apex. With a motivator like wet asphalt to reinforce these lessons, we all improved VERY quickly. We all knew the risks of not following the advice of the coaches so there was no impediment to learning.
When the drills were all done, the one thing that impressed me the most was that not one single rider had crashed. We were using maximum braking in the rain. We were trail braking, also in the rain. We were running cornering drills in both directions, still in the rain, with no crashes.
We took a break for lunch, loudly predicting that the rain would pass and the afternoon sessions would be dry. We hoped…
Everyone there of course wanted to lap as fast as possible, but for all the wrong reasons. We wanted to race against our friends. We wanted to show off, boast about our riding without saying a word. But as lunch ended the rain continued.
The afternoon was supposed to be open lapping supervised by the coaches as we put into practise the lessons we learned all morning. And guess what? Thats exactly what we did. We braked hard but smoothly, cautiously feeling for limits that we had learned about all morning. We tipped into corners progressively faster and harder. We trail braked as water in standing puddles/lakes sprayed all over us. We had no time or use for ego. We didn't care how fast we were, we cared about not crashing.
Fast forward 20 years.
At TWS the rain started around lunch time. I was teaching Level 2 and while I was not overly thrilled about riding in the rain I was keen to work with anyone interested in the opportunity to learn in an environment that forces you to put into practice the lessons we teach in class. Unfortunately the vast majority of students decided not to ride at all. Lucky for me though, one adventurous soul took me up on my offer.
We headed down pit row slowly, smoothly. We were the only ones on the track!
My student had street tires on and wasn't afraid to test their limits. Thankfully I had installed a Sena radio on his helmet so we were able to talk the entire session. As I coached and watched his reactions, my student put into practice everything that we had talked abou all morning.
He started the session slowly, warming up as much as was possible. A lap into the session he started using a little more throttle. As the rear started to squirm he eased off a little but now he knew exactly where the limit was.
Coming into turn 10 he braked a little, then a little more. He tipped into the 180 degree right hander smoothly. His body was in the perfect position. He looked well through the corner at the next apex. As he reached the perfect turn point he flicked the bike to the left so smoothly it was beautiful to watch. He accelerated smoothly and progressively through the next series of turns and came through the last corner harder than I might have recommended, but he was completely confident so I trusted him.
By turn 2 we were talking about how much fun we were having. I noticed a single bike ahead of us tipping into turn 4. Repeating my warnings of being smooth we upped the pace ever so gradually. We accelerated out of 3 just a little harder. We tipped into 4 just a little faster than the previous lap. We were still going much slower than the morning sessions but that allowed us to follow the perfect line within inches. As we came out of turn 5/6 we were going fast enough to pass the other rider easily, then tipped into gravity bowl going faster still.
My student was slipping and sliding around on the perfect line. He was smooth, predictable and just kept going faster every lap despite (because of?) the rain falling non-stop.
By the end of the session I commented that it was probably the smoothest session I had ever seen. He improved constantly while learning from every corner. His line was perfect, his body position was perfect, his braking and acceleration was perfect.
We were going incredibly slow compared to the dry morning sessions, but I honestly think we both learned a lot more from the reduced traction situation than we could have from another average dry session.
So my point is?
The next time it starts to drizzle while you're on the track, instead of cursing your bad luck, how about we all take it as an incredible opportunity to learn? What better way to force yourself to slow down, add smoothness and think about what you're doing?
At these reduced speeds you might even have time to realize that you're actually repeating some bad habits that you know are a bad idea but are doing without even realizing?