During the winter of '08-'09, there really wasn't much of a rainy season to speak of around our offices here in Southern California, so there wasn't a lot of opportunity to keep my wet-weather riding skills sharp. This year, however, has been a completely different story; numerous weather fronts during January and February proceeded to form a conga line and drench the area with some pretty heavy rain. Since commuting to and from work every day on a motorcycle has been a staple of my daily life for decades (even before I began working for the magazine), riding in the rain became a part of that ritual.
Not everyone enjoys riding in the rain for obvious reasons. But for me, I've found that it brings a whole new experience to riding that can sharpen other aspects of riding skill that are used on a much more consistent basis on dry pavement.
Naturally, if you're cold and wet, riding in the rain is definitely not enjoyable. Riding gear technology has progressed a hundredfold since my early days of riding in the rain with cumbersome apparel that would be more at home on a fishing boat. Jackets, pants, and oversuits are available now that not only can keep you dry, but also warm and protected from impact injury as well. Various breathable yet waterproof high-tech liners allow jackets to keep moisture off your skin while allowing the jacket to retain all of its abrasion and hard-armor protection, and removable insulating liners that are much thinner and more comfortable than the old canvas-like layers of before help to maintain warmth during winter rains. Gloves and boots have also benefitted from the technological advancements, with the same inner liners (as well as special coatings) preventing your outer extremities from becoming soaked as well as frostbitten, while maintaining some control feel and keeping your hands and feet from looking like refugees from the '60s Apollo space program.
Helmets haven't been left out of the continuous techno march either. Gone are the days of having to ride with your faceshield open because of the inner surface fogging up and obscuring your vision. Inner shields and special coatings are now available (as well as shields already equipped with such) that do an excellent job of preventing fogging in cold conditions. Many helmet manufacturers and aftermarket companies now offer face masks and special molded guards that keep your moisture-laden breath away from the shield's surface.
Riding in the rain forces you to heighten your awareness. You can't be daydreaming about what's for dinner or what you'll be doing when you arrive at your destination, because your survival instinct mandates that you be alert and highly cognizant of your environment and any potential hazards. Your safety margin is obviously trimmed because of the traction deficit, so you widen that margin by looking farther ahead and using more of your peripheral vision to scan for danger signs. These are rider concentration tactics that play just as important a role when the pavement is dry; but it's all too easy to let those skills get a little rusty and complacent from the day-to-day monotony of the work week.
Your control actions and the thought behind them also undergo a transformation due to the traction equation. Smooth inputs are the name of the game in everything you do, from the throttle to the brakes to your steering, your body positioning-all your control actions are geared toward maintaining that tenuous footprint on the pavement that is about the size of a half slice of bread. Needless to say, smoothness while riding on dry pavement is just as important, especially when the pace ramps up and your actions can become abrupt and hasty.
That heightened awareness of your tires' grip in the wet can pay big dividends for your overall riding skills as well. As long as the basic foundation of riding skills have been properly set, continually being confronted with traction judgment situations forces your body and mind to try and understand the feel required to understand just where your tire's grip level is at. Today's tires have exceptional grip in the wet compared to just 15 years ago, and if approached carefully at the lower limits, their warning envelopes are wide enough to be a good teaching tool in learning how the bike and tires react as grip begins to wane (of course, testing the outer limits, especially on the street, is a recipe for disaster).
Riding in the rain is not for everybody, and various conditions can dictate just how much it can teach a rider. But properly geared up and mentally prepped for the occasion, I find it can be another enjoyable aspect of the overall riding experience.