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Blue Dog Diaries: Wet work

By Terry Roorda

There was a chunk of muddy sod staring me in the face, wedged into the top edge of my face shield, gouged out of the perfect lawn I had plowed with my head and upon which I now lay spread eagle and motionless. An arm’s length away lay my pride and joy, my new ’71 Kawasaki F7 Enduro—still running, naturally. I reached over and turned the key off as the episode that had just transpired began to replay its particulars in my woozy brain.

Mere moments before I’d been charging into a tight uphill subdivision sweeper, hard on the bars and leaning audaciously into the curve just like I figured Dick Mann would probably do it if, like me, Dick Mann were running late for his final exam in high school German. Unfortunately a passing spring downpour had wetted things down pretty thoroughly on my suburban race track, and my trials universal tires lost their bite at the apex, and quick as a sneeze I’d executed a spectacular low-side get-off, one that sent me and my enduro sliding a good hundred feet up the street, up the driveway of an upscale split-level, and across the freshly sodded lawn. Luckily nobody was home to witness their creative new landscaping.

That was my first moto-mishap on the street, and it proved a valuable chapter in my early motorcycling education, for while it hadn’t actually taught me how to operate a bike on soaked pavement, it had taught me exactly how not to—and that’s often the more valuable lesson.

I’ve gotten pretty good at it since—better than at landscaping, anyway—but what got me thinking about that incident so many years ago were the heavy rains that have deluged California of late, and the fact that recently I’ve had a good deal of downtime to stare out the window and reminisce about rides in the rain, and to develop an idle obsession to look into the subject in some depth—if there was any depth to be found on the subject. I hit the stacks in my office moto-library and combed through volume after volume of how-to motorcycle guides—guides that teach you basic operational skills; guides that illustrate racetrack and street riding techniques and strategy; guides on how to ride Iron Butt distances; guides that show you how to plan and pack for long trips, including thick sections on foul weather gear for the road. But lacking in one after another of these works were any sections devoted exclusively to the very unique demands of serious wet-weather operation. (Aside from a passage in Theresa Wallach’s 1970 chestnut Easy Motorcycle Riding that gives these dubious words of advice when encountering a flooded underpass on the street: “Hub deep water should not stop you if you handle it correctly. Be quick to pick the most suitable entry place and predetermine your ‘landing-ground’ so you are not blocked by a curb and thus unable to get out of the water.”)

But at last I cracked open Smooth Riding the Pridmore Way (Whitehorse Press) by legendary racer and racing instructor Reg Pridmore and hit paydirt.

Reg is definitely my kind of guy; he grew up riding a bike in the rain out of necessity and positively enjoys it. It takes a certain breed to find the allure of what otherwise is considered by most riders to be pure misery. If you tell people you love rain riding they tend to view you as either a masochist or a liar, so it was gratifying to thumb through Pridmore’s book and discover the section entitled, “The Joy of Rain Riding.”

He’s fairly comprehensive in his examination of the subject, detailing the stuff you’d expect, like slowing down, staying focused, keeping your distance, avoiding the oil-rich middle of the lane, and the like. (To which could be added the equally intuitive stay off the snot-slick manhole covers and pavement paint stripes, and follow tire tracks ahead of you in the downpours, but not so close that the spray is a vision issue—especially if you’re behind a tractor-trailer.)

Less obvious admonitions provided by Pridmore are to stay off the rear brake entirely unless you’ve got anti-lock brakes, and while acknowledging that modern motorcycle tires are vastly superior in the wet to the skins we grew up on, their traction is still somewhat less than foolproof, and he recommends letting a couple pounds of air out of each to widen the footprint. I admit I never tried that one before (and probably still won’t, considering what a pain in the ass it is to check the tire pressure on an Electra Glide even under ideal dry conditions).

Pridmore’s real piece de resistance in his rain-riding instruction comes under the heading of “Ease Up!” and it deals with what he refers to as “body steering,” which consists of “…reducing pressure on the handlebar by using weight shifts and pressure on the footpegs and tank. In the rain it’s even more critical to monitor the amount of pressure you exert on the bar, because traction is decreased. If the handlebar is your primary means of steering, it will get you into trouble. Eliminate tension in your shoulders and arms to avoid giving the front end a bad message. By easing up, you’ll find the control you’re looking for.”

That sounds like good advice for life in general, doesn’t it? And so does this gem that pretty much summarizes the entire Pridmore philosophy: “And, as in all adverse conditions, you need to harness your emotions and release the tension. At times, conditions will be so bad that common sense will tell you to get off the road. It’s important to listen to this voice in your head.”

It’s all right here in the diaries…

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