In all of my years riding I have only ever met a handful of riders who actually like riding in the rain. The vast majority of us loathe it with a passion and will do almost anything to avoid it. When asked to identify our most memorable rides, most of us will probably include a wet ride in the list, not because it was good, but for exactly the opposite reason. Several of mine spring to mind.
January long weekend 1978. My brother and I had ridden from Canberra to Albury for the annual King of the Weir motorcycle race meeting at the now-closed Hume Weir circuit. Paul was on his trusty (we were soon to find out just how trusty) Yamaha XS650C and I was on my cherry red Honda 400/4.
Saturday was a typical Albury blaster. The circuit was built into the floor of a quarry, the same quarry which had provided the bulk of the fill for the dam wall when it was being built. As a consequence, it was a gigantic heat sink and those of you who have ever experienced an Albury summer day will know what I mean. 40+ degrees and not a breeze to be had. The bitumen along the edges of the track was melting and 15 minute practice sessions ceased to have any meaning as riders did a few laps then headed back to the pits for some relief. As CRRC was just a new kid on the block, we were proud to be representing our new club and even brought a tent and a club banner to ensure everyone noticed us. And, since the tent contained a number of valuable bikes and gear, my brother and I volunteered to sleep the night there and look after the stuff – ah, the fecklessness of youth. We had failed to consider three things. 1. The mosquitoes at the Weir were fierce and relentless and we had left the Aerogard at home. 2. The club that owned the track had had the presence of mind to secure the whole perimeter with a chain link fence and ensured also that the main gate was locked each night. 3. A ferocious storm that blew in at around midnight had not been “on the radar” so to speak.
Since we were still awake at the time and already considering some options about how and where to sleep, we were able to drop the tent before it blew completely away and secure any valuables contained within it. As our bikes were part of the booty, we considered riding in to town to see if we could find a motel room. This seemed like a great idea until we realised #2 above. So, we crawled out under the fence in the howling storm and walked down to the caravan park at the end of the road to see if we could take shelter there. Fat chance of that. Most of the tents in the park were already in tatters and even some caravan owners were looking a bit leery. Finally we were able to borrow a Ford Escort van from Johnny Morgan and we drove off to town confident that warm, dry beds would await. Fat chance of that too. Despite driving through the whole of Albury AND Wodonga – twice, there was no accommodation to be had.
So we returned to the circuit, parked outside the gate and endeavoured to sleep, sitting up in the hard vinyl seats of a 1970’s Ford Escort van, a van that, incidentally, was threatening to tip over at any second so severe were the winds.
Morning finally came and we drove in and rejoined our friends who had also arrived to set up for race day. The days could not have been more contrasting. Whereas Saturday had been still and hot, Sunday was bleak, cloudy and it was bucketing down. Despite this the racing went on and the highlight of the day was the King of the Weir, one of the most prestigious races on the Victorian racing calendar. And, it was won, on a tight, twisty and rain-lashed circuit, by Bob Rosenthal on a TZ750 Yamaha, about the most unsuited bike for such conditions that you could imagine.
Soon it was time to head home. The rain hadn’t stopped or even eased, but there was nearly 300kms to go to get home so we put on our (very) rudimentary wet weather gear (not even Belstaffs) and headed out. Just north of Albury on the old highway (long before the freeway), the 400/4 dropped onto two cylinders. At first I thought that it was going to conk out altogether but it didn’t. But it refused to pull cleanly and the only way I could keep it going at all was to drop it down to first gear and rev the guts out of it. Paul, in the mean time, rode along serenely behind, the old 650 handling it all in its stride. I soon found that the bike would do about 65km/h in first gear but no faster. Changing up a gear only made it go slower and threaten to stop altogether. This speed and gear meant that bike was shrieking like a banshee at somewhere near 10000rpm.
By Tarcutta we were both suffering from the early onset of hypothermia but, stupidly we decided to push on. As we neared Yass, the weather lifted and, not long after Yass, the bike suddenly chimed in onto all four cylinders! As well, our primitive wet weather gear started to dry out and a degree of comfort looked like it might return. Yay. But it was a false dawn. It had taken us more than twice the time it should have to do that leg and, just as we rode into Murrambateman, the rain started again and, shortly afterwards, the bike dropped two cylinders again. We completed the journey as most of it had been accomplished, pottering along with Paul riding shotgun behind to protect me as I loitered along at nearly half the highway posted speed limit.
Of course, anybody who has owned a 70’s Honda 4 will have realised immediately what had gone wrong. I only found out later. The coils that supply the spark for the four cylinders are bolted to the pressed steel frame of the bike just aft of the steering head underneath the fuel tank. Water from the rain and from the front tyre splashes up into the area and soon wets out the coils. In my case at least it only wet out two of them. Once the rain stopped, the heat of the engine and the slipstream of the bike, dries the coils and they start working again.
Fast forward to 1983. My now WordPress guru, Chris Mundy, and I decided that we would do a long weekend tour of Victoria and ride the Great Ocean Road. He had just bought a new Honda VF750S, the shaft drive bike that was the spiritual ancestor of all of today’s Honda V4 engined bikes. I had my first Honda CBX550F2 on which I had already done some serious touring so it seemed like a great idea. The trip was great. Apart from the very depressing sights that greeted us (post Ash Wednesday bushfires) as we made our way down the mountains into Warburton (my brother was living there so that was our first stop), the rest of the trip went like clockwork.
That is until we started heading home. We decided that we would do the scenic route home so we headed out of Melbourne along the Princes Highway with the intention of following the coast all the way back to Sydney. It was all going well till we got out near Sale when we noticed that sky was darkening rapidly. Soon afterwards it started to rain and showed every sign of setting in. By now I had Belstaff pants and jacket so I thought I would probably be OK. Welcome to the world of Belstaff! I soon found that, despite the claims of the manufacturer, Belstaff waxed cotton clothes did virtually nothing to keep the rain out. Our scheduled stop for the night was Eden, still a long way to go. So we pressed on and eventually pulled in to the motel that we had booked, sodden to the core. A hot shower and a wonderful meal at the motel’s restaurant (in front of a raging log fire no less) did something to restore a semblance of humanity but returning to our room that was half filled with soaked clothes and Belstaffs, steaming away in the warmth of the room, somewhat soured it again.
Fortunately, the room was equipped with oil-filled column space heaters, the big panel ones that are about 1 1/2 metres long and half a metre high. We turned these up to full blast and draped our saturated gear over them, hoping that they would at least partially dry them before we had to set off in the morning. Half of that equation at least was proven as, waking in the morning we found that clothes, gloves, balaclavas, in fact all our wet gear, was dry and toasty warm. The other half was not. It was still belting down rain and we had to go. So, we geared up and headed out. Understandably, it didn’t take too long before the water found its way back in and we found ourselves riding along in wet suits. Trying to ride and concentrate when you’re wet and cold is difficult as you know. By Bateman’s Bay the rain had started to ease and we massacred a huge breakfast at a cafe there and headed back out to the bikes to find that the sky was blue, the clouds were gone and the rain had stopped. Hallelujah!
By the time we got home in Sydney the gear was almost dry again but still soggy enough to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. As far as the ride was concerned, I gave it an “Excellent” mark. As far as having to complete nearly a whole day of it in sheeting rain, it got a “Fail”
I was intending today to detail some tips about how to ride in the rain but I seem to have got off-topic somewhat. Never mind, with Autumn here and the chances of the tips being needed soon, I won’t leave it too long before I revisit the subject with some practical hints on how to survive (though certainly not LIKE) riding in the rain.