Common Tread

Riding in the rain: What you can learn from Nicky Hayden

May 20, 2016

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that Nicky Hayden just won the second race of the Malaysian World Superbike event — his first World Championship-level win in a decade, and Honda's first win in World Superbikes since 2014 — on a drenched track.

Nicky was able to put that not-really-competitive Honda on top of the box because rain is a great equalizer.

It was probably extra-satisfying for him because every racer, somewhere in his (or her) heart, knows that winning in the wet takes being smooth, fearless, and smart in equal measures – and that the credit for such wins redounds more to the rider than the bike.

I had scheduled a short interview with Nicky before the Malaysia weekend (for a totally different story, about learning new tracks). While I had him on the phone, I pivoted to talk about riding in the rain. I told him that I’d noticed, years ago, that he did well in wet races. I assumed that it went back to his dirt track roots, and that he had an advantage whenever the bikes were really moving around under the riders.

That wasn’t the way he saw it.

“I’d hardly ever ridden in the rain. Most of the [AMA Superbike] tracks I’d raced on, we didn’t even ride in the rain,” he told me, referring to tracks like Loudon, Mid-Ohio, and Daytona that were considered unsafe in the wet. “So when I first went to Europe, I could be quick for one lap, but I didn’t have the ability to be consistent for a whole race.”

He knew that racing in the rain was a skill he had to develop, since World Championship races go rain or shine. So he really worked in wet practice sessions and tests (when some other riders kind of mail it in). “You don’t want to be known as a guy who can’t race in the rain,” he said. “Team managers frown upon it.”

He told me that he likes his wet setup to be about 10 percent softer, spring-wise, to accommodate gentler rider inputs. “It’s really important for me to be able to get my knee down,” he added. “So we take a little ride height out, especially at the back. I also turn down the steering damper, because I want the bike to be able to move under me.”

“There’s a big difference between wet pavement, and standing water,” he said. “If there’s standing water, then aquaplaning can be a real problem. But if it’s just wet, you’d be surprised how hard you can brake while you’re straight up and down.”

Nicky Hayden in World Superbike
For the pros, rain makes the race more about the rider than the machine, which made Nicky Hayden's first World Superbike win in Sepang more satisfying. For you, riding on the street, it's also about the rider. WSBK photo.

He told me that in Malaysia his peak brake pressure was nearly as high in the rain as in the dry, but the key was to make that initial take-up gentle (to transfer weight to the front and plant the front tire) before going to full pressure. Then, you have to ease off the brake much earlier as you tip the bike into the turn; you can’t trail brake nearly as hard or as deep into the corner.

“You’d be surprised how hard you can push,” he said. “I think that in Malaysia, my lap times were only about 13 seconds off my dry times. That’s not a lot, over a big two-mile track.”

One of Nicky’s keys to a good wet race is simply being confident enough to get some heat into the tires. And even as an ex-World Champ, he had a rain tip every commuter can relate to: Do anything you can to keep your visor clear. (He suggested Rain-X.)

Now to be sure, Nicky didn’t have to worry about manhole covers, or wet leaves, or coming to an urban intersection where a generation of cars has marinated the asphalt in old 10W-30. And if you’re just a commuter or fair-weather rider caught out by a cloudburst, you don’t have the benefit of full-wet race tires. But, mere mortals can use some of the same techniques racers use to bring it home safely.

Don’t snatch that brake! Start with a gentle squeeze to transfer weight to the front and push water out of the way.

Even though, as an ex-racer, I trust my front brake in the wet, I often use my rear brake to reduce rear-wheel momentum and initiate braking. A lot of street riders shift almost all their braking emphasis to the rear in the wet; that’s OK at slow speeds, but remember that it’s harder to modulate the rear brake, when you’re controlling it with a cold wet foot in a heavy boot. Get off the brakes as you enter the turn. 

I’m no Nicky Hayden, but the way I adjust my body position in the rain depends on what I’m riding. On sport bikes, I like to lean off a little more, keeping the bike more upright. If I’m riding a sit-up-and-beg style bike with a wider handlebar and better leverage, I tend to "dirt track" it, letting the bike lean under me while I keep my weight centered, on top of the bike and as far forward as I can get it.

Either way, I get on the gas a little later and a little more gently coming off corners, too. (Even my 125 cc Yamaha Vino briefly came around on me the other day, when I got too aggro with the throttle while riding to the gym in a Midwestern downpour.)

riding in the rain
A test rider tries Battlax A40 tires on a Suzuki V-Strom. Road-biased adventure bike tires are the closest thing to racing rain tires that's street-legal. They're terrific in foul weather, even if you don't ride an adventure bike. Bridgestone photo.

Obviously, if you’re riding a modern bike with a "rain" engine map, you should use it. Failing that, consider short-shifting to stay in a gentler part of the powerband. If you have ABS, make sure it’s turned on.

If your helmet has a breath deflector, use it. Make sure your vents are open; if you’re still fogging up, try cracking your visor a little bit.

One thing we all have in common with Nicky is that in the rain, confidence helps. It’s easy to get into trouble because you’re unwilling to brake hard enough or to run wide because you’re afraid to lean your bike over far enough. Most riders underestimate the wet grip available with modern street tires. If the alternative is hitting something, you should always opt for firm, confident control inputs.

Last, but not least, try a little attitude adjustment. When you’re caught out in the rain, don’t think of it as a crap shoot; think of it as practice. Your riding buddies will be impressed next time they’re pussy-footing around in the rain while you cut smooth, controlled lines.

Editor's note: Considering all that has happened since this story was originally published, we decided it was appropriate to close comments here and leave them forever at 69.

It worked for Nicky Hayden.