When most bikers think of fall riding, they conjure up a near-idyllic riding experience complete with colorful fall foliage, empty highways and clear, cool days. Many fall days indeed live up to their expectations, but those picture-perfect days have a way of changing quickly as the seasons change.
Unpredictable weather during the fall months can and will create hazardous riding conditions and motorcyclists need to begin preparing for this change before they jump in the saddle on a cool brisk day. The weather can change dramatically in just a couple of hours, causing the rider to deal with possible increased precipitation of rain and sleet, freezing temperatures, strong winds, slippery roads, fog and early darkness. Additionally, during fall decreased daylight brought on by a return to Standard Time from Daylight Savings Time means that many of us will be commuting to and from work, and many children will be on the streets, after dark. So, instead of being one of the better times of the year for riding, fall is actually one of the more treacherous times of the year to be on the highway. Vigilance is required if safety is to be maintained.
This checklist only covers the basics:
Rider and bike preparation:
- Check your local and regional weather map the day before and the day of your ride, watch for changes.
- Do a 360 degree safety check on your bike: tire depth, tire pressure, clean windshield, services are current, all lights work and are clean.
- Dress warmly, it is easier to dress down if the temperature begins to warm up. Vests, neck gaiters, gloves that go over your jacket’s sleeves, good socks, and a leather jacket and chaps certainly make the ride a bit more comfortable. I know I will get blasted about this, but full helmets really do hold the heat in and the wind out; its all about choices.
- If you are riding two up, it is your responsibility to make sure your passenger is fully prepared for the weather.
- Design your own emergency bad weather roll that is easily hooked on the bike. Assemble the roll by first laying out an old hooded sweatshirt or lined jacket. Then begin by adding an extra pair of riding gloves, inexpensive throw-away rain suit, face cover/scarf, and clear goggles; roll it up and remember to take it with you on every fall ride.
- Are you traveling with a relatively new, inexperienced rider? If so, do not set him/her up for failure, share your preparation strategy and riding techniques, the very life you save may be your own!
- Let someone know your destination, route and when you expect to arrive back home.
- Have a cell phone? Tuck it inside your jacket to keep the battery warm and have it easily accessible if you take a fall.
- Drink water, you can become dehydrated in the cold just as easy as you can in the warm summer months.
Road hazards to watch for:
- During fall and winter months, bridges can be very dangerous. Because they are exposed to weather on both top and bottom, they will freeze over before the rest of the road, and you may not be able to tell until it is too late. Use caution when transitioning from the pavement to a bridge surface by steering smoothly, staying off the throttle and braking lightly.
- When Jack Frost visits your living room window the effect can be magical. When he visits a shady patch of highway around a blind corner, the effects are often deadly. Use caution if your riding route takes you over bridges, down tree-lined streets, or anywhere else shadows cross dew-laden highways.
- As it gets later in the year, temperatures hover around the freezing point, and rain and melted snow can refreeze, meaning that riders are also likely to find that yesterday’s puddles is today’s black ice. It’s called black ice because it is invisible, as the black pavement underneath shows through and looks as dry as the rest of the road. Black ice usually forms below overpasses, on bridges, in shaded areas and where there is water running across the pavement. Because black ice is invisible, it is exceptionally dangerous and a biker who has been riding on clear pavement will be caught unaware. If you ride when there is frost on the grass, black ice is always a possibility. Use extreme caution when riding on cold mornings where there is evidence of frozen moisture on the roadway.
- Fall rainstorms often tend to be sudden and heavy. Any rain is bad for us riders, however early fall storms are the worst from a riding perspective because highways that have a summer’s worth of oil and rubber buildup from traffic become extremely slick when suddenly soaked. It usually takes a couple of really good downpours to wash this buildup away and in the interim the roadway is especially hazardous. If it has rained recently, the water may not evaporate as quickly as during the summer months, resulting in unexpected deep puddles of water that may cause hydroplaning.
- Hydroplaning happens when excessive water buildup on the highway causes a bike to 'float' on a layer of water. It occurs because the water buildup on the road is greater than the amount of water the tread channels can clear at a given moment. Usually, the hydroplaning lasts only a second or two as the bike is passing through a shallow puddle, but during heavy downpours the condition can be disastrous. Because a hydroplaning bike has no direct contact with the road surface, it is next to impossible to steer and brake. In such conditions, slow down and avoid sudden movements of the wheel and quick stabs of the brake that can make you lose control. If you feel like you are floating while riding on wet roads, steer straight and gently back off the throttle until you feel the tires make contact with the road surface. In an especially heavy downpour, pull off the road and wait it out.
- Usually found in low places or areas surrounded by trees, hills or mountains, fog is statistically the single most dangerous condition a rider can encounter. It can severely limit visibility and change your perception of distance. When encountering fog, even just a small foggy patch in a hollow, slow down. There may be a stalled or slow vehicle hidden behind that wall of white. It is also smart to ensure your headlamp (low beam) or fog lamps are on to increase your visibility and your chances of being seen. Most accidents happen in fog because the rider was going too fast for conditions. Slow down, keep your lights on and use extreme caution.
- As the fall season progresses, deciduous trees lose leaves that end up covering residential streets and country roads. While it is fun to blast through those colored leaves layering the highway, bear in mind that leaves can be slippery, especially when wet. Hard acceleration or braking, and sudden turns should be avoided when running over a pile of leaves, as they can lead to skidding. Additionally, like water, leaves often accumulate in low places. There may be a dip, pothole or other road hazard hiding under those leaves covering the roadway.
- Wind chill will bring on frost bite quickly to any exposed body part. Cover your nose, chin, ears, cheeks and neck. The faster you go, the more the wind works against you. Do not get frost bite, it lasts a lifetime! If you cannot feel your face or hands, stop immediately and begin to slowly warm up the frozen body part.
- Slow it down, remember, it’s the journey, not the destination.
I would like to thank Nigel Knowlton and Jim Gill for their contributions to this article.