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A while back I read a research paper that examined just where road users actually look. Guess what? Motorcyclists looked at the road surface more than drivers. That surprised the researchers but was predictable because it's the friction between tyres and road surface keeping bikes shiny side up. The level of grip we have impacts on our ability to accelerate, brake, steer and lean so it's not surprising that we pay the surface a lot of attention. Nevertheless, it's important to understand why some surfaces are barely ridable in the dry whilst others give near race track levels of grip in the wet.
Perfect surfaces are the exception rather than the rule, but still riders are caught out and panic when they see a dubious surface mid-turn. Why? Because we need time to react - spotting a problem already under the front wheel is too late.
Scan ahead then anticipate if the surface gets better or worse - a change of colour or visible line across the road often warns of a change, and though they look the same, two surfaces may have very different grip. Anything shiny is probably slippery. It makes sense to follow the Survival Skills advanced rider training approach by planning for the worst before we discover the hard way.
Slippery access covers are found around bends and junctions - don't brake on them, aim to steer round rather than over. A shiny line could be a tar seam - like glass in the wet. Bumps and slippery surfaces together spell caution - beware cats-eyes when overtaking and paint markings that don't follow an ideal line.
Discoloured patches could be wet patches, gravel, potholes or polished surfaces. Mud and gravel will wash downhill after rain and accumulate at the bottom of hills. Loose chippings will be pushed to the centre and sides of the cars' tyre tracks - do we want to brake on those?
Irregular streaks are often fuel spills. Petrol is as slippery as diesel but evaporates quickly. If you smell diesel slow down and search! Guess where you'll find it - near filling stations, bus depots and industrial estates, on roundabouts and long fast bends.
Watch out for shellgrip - it's a high friction surface laid near pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, and sometimes on bends too, but rarely far enough round to get the bike upright again. Take advantage of the extra grip mid-corner and we'll hit the less grippy surface still banked over - a recipe for a slide.
Don't forget rain! After a prolonged dry spell, all surfaces will be extra-slippery.
Things we can change are tyres, suspension settings and - attitude! Super-soft track compounds just don't work on the road. They don't warm up and don't like rain. Hard track suspension settings don't allow the bike to follow road irregularities. Stick to road set-ups and road compounds, but even then we need to take some care. Modern tyres have excellent grip but can fool us into pushing too hard - our tyres can only deliver the amount of grip that the surface offers. A super-grippy tyre will have more more traction over wet metal access covers or on diesel. And once the bike starts sliding, it may well panic us into grabbing the brakes and having a crash that shouldn't have happened!
So beware overconfidence. Don't ride too fast for the conditions, keep back and don't follow the vehicle in front. Just because the Land Rover made it round doesn't mean we will too!
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