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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
I'm pretty sure Keats didn't ride a motorcycle, but it's not unusual for spells of settled weather to develop during late on in the autumn, and fog can be a major problem. I still remember two trips vividly. Years ago, when I was only a few months into my riding career, I rode from Maidstone in Kent to West Drayton near Heathrow. The ride took twice as long as expected because the fog came down, and I very nearly didn't make it. Following the kerb along the inside lane of the A40, I didn't notice I had drifted off the main carriageway into a slip road. I nearly collided with the Armco barrier on the corner. Thankfully because of the thick fog, I was only riding at about 20mph and took some evasive action. A few years later when I was despatching, I took a package from London to GCHQ at Cheltenham. I left in lovely afternoon shine. I got to Cheltenham in time for a beautiful sunset. And the return ride turned into a nightmare of freezing fog, accidents and traffic jams. So riding in fog and particularly in fog at night, is probably my least favourite part of biking. And if I can, I'll stay put. But sometimes it has to be done. So what are the problems and how best to deal with them?
Fog forms when moist air travels over colder ground. Although we could encounter for at any time of year, the densest fog often forms in autumn - November is a favourite month for fog. Warm air can still make its way up from the near-continent and it holds more moisture than during the winter months. But the nights are long and fog forms more readily than in summer, and it can be slow to clear - it may even persist all day.
Like all other weather-driven hazards, first stop is the weather forecast. Forewarned is forearmed. Find out what the day-long forecast is. Whilst fog may be slow to clear in the morning, it's pretty obvious when we wake up in it. But if the weather changes and become clear and still during the day, fog can easily be a problem on the dark ride home. Maybe we can change our departure times.
Towns are generally a bit warmer than the surrounding countryside so it's not uncommon to drive out of town into fog. We can anticipate where we're likely to find it. It can be low cloud, so worse on tops of hills. Or it can be caused by cold air that's sunk into low-lying areas after a still, clear day - damp meadows and river valleys are classic places for fog to form on still evenings. Or it can be blown in off the cold sea. Kent, where I lived for many years, used to get all three types. For example, the M2 being near the coast would often be affected with sea-fog. But the M20, being a few miles inland and crossing the North Downs, was often affected by hill-fog. Watch out for patchy fog, because we never quite know where it is, how thick it is, or how long it'll last. Don't be tempted to blast into a wispy looking bit of mist drifting across the road. It could be a lot thicker than you think.
It's often cold riding in fog, thanks to chill air temperatures, but also because the tiny droplets evaporate from clothing and suck away body heat. If riding in leathers, put waterproofs on, and layer up to stay warm.
On the bike, the first problem is simply seeing out the helmet. The visor gets covered with water droplets on the outside and mists up on the inside from your breath.
Wax polish like Mr Sheen on the outside helps the water bead up and run off, often just by turn our head. Try to avoid wiping a finger - the oily crud on the glove gets smeared across the visor and makes it even more difficult, and long term it scratches it. If the visor gets covered in salt spray or road film, a damp cloth kept in a ziplock bag (I spray that with Mr Sheen too) can clean and re-wax the visor.
Holding our breath all the way home is impractical, and I've never yet found a helmet that demisted itself from the vents that were supposed to perform that trick. Breath deflectors also help, but an anti-mist treatment is usually needed. Whilst they do seem to work, they need regular reapplication. Quite honestly, I used Fairy Liquid as a courier, applying a dab of the neat stuff, then polishing it on with a clean cloth. The other option is a Fog City-style add-on. It's effectively double-glazing for the visor, but I've found that at night they reduce visibility, partly because they scratch easily. I've heard they can be tricky to seal effectively on some visors.
Having sorted yourself out, make sure the bike is in good shape too, with clean and properly adjusted lights. If dip beam is too low we won't get any forward vision. If it's too high, even on low beam it will light up the fog - now the light's bounced back as glare. Extra-bright lights can actually be a disadvantage when this happens.
One of the problems of riding in fog is a sense of 'dislocation'. A road we've ridden dozens will seem totally different in fog, as our normal visual cues will vanish. So use everything available. Reflective posts are red to the left and white to the right, so if we see a line of red posts, we're approach a right-hander. And vice versa. Triangular warning signs are reflective and are there to flag up hazards. Watch the centre line - longer 'hazard lines' indicate just that, and cat-eyes get closer together too when approaching a hazard, and really close - almost a solid line - when the centre line goes solid. Coloured cat-eyes help on multi-lane roads - red to the left, amber to the right, white between lanes, green where vehicles leave or join a carriageway. Ride to what you can see, not what you think you ought to see.
In general I try to follow the centre line rather than the left hand edge of the road - it keeps you further from dangers to the left which will be harder to see - but be cautious entering cross-hatched zones in the middle - there may be unlit traffic islands in the centre of the road.
Unless we meet someone with no lights, it's usually easy to see oncoming cars, but side-on there's little to warn us. We can normally see the tail lights of cars ahead, but don't simply follow the guy in front - if they run off the road, so will we. Fog's water so it makes the road surface damp, and potentially very slippery, so a good following distance is important.
We need to remember that with no fog light, the driver behind us will have difficulty seeing us against the brighter lights ahead in a queue of traffic. If we do a lot of foggy miles it might be worth fitting one - I used to fit a fog light as a courier. I've also seen riders using bicycle LEDs and was surprised how effective they were, although technically they are illegal if fixed to the bike. Typically, reflective material on hi-vis vests is too high up when everyone is driving on dip beam or fog lights - it needs to be low down to be seen.
And finally, make sure the bike's easy to ride. Many riders use 'rat bikes' for winter riding, but make sure everything works properly - we need every ounce of attention for riding, not to worry about stiff clutches, dodgy brakes or cheap and nasty tyres.
Riding in fog is never fun, but we can make it less stressful.
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