Originally published in Slipstream magazine, September 2017.
I opened my wardrobe recently to discover that I owned more pairs of motorcycle boots than I did normal shoes, and significantly more motorcycling suits than formal wear. Don’t even get me started on gloves, base layers, and heated vests – I seem to collect them. This may sound familiar, as it’s amazing how quickly the ultimate set of all-weather riding textiles can seem compromised, with additional sets of clothing saved up for and purchased year on, year out, until we have a configuration fit for every possible micro-climate.
Which is all well and good when you’re headed out for a morning’s ride and can be reasonably sure of the weather for the following few hours. When you’ve packed the bike for a two-week loop around eastern Germany, you have to roll the dice and pick one. Sometimes, you pick wrong.
In theory, you’d aim for the middle ground and take the all-weather waterproof textiles with the built-in unzippable vents; great in the cold and wet, fine in the warm and dry. But mainland Europe in August can easily reach 30C, at which point you’re courting heatstroke before you’ve even started the engine. Vents only work when you’re moving, and sitting in traffic as the tarmac slowly melts, you start to wish you’d brought the mesh.
And so that’s what you do next time; you even bring the fully-vented gloves and boots to complete the set and laugh gleefully as your own personal air-conditioning leaves you cool as a cucumber. Early starts can be a bit chilly, but rain isn’t always as much of an issue as one would think. At those high temperatures, it’s actually rather refreshing. Plus, ideally, you tour wearing nothing that isn’t moisture-wicking and quick-dry – including your socks and other undergarments. The moment it stops raining, the warm air pulls the moisture off you as quickly as it arrived.
Of course, you could always make room for a set of waterproofs to pull on in the event of serious precipitation, but in my case two weeks on a Street Triple R meant little enough room for clothes and basic tools. It doesn’t matter how clever you are with bungees and duct tape; sometimes there just isn’t space. And so I decided to chance it. After all, it was August. No chance it could be wet and cold, right?
Day one, it rained. No matter, the theory held – rain was warm, and the subsequent Belgian autoroutes dried me off nicely before the lunch stop. The next few days were lucky, with rest days lining up nicely with what little drizzle there was, and I was able to dodge the damp from the comfort of my hotel. The few days after that were absolutely cooking, with those in the group who’d chosen leather beginning to seriously regret their choices. Not only was I cool and comfortable, but stopping to wander around charming German towns presented no risk of heatstroke.
Canny use of smartphone apps and satellite imagery meant that I was able to dodge a truly spectacular rainstorm one day by setting off early and skipping a couple of coffee breaks. The rest of the party decided to take their time and were later surprised when the hairpins they were riding in the Härz Mountains were transformed into whitewater rapids in a matter of minutes. And yet, I somehow knew that my luck had to run out eventually.
Sure enough, the storms that were flooding parts of France were sweeping towards us, and the second-to-last day of the trip foretold a seriously wet day. Not only was there zero chance of adjusting the itinerary at this stage in the tour, this was to be a particularly long day, with a minimum of six hours’ riding to be done. What’s more, the storm brought with it a big fat wedge of cold air, with temperatures threatening to dip into single digits. And there was I, in the motorcycling equivalent of a string vest with nothing but a token fly screen to deflect the frigid air.
I’ve ridden in cold weather before. Christmas Eve 2009 on a Honda VFR750 stands out – Exeter to Cardiff after work, stopping at every service station to thaw my hands out on the exhaust pipe, and motocrossing up the un-ploughed hill to my parents’ house. But good grief, this was worse. Soaked to the bone within moments, trying to balance a desperate desire to get the miles done quickly with a pressing need to keep the speed down for windchill’s sake.
Stopping for a hot drink and a pretzel early on was a smart move in retrospect, as the moment you cross back into Belgium everything is apparently shut. You ride one corner at a time, as contemplating the number of miles or hours still remaining would be to invite utter despair. I couldn’t do 200 miles; I just couldn’t. But I could do this one straight bit. And this corner. And that straight bit. And maybe this next corner…
I was wearing every layer I’d brought with me in a desperate attempt to trap a little extra warmth, but this, in turn, meant that when I did arrive at the hotel I had nothing dry to change into. I wrung everything out, draped damp shirts and jackets on every available surface and followed a blazing hot shower with a boiling hot bath. And another shower.
When I was able to feel my bones once again I used a combination of towels and hairdryers to assemble a mostly dry outfit and meet the rest of the arriving gang for dinner. It was with great relief that I once again set out the next morning to blue skies and dry roads for the final leg home.
As you might imagine, I have no desire to repeat that particular part of the trip. Riding when cold and wet can sap your concentration, slow your reflexes, and even cause your hands and feet to cramp up should things become bad enough. On top of that, you risk catching a flu or even pneumonia; it really is no joke.
Mesh riding gear really is fantastic for touring in Europe during the hottest summer months, and heatstroke and dehydration can be just as dangerous while riding as numb, frozen fingers. But choosing such narrowly-focused gear means you absolutely must take additional clothing to compensate for an unexpected change in the weather, be it a set of waterproofs or an entirely alternate riding outfit.
I’m fortunate enough to have the choice of another, more touring-focused motorcycle that would give me the space to bring spare gear. If that’s not a luxury available to you, then leave the specialised suits at home and take the textiles on tour. Because when it comes to the weather, you never know what to expect.