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Riders of the Mist: Embracing the Fog

‘A prepared rider and well maintained bike makes for safer riding’

Introduction

If you don’t ride in poor conditions, you are unlikely to be able to cope with them when they arise. There is a lot of published advice about NOT riding in fog. It’s true, if it can be avoided then other forms of transport may be preferable. But, life doesn’t dance to the tune of our personal lives. I was riding up to Boulogne a couple of years ago. Just over the top of a hill I descended into a bank of fog. It was very thick, very cold and wet. There is no telling what we may encounter on a ride, so being able to skilfully ride in less than ideal conditions needs to be in every rider’s skill set. This article gives you advice on how to ride safely when the clouds hit the mountain tops or fog settles in the valleys; or, anywhere else on your route. 

The model for the advice in this article is: you, the bike and the ride. When riding, starting with yourself is always a really good place to begin. Your views and beliefs about your riding ability are the key to helping you to ride safely. Preparing yourself can be the difference between an enjoyable instead of a difficult ride. Unlike clothes, we don’t have spare body parts in the wardrobe just in case things go wrong. Your machine, of whatever type and size needs to be able to help you get to where you want to go in one piece. Riding in different environments is a vital skill set for all riders. A sudden change of route may put you in the types of  places you haven’t ridden before. If you normally ride on smooth highways, suddenly riding on rutted back roads can make for some very butt-clenching moments.

The Rider

Let’s start with YOU, inside out! Fog generally brings two things to challenge your riding comfort. Cold and damp. They also affect the bike too, but more on that later. To stay warm many riders swear by a heated gilet. It keeps the core of your body warm and draws very little power from the bike. If it can’t be wired into the bike, then a small battery, with a spare, can help. An alternative to a heated gilet is layering up with thin jumpers. Just don’t become a Michelin model, two should be sufficient. Perspiration has to go somewhere and I’ve successfully ridden with an aerated Summer jacket under waterproofs. Heat is retained, moisture evaporates and the waterproofs stop water from the outside getting in. Walking trousers and a cycling over-jacket have served me well for years.

The waterproof over-trousers have a zip up the whole length of the leg to help get into them quickly. They fit under the jacket, up above the top of the waist. The over-jacket is an XL-size in bright yellow. Full sleeves help to outline the body from a distance. If you want to go further you can add reflective strips, particularly on the lower limbs. My legs are hidden behind a wide fairing, so are unlikely to be seen. Colour is important. Pink, orange, yellow and green work well. Backgrounds can easily hide white and black. I’ve lost count of the number of car drivers who’ve told me they really appreciate the bright colours.

Hands need waterproof gloves. I’ve yet to find a pair that work, but waterproof over-gloves, lobster-claw or mitts, work well. They are easily put on and taken off. Heated grips and hand-guards also help. Your feet need waterproof boots, but an alternative may be over-shoes. I’ve even seen riders wearing plastic bags, but I wouldn’t recommend them in anything but an emergency.

Time to think about what to carry. A hand/head torch is a very good item. Not only can it help with examining the bike, but can be used as added lighting in the case of breakdown. Something you hope never to use is a First Aid kit. A Biker Down course will show you how to do the basics, but nothing compares to a proper First Aid course. Not only does it help you, but you may have to stop to help someone else in trouble. A fully charged phone, with a list of emergency contacts and a credit card help if things go awry. I mourn the passing of cash too, but we have to move with the times and keep the banking system functioning. 

A great addition to have is the SAM Club’s Biker ICE Card. It’s FREE and specifically designed for bikers. It folds down to the size of a credit card, but can hold masses of health data. In case things go wrong, it really helps the emergency services staff. I’ve even used it when consulting health professionals. There is no relying on electronic gizmos, bracelets or necklaces. Just open your wallet and hand it over.  

Now put the brain in gear. What’s the weather forecast? Cold temperatures affect tyre grip. Tyres can cool rapidly when in contact with cold surfaces. What is the precipitation? Rain, snow, sleet. Wind speed and direction? Are you riding into areas with a lot of hollows, frost pockets, or past damp fields and standing water? Can you find an alternative route to avoid trouble? What is the barometric pressure? If it’s falling it can warn of stormy conditions approaching. Have you looked at radar and satellite imagery? It can help with avoiding the worst of any adverse weather. There are plenty of weather apps to have on your phone, but remember they will give you a forecast, not a certainty. They can be very helpful in signalling a pleasant ride rather than an unpleasant one.  I have a pillion who often says, ‘Well! They didn’t have this in the forecast!’ The indignance has to be seen to be believed.

Let’s talk about an honest appraisal of your skill set. We all have the tendency to overestimate our abilities. It’s part of our innate ability to show we can cope with life. Riding or otherwise. Ask yourself: have I got the right level of machine control skills. How long can I comfortably ride without taking a break? Riding in fog, or any other hazardous conditions requires sustained, focussed attention that can tire you more quickly than normal. If possible, consider building in more frequent stops. It’s 90 minutes of riding for me. Do you know when you are losing focus? Has your normal riding ability to predict hazards and problems diminished? Do you remember the last stretch of road you’ve ridden, or don’t you know how you got from A to B?

The Bike

Before getting on the road let’s think about the fantastic machine we are about to ride. Do the POWDERY (Petrol, Oil, Water, Drive, Electrics, Rubber & YOU!) checks. Although most bikes are very reliable today, cold and damp can play havoc with normal operations. Dry cables don’t work too well. Condensation in the fuel tank will prevent the engine running smoothly. Exposed terminals can short out electrics. A loose or over-tightened chain can cause metal fatigue faster in cold and damp weather.

Let’s make it visible

It’s a sad fact that most bikes don’t come with fog lights. Small 5W bulbs may not give sufficient light to warn following traffic that you are in front. Fitting one shouldn’t be a big hassle and a dealer may be able to help.  Auxiliary front lights set high up on crash bars are unlikely to be helpful in fog. Adjusting them to light the immediate carriageway may improve what you see. You may still not be visible to other road users until you are very close. Reflective stickers on the front forks, fairing and rear panels might help to alert other road users to your presence earlier.

Riding to get home

Every rider should get home safely. Your skill set should include knowing how to avoid sudden braking or steering. Progressive braking, smooth and gentle acceleration, slow and progressive deceleration. Fog comes in different flavours. It is rarely continuously dense. Patchy fog where you ride into a fog bank into the clear before another fog bank appears. The clear patches can be close together or far apart. Whatever the type, it’s very easy to become disoriented. To avoid this problem look for whatever can keep you focussed. Road markings, roadside kerb, road signs all help to keep you on track. Time and space is what is needed. Time to recognise the hazard and the space in which to react safely. Sat navs can be helpful. They can warn about upcoming junctions, the changing direction of the road, uphill and downhill hazards. It may be helpful to slow down if the road changes direction. If you lose sight of all visual reference points it’s time to stop until you get your bearings again. Put on your hazard lights. Flashing lights attract attention more easily. Keep your distance from the vehicle in front. You can slow down, but be aware that following road users may get impatient. Particularly, if they have a different view of a safe speed. One night, in very dense fog, I had to pull over to let a following car pass because they were so close to my rear wheel. In addition, the road surface was very poor and slippery. Ride at your own pace and give way to impatient risk takers. They will crash before you do! 

Some writers advise riding to the near side. This can put you into conflict with other road users on the near side of the carriageway. The centre to a line two-thirds of the lane from the kerb may be better. You will get an earlier view of road users coming in the opposite direction. You will also avoid coming into conflict with road users on the near side. Signal early to show that you are turning. 

Wildlife can be a problem. If it’s cold and dark they are more likely to be tucked up somewhere. In daylight they wander, looking for food, or a comfortable place to lie down. 

Finally, use all of your senses. Recognise that these can be distorted or deceived. Smell might be diminished due to water vapour in the air, hearing may be affected in judging the direction and distance of sound, touch may be affected by cold and it’s not unknown for people to hallucinate in fog. Like making imaginary shapes from clouds. However, listen for horns and the sounds of crunching metal and plastic. You did remember to pack your First Aid kit. Didn’t you? If you break down, get off the road, to a safe place, as quickly as possible. Use your fully charged phone to find your exact location. On your sat nav there may a ‘Find Me’ menu item. On your phone, ‘What-3-Words’ is accurate to within 10 metres. Call for help. 

Conclusion

With all the dire warnings it may be that you think I’m trying to dissuade you from riding in fog. You may have no choice, but you can do it skilfully and safely. Above all stay calm, alert and focussed on the riding task at hand. There is a story of challenge, courage and survival to be told. Like all stories, it’s always better in the telling!  Ride safe and if you need it, take some extra training.