You don’t necessarily have to live in Phoenix or Miami to ride through the winter. But at the same time, you don’t have to be scrutinizing the icy roads of northern Canada to face challenges if you keep riding when the cold weather hits.
When this happens, extra measures are employed.
Riding in cold weather makes a lot of demands on us if we want to stay safe and comfortable. You might want to say that’s your reason for getting a $35,000 pickup truck with an adequate warm heater and a roof, as riding in the winter is no fun. That’s fine. I won’t regard you any less as a motorcyclist, but I understand that some of us cyclists like taking on the challenge of winter riding and don’t want to keep our bikes for several months of winter.
Let’s just keep it at that to respect each other’s risk tolerances and preferences. I don’t ride quite far or often in the winter, but even short rides give me pleasure and I also like not being totally relaxed when the first chance of nice spring ride comes by.
Here are 10 things to know:
1. Be Cautious of the Harsh Environment
If you’re someone like me, and you’d rather winter ride than keep your bike, you would need to deal with the challenges of cold-weather motorcycle riding, which requires extra thought and alertness. Those fall into three main categories: your equipment, your environment, and your body.
It’s extremely cold out there, so consider these dangers associated with your environment.
- Typical loss of traction: snow and ice. Get the obvious factors solved first. On two occasions, I’ve been caught out in the snow on a motorcycle, about 10 years apart, both while commuting and, fortunately, on both occasions, I was not far from my destination. Though I survived it, I’ll never do it intentionally.
Riding a dirt bike in a snowy field can come with a lot of fun and instructive. They also say ice racing is a blast, but having a ride on the street in snowy or icy conditions leaves you at the mercy of traffic situations you may find quite difficult to handle competently.
As I mentioned earlier, we all have to know our risk tolerance, but ice or snow is where I’m personally driving at. You make your choices and endure the consequences that come afterwards. If you decide deliberately to ride in the snow, you’ll want studded tires and laws on those vary widely. Therefore, check locally.
- Unforeseen loss of traction: hidden ice. Even if you never deliberately go out in an icy condition, you still have to improve your alertness. Assuming it’s sunny and dry midday with temperatures in the 40s; you can still come across leftover frost or ice in shaded or low-lying regions, so be aware of those situations. It’s never advisable to ride a bike on the street in a carefree fashion with your mind unstable, but in extremely cold weather, you have to be even more diligent, constantly surveying and evaluating potential hazards.
- Other unexpected loss of traction: cinders, salt, patches, and damage. We are fond of complaining about the corrosion damage road salt has on our motorcycles and for many riders, that’s enough reason not to ride. But salt is also strong enough to rob you of traction.
It’s comparable to gravel when freshly strewn on the pavement and also comparable to dust when it’s been ground up by a lot of passing vehicles. Even those fine particles of salt diminish your tire’s grip.
This is the Hocking Hills, a popular riding area near me, and generates a hazard in winter that lasts into spring, which is worse. One other thing is what we motorcyclists love to complain about on hot summer days – tar snakes are also hazards and associated with cold-weather.
Just as they get slippery when it is hot, those asphalt patches become hard and slick in the cold. Ultimately, we are all aware that the freeze-thaw cycle causes potholes and snowplows can dig them up even worse, so be watchful of new hazards even on your regular road.
The expected loss of traction: cold tires. In the 18 years since moving back from the tropics to 39.96 degrees north latitude, I’ve had two small wrecks on the road. On both occasions, I was on very low-speed on cold April mornings, both within a mile away from my house and, not surprisingly, cold tires had a contribution to both.
Probably just about everyone is aware that cold tires offer less grip, but as it is always said, “Knowledge is foolish if you don’t act on it”. Braking, accelerating, and leaning must be moderated to accommodate cold tires, especially at the onset of the ride.
2. Care & Feeding of the Operation
- The cold exhausts your energy: The longest cold-weather ride I ever had was a trip in February. It was a sunny day with temperatures in the 40s, so I didn’t have to worry about ice or snow. A 500-mile day is tiring under any condition, but in the cold your body works harder, bringing out some heat. Extra rest stops and eating regularly well are crucial. Don’t think you can get dehydrated only in hot weather.
The dry air of winter sucks the moisture out of you without you noticing it. Days are shorter and temperatures tend to drop rapidly after sundown, so consider that while planning your distance. Nearly all my cold-weather rides are short rides, but if you are going to cover a long distance, consider what distance is realistic.
- The cold reduces dexterity: So there you meet yourself on a salt-dusted road with cold tires and wear insulated gloves when a car turns left in front of you, forcing you to threshold brake at the limits of reduced friction to prevent a crash. Consider if you have the level of fine control in your fingers when you need it most.
If you choose winter gear, endeavor to put a lot of effort into keeping your hands warm (heated grips, hand guards, heated gloves, quality gloves are all helpful in various combinations). On the road in winter, two things require a necessary halt: a shiver (means your core is getting cold) and stiff hands. A little warm water and some time with the air hand dryer at the rest area restroom bring back blood flow in your fingers.
- The cold reduces mental attention. It’s not only your frozen fingers. Hypothermia gradually sets in and it also has an effect on your most vital organ, your brain. According to a medical practitioner, we want to attribute hypothermia to physical effects, such as stiff, numb, or aching hands and feet. But probably the greatest threat to riders is the impact hypothermia does have on mental sensitivity.
Our thinking often slows down, our active scanning and anticipation of potential threats, and our judgment tends to become seriously compromised. As a result of this, bad situations appear more quickly and often. And when they happen, the physical limitations of numb and stiff hands as well as the feet make responding to a threat even more inefficient.
That’s more reason to calm when you think about the potential consequences. Stopping to warm up or quitting early will keep you from getting to that point of danger.
Winter riding: Equipment matters
There is no ride without your motorcycle, the significant third part of the equation.
3. Buy a Winter Beater
Here’s a great reason to buy another motorcycle. If you’re among those riders who put your costly bike for four months every year because you don’t want to expose it to salt or put your throttle-control skills to the test with a high-powered machine in dangerous conditions, buy a cheap dual-sport.
Back when I would have to regularly commute to an office job, I purchased a humble Honda NX250 and rode it to work all winter for five years. The dual-sport tires proved well in the cold, the lightweight and modest power were easy to handle in sub-optimal traction conditions and when the salt decomposed a bolt on the brake caliper, I got a replacement caliper for a small amount. And since it was already a beater when I purchased it, its hard life didn’t feel terrible. Winter is a great time to have a rethink and try a new motorcycle.
4. Be Careful With Maintenance
You ride from work and arrive home in darkness. To perform maintenance in the cold seems difficult. But the salt on the parts of your motorcycle is at work (probably in vital areas, such as the sole front brake caliper on my old NX250 commuter). Moist cables aren’t likely to move more freely as the temperature drops. Take time to keep track of what’s happening to your ride.
About your tires: We’re likely not going to be like car drivers who switched to snow tires for the season, but it still does make sense to consider all-round performance when deciding on which tire to choose. Sport-touring tires are mainly designed with extra sipping ability to move in water and with compounds that perform well over a wider temperature range. If you own a dual-sport, I would recommend today’s 50-50 adventure tires. These tires make great street tires in wet conditions and could be a real lifesaver if you have yourself get caught in some slushy snow.
In rain and foggy weather, it’s pretty important that you remain as safe as possible on your two wheels. So if you’re devoted to staying on two wheels through the cold winter months, how best do you cope with the greasy roads and sub-zero conditions?
5. Get the Right Winter Riding Gear
Things you should not do away with as winter riding gear should be a decent jacket and pair of trousers, strengthened with thermal tops and leggings on extremely cold days. Keep your body’s core as warm as possible as you can and your not-well-protected extremities have a fighting chance of keeping the cold at bay for a longer period of time.
There’s an availability of a huge range of textile outfit, but ensure a proper fit – not too loose, not too tight, arm and the leg length just right when you’re on the bike –is as important as the water-, weather- and crash-protection qualities.
High-cut bibs and brace trousers give you the best defense against the cold by keeping your torso better insulated and helping avoid draughts around your waist. Put on a heated vest and you could end up being warmer on the bike than off it.
If you are the type that prefers the security of leather over the superior weather protection of textiles, then an unlined one-piece overall suit should give you a decent degree of insulation. They may not be comfortable to get on and they might be out of style but you won’t welcome any draughts around your waist and nothing does a better job of keeping the rain out.
6. Prepare your Motorcycle for Winter
Is your motorcycle ready for winter? It’s going to take a hammering from the elements, so give it a good clean and have it treated with a corrosion-inhibiting spray.
Ensure that the levers and controls are appropriately adjusted and oiled, especially the throttle cable and twist grip. Most especially, your tires should be up to the job. They need to be suitable for use in cold- and wet-weather use, with a wide tread pattern and high silica content. Semi-slick summer track day rubber won’t be advisable.
First things first…
If you have any reason to touch anything cold in getting your bike ready to go on a cold morning – for example, a lock and chain or a garage door handle – do it with your gloves on. If your riding gloves are too heavy to toying with keys and padlocks, have a thinner pair around. That might mean a few seconds of roaming about, but holding cold metal with bare hands will chill your fingers in a few seconds. If you’re starting your journey with cold hands, they’re going to get colder during the journey, so do everything within your reach to keep the frostbite at bay.
7. Invest in Heated Grips or Gloves
Painfully cold, numb fingers are the affliction of winter motorcyclists. Heated grips or heated gloves can be more than helpful, and once you try them, you’re probably not going to have a change of mind. Some bike manufacturers fit them as basics or offer them as accessories with the bike, but if you’re getting aftermarket items yourself, make sure they’re properly fitted so you don’t destroy your battery or set fire to something uncalled for.
If you don’t go down the electrical way, purchase the best winter gloves you are able to afford. Make sure they’re not so heavy that you find it hard to operate the controls properly and ensure you are able to get a good seal around your jacket’s cuffs.
Failing that, you could forget about fashion and fit handlebar muffs (although off-road-style hand guards seem very cool and keep the worst of the wind chill off).
Your feet are the underrated heroes of winter riding, left relatively out in the cold but with serious jobs to do. Winter socks and boots will keep your toes heated up to a point and there are heated insoles (don’t forget to unplug them before you get off, though), but if you fill too much additional kit into your boots along with your feet, you could end up disrupting both movement and blood flow, which will defeat the purpose.
You can impede the onset of permafrost in your socks by riding as much as you can with your toes resting on the foot-peg. Ride having the arch of your foot on the peg and your toes tend to stick out at an angle into the wind-blast, which isn’t suitable.
8. Keep a Neck Warmer
Ensure the gaps around your neck, cuffs, waist, and ankles are appropriately covered. Leaky cuffs can give way to cold air and rain up your sleeves or down into your gloves. Some combinations of gloves and jacket seal best with the jacket sleeve done up over the glove rather than tucked under it, so endeavor to find out which works best for you.
Neck warmers are important, not only for protecting your exposed neck from the cold weather but also for ensuring a good cover around your jacket collar and under your helmet. They are widely available on the market, so find one that best suits you. Just make sure it doesn’t hinder your head movement or so many blocks of airflow under your chin that it causes visor misting.
9. Visor Maintenance is Necessary
Visor misting can turn into a real problem in winter, so visor maintenance has to be your daily ritual. Sprays and wipes are available on the market to help prevent misting, but you’ll need to apply them on a regular basis. Anti-misting inserts like FogCity and Pinlock work very well if they’re properly fitted. They can also be endangered if the inside of the visor gets moist, so if it’s raining, you have to keep your visor closed at all times – which is liable to cause problems if you wear glasses under your helmet.
Smoothness is crucial on cold, greasy roads. In low-grip conditions, jerky, nervous inputs will be reflected in your bike’s reactions, which in turn can make you feel even less secure and confident.
10. Watch The Throttle
If your bike possesses switchable traction control, you can relax while your ECU does the hard work on slippery roads. For the rest of us, good throttle control is crucial.
Smoothness is vital. Unbuckle the throttle open and you’re likely to find yourself breaking traction; instead, wind it on progressively, with your throttle position matching engine revs. There is a need for a direct correlation between throttle position and engine response. On big bikes, don’t dare to crack the throttle wide and wait for the revs to catch up – if the wheel does start to spin, it will continuously do so even as you’re rolling the throttle off. It might only be for a nanosecond but that could be enough to cause damage.
While road salt may prevent ice forming – at least to some extent – it draws moisture out of the air and creates a slimy film even when no rain has fallen. Manhole covers, white lines, as well as cat’s eyes become even more slippery than usual, so look ahead to avoid them and don’t focus on fixating. If you are unable to avoid something extra slippery, run over it on a neutral or positive throttle; panic and snap the throttle shut and you’re more likely to lose control.
Fresh snows can actually provide a handful of grip (don’t attempt getting your knees down), but all bets are off once it’s compacted into ice. If you by any means find yourself riding on ice, then don’t dare to ride with your feet dangling down to catch a slide. If you do, the chances are that you won’t be able to stop the bike falling and you’re risking breaking your ankles.
The modern ABS has relieved the concerns of locking a wheel. But if you are a rider of a pre-ABS bike, you will have to be more circumspect. Again, smoothness is virtually everything and most crucial while initially applying the brake.
In fact, it starts with closing the throttle prior to the application of the brake, because even the abrupt forward weight transfer of a snapped-shut throttle lands the front wheel on a slippery road. Once the weight has shifted forward, you can apply more braking force – but only up to a point.
If the weather becomes really arctic, then sometimes the best decision is to keep the bike.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it advisable to ride at night when it is still raining? You should dare to ride in such a situation only if you have a strong and reliable headlamp and you know you won’t stay out of control, coupled with a reason that you have no other choice.
What should be my speed limit while riding on ice? It is simply advisable that you keep your speed at a very low level.
Can I take my bike out for a stunt when the weather is extremely cold? If you’re doing yourself no harm, do not attempt to perform stunts when the rod is not yet dry. Wait for the sun to take its cause to dry the slipping road.
The icing on the cake is always my final piece of advice: Remember the safety of other road users is your safety. Always think of them first before taking any action. Till we meet again, enjoy each moment on the saddle.