IMPORTANT NOTICE: Ultimately, the safety of motorcycle riders and their passengers is their own responsibility. Nothing presented in the column supersedes, negates or relieves a motorcyclist and/or passenger from assumption of personal responsibility for their actions and safety.
Doug Westly | Safety Editor
“Wait a minute,” you’re thinking! How is it that a guy in Florida is going to talk to the rest of us about winter riding? Well, I do have some bona fides:
I lived in Montana for 2 ½ years, riding there all year, at least when the roads allowed. I commuted on my bike for 5 years, year round, in Washington, DC. If there wasn’t ice on the roads, I rode to and from work, 50+ miles each way, every day. I lived in Alaska for two years and managed at least 6 months of riding up there on my 1980 CB750F. Oh, and in the middle of Dec 2013 I was up at Big Bear Lake, CA, above 7,000 feet, riding past the open ski resorts. We did have to be careful in the hairpin turns, as the ones in the shadows still had ice on them! So I do know a little bit about riding when it is cold. I’ve been on two wheels at 5 degrees F (that’s before the wind chill is factored in…). Anyway, bona fides established. Let’s talk cold weather riding!
First and foremost, let’s make sure we dress for the weather conditions. Layers, layers, layers are the order of the day. Winter temperatures can see 40 degree swings between early morning and midafternoon in some parts of the country. All-day rides become an exercise in effective riding gear.
There are any number of choices for layering. Several companies now make thermal and wind block layering undergarments for riding. If cost is a factor, look into Cycle Gear’s own line of wind block layered riding undergarments. They work well and are very cost effective.
Gloves are another concern. Make sure you pack the lightweight pair when you start out in the morning wearing your winter gloves. Nothing is less fun than having your hands sweat in winter riding gloves because it is mid-afternoon and you’re now in the high point of that 40 degree swing.
For anyone really serious about cold weather riding, or the weather is serious, then it is time to go to electrics. Electrically heated clothing used to be bulky and sometimes temperamental. Not anymore. There are numerous brands available, with variations from attached power supplies to 12v systems that hook directly to your bike’s system for power. All you need is a “pigtail” wired to your battery or optionally-installed fuse block (as many of us already have) to plug in your heated gear.
Why electrics? There are a number of excellent reasons. First and most importantly, electrically heated gear can keep you warm in colder temperatures than any number of nonelectric layers of regular clothing. 2nd, heated gear means you no longer have to dress up like the Michelin Man®, to go riding. A base layer, your heated layer and a jacket/pants combo (or insulating layer between the heated and outer layers for really cold weather) is all you need. Finally, good heated gear comes with a temperature controller. That means you can adjust the heat output on the fly. Nice…
Smart riders understand that environmental conditions have a big impact on them and their machines…
Probably the only challenges to heated gear are the cost and whether or not your bike’s electrical system has enough output to power the gear. The new heated gear, particularly the micro-wire systems, pull fewer amps than older style gear, and most bikes in the stables of MSTA members can handle them without a problem. Check your owner’s manual to be sure you have enough electrical output (and that it is not being taken up by things like additional running lights, etc).
BTW, you can also add heated glove and boot liners that plug in to the heated jacket and/or pants. The bottom line with electrics is that unless you are really in serious cold weather (below 32 degrees F, for instance, or freezing), then keeping your core warm will usually do it. On the other hand, there is something to be said for being toasty warm everywhere. Once again though, more heated gear means more amps drawn. Use electrics with care and it will make winter riding a joy!
How about your bike? If it’s a cold morning, it doesn’t hurt to let the steed warm up for a few minutes before you head out. Ride it easy until you get the engine and other running gear up to temperature.
Now for a big one: tires! You’ve heard me harp about tires on several occasions. Now we’re going to talk about tires and winter temperatures.
Remember that tires are designed to work at specific operating temperatures. Particularly if you store your bike outside or in an unheated garage, those tires are cold when you start out. The cold rubber will probably be further impacted by the cold road surfaces. Your tires are colder than normal and won’t heat up as fast. When you stop for a break, they will cool down quickly.
How about the road surfaces? Two words: “Ice” and “Snow.” I’ve ridden in snow and ice conditions I probably shouldn’t have, and wouldn’t now that I’m hopefully more mature as a rider. I won’t begin to tell experienced MSTA members when they should and shouldn’t ride. I’ll simply add one more word here: “Traction”. You either have it or you don’t.
Oh, according to motorcycle tire engineers, that old “Moto GP warm-up weave” doesn’t do a whole lot to actually warm regular street tires. That’s because tires have to warm completely through their carcass to perform as designed, and a few minutes of weaving back and forth just doesn’t do it. Tires heat more effectively through normal riding. Bottom line: You just don’t get as much “stick” (traction) with cold tires on cold pavement. Go easy on the traction demands. Ride accordingly!
Smart riders understand that environmental conditions have a big impact on them and their machines…Ride Safe!
Doug Westly – Safety Editor