Cold Weather Riding

Your insatiable Passion for riding is unequaled. There was no “you” before you grabbed your first fistful. Alas, you live in a seasonal riding territory. Every fall, non-riders look at you with pity sharing comments like “your days are numbered” or “looks like you’ll have to put it away soon huh?”. But deep inside your soul there’s a little devil bug. That bug is telling you to push yourself to the limits, ride as late as you can! Heck, ride right through the snow and ice! Well I’m here to both discourage you and empower you to get the most out of these imminent days of bitter winds.

As we’ve discussed in other posts, rule #1 is always “ride your ride” because you can only control your machine within the confines of your skills and experience. This is not a criticism, it is an objective fact that is true for all of us. Really, nobody is done improving. If we’re going to talk about riding in cold conditions, then we must acknowledge the scale of risks that come with it. Cold weather isn’t just a factor impacting the environment, obviously. Low temperatures mess with your mind, body and bike.

Obviously, it’s highly discouraged to do this at all. But in the words of my favorite band, “If you’re gonna do wrong, buddy, do wrong right!” - There's a lot to consider when it comes to cold weather riding, and I’ll try to touch on as many of the details as possible without losing your interest.

Your bike in the cold: Some of the first things you’ll notice is cold starts. Fuel injection technology has gotten much more popular among bike manufacturers over the past decade, but that still doesn’t solve the problem entirely. If you’re running a carbureted bike, you’re going to have a much harder time getting to work on a November morning in New England. How ever your bike is designed, it’s highly recommended you let it idle for a minute after it starts. Yes, a full minute at least! If you’re not running the bike every day, be sure to keep it topped off with fuel stabilizer – instructions on the bottle. Condensation in your tank is much more prevalent in the cold.

Okay, so the bike’s running and warmed up. Time to hit your favorite twisty route to work! You take that first corner out of your driveway and your rear tire is all squirrelly. Bet you didn’t check that tire pressure! Yea, here in new England it’s going to be 80F all day Monday, then drop to 35F all night. Take it easy on your way to a gas station with an air compressor - if your cornering on soft tires, you’re going to have a very bad time. On that note, don’t be cheap about your tires. Even in the summer, you need good tread and even more so in the winter. If you can’t afford tires, then you can’t afford to ride. It’s that simple. (Don't ask how I know).

You know what else happens to your tires in the cold? They stop sticking to the road like they did in August. So even if your pressure is good and the roads are dry, we really discourage ripping it hard through corners. Especially on roads you know intimately. Those are the roads where ego gets the best of you. If your tires aren't grabbing the pavement and you push your lean angle hard then your front wheel washes out. Not to mention that nobody in a cage is expecting to see a bike in temps below 40F - so if they weren't looking for you before they're definitely not looking now.

Water cooled bikes are going to need fresh antifreeze. Take the time when the temps are still above 50F to flush and fill that radiator. There is absolutely nothing worse than busting your knuckles on cold steel because you didn’t take the proper steps ahead of time.

Some additional “nice-to-haves” on your bike include a larger windshield (or at least some windshield), hand guards and wind guards on your crash-bars. Summer is over, so put style and cool factor to the wayside. Remember, your comfort is a significant safety element. The goal is to get pretty much anything that can deflect wind off your body, Go ahead and get creative and share your ideas! Many folks love their heated grips too, I personally don’t use them, and I’ll explain why later in this post.

You in the cold: Okay, so we touched on some basics about your bike in the cold. But you’re a little more important than your bike, right? After all, if you’re not on your bike then it’s just an ornament.

Extreme cold is technically not as cold as you think. Your body is designed to function at 98.6F, and any deviation is going to ruin your day or even kill you. So, listen to your body!

As somebody who loves to push their limits, you’ll rarely hear me using phrases like “take it easy” or “take a break” because I need to know where the end of the line is! If you’re still reading this, you might be one of those folks too. Remember, your comfort is a critical element to the safety of your ride. Pain, discomfort, hunger, all these things can play as major distractions when you should be focused on road conditions.

This is what we know about thermodynamics. Heat loss happens by three methods: conduction, convection and radiation. You’ll recognize conduction when you take your hand out of a glove and grab a steel flag pole. The pole feels cold because it’s actively pulling the heat out of your hand. Convection, much like conduction is when heat is pulled off your body by moving gasses. In this case, the wind. Then there’s radiation. Your body is always radiating heat, even if it needs some of or all the heat it’s radiating. That’s because we’re covered with skin rather than blubber and fur.

The obvious method of fighting conduction is layering up. Just create barriers between your body and other objects that can pull heat off you. Duh! Convection can be mitigated the same way, however don’t forget your natural gas exchange: breathing. Yea, you wouldn’t believe how much heat is lost by breathing. Heat loss through breathing is a combination of conduction and convection. Finally, radiation – the double-edged sword. On the down side, your body will not stop throwing off heat until your heart stops pumping. On the up side, if you dress appropriately, you can trap a lot of that heat and even recycle it.

So, your core temp needs to stay at 98.6F, but you’re riding between 40 and 60 mph in a 25F environment. Keeping that core temp up is the goal, but there will be consequences that come with some of these solutions. Before your core temp drops, your extremities will be numb, and you need those digits for operating the machine. So, let’s talk about gear and where you can pinch pennies vs where you should really just spend the extra money.

Gear: It’s a 3-fold process, radiation control, convection control and conduction control. The first layer of clothing has got to be thermal underwear. Make sure it’s the waffle pattern long johns. Those waffles do a great job trapping heat. Word to the fuzzier fellas out there, make sure your actual underwear is underneath the thermals or you’ll be in for an itchy ride. (don’t ask how I know). Next is your leathers. Good quality leather is something you should be wearing year-round. So, if you don’t already own them, then now is the time to invest. Some folks prefer synthetics, and that’s fine too. Just consider how much wind is passing through the material and pulling heat off your body. In my experience, leather is excellent at deflecting wind. My torso is layered with an undershirt, thermal undershirt, long sleeve shirt, zip up hoody with a sheepskin lining, and a river road leather jacket. Nice-to-have is the sheep skin lining on that hoody. I actually turn the hood inside out and roll it up against the back of my neck.

Now let’s talk about that breathing issue. How do we prevent heat loss by breathing cold air? It’s so simple and super inexpensive. Slide a balaclava on your head under your full-face helmet. If your helmet fit’s right and you keep the visor closed, that balaclava is going to trap a lot of heat for you and you’ve created a little bio-dome of near body temp air.

If you’re a snowboarder, I reckon you’re no stranger to wool socks and boots. I recommend finding lace-less boots. A lot of wind cuts through footwear that’s held together with laces. On top of your long-johns and jeans, add a pair of chaps. Cliché riding gear, I know. But they work! They deflect a ton of wind and most have a pretty good thermal lining.

Your hands might be the most important thing to keep warm. It’s tough, because they’re the most exposed and pretty far from your heart. Knitted gloves are great for “chilly” weather, and leather gloves are great for protection. For years, I just wore leather gloves 1x size too big with knitted gloves underneath. A lot of folks use heated grips, but I’ve never been terribly impressed. Last year was the first year I finally caved and bought some heated gloves. Game. Changer. They work incredibly well, but they do compromise a significant amount of dexterity. Reaching for the clutch and break takes extra effort, as does thumbing your directional around. Once you get used to it, it’s not so bad but don’t under estimate the difference. Heated gloves and good leathers are the most expensive items you’ll need and 100% worth every penny.

Actually Riding: It’s worth mentioning some thoughts that may seem obvious to more seasoned riders. First and foremost, increase your following distance. You’re not only riding on cold rubber, but your hands are less dexterous, and your focus/response time will be delayed as well. So, save the hot-dogging for the track during summer and spring.

For the same reasons, I urge you not to take corners at a speed where you find yourself leaning aggressively. Even if it’s dry and sunny. Just calm down and get to work, home, wherever in one piece. Treat winter riding like a utility not a luxury.

Watch for ice, but not only when it’s 32F or below. Remember, if it’s 38F on your way to work, then it was probably below freezing the night before. There will be plenty of shaded areas that haven’t thawed, and water collects in those spots early and often. If you’re keeping an eye out for ice, you should be able to avoid most of it. If, god forbid, you spot some ice and realize you’re not able to avoid, straighten that bike out, let off the throttle and get ready to stabilize. You do not want to be driving power to your rear wheel over ice, that’s a great way to high-side. (Don’t ask how I know).

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