It is easy to let the winter months put you off, but a good days ride is a sure cure for the doom and gloom of winter and will help make sure your road skills aren’t too rusty, come spring time. And for the serious and long distance tourers amongst us, sometimes it is just not possible to avoid wintery conditions. We ride in the Himalayas across Tibet and Andes at what is considered to be “summer”, but may still encounter cold conditions once over 4,000 metres, simply due to the altitude. It’s all too easy to persuade yourself that riding in the wintery conditions isn’t a good idea, but take a few basic precautions, prepare yourself, your bike and your riding properly and you can enjoy the challenge and joy of staying on two wheels.
It’s what’s inside that counts
Before you think of your bike, think belly. Starting a ride on an empty stomach is never a good thing, but even more so when it’s a cold day. If I eat a cooked breakfast any day, likelihood is it’s probably before winter riding. Maybe it is psychological, but without food and a hot drink, I feel hollow and get colder quicker. I’ll then ensure that I have all my motorcycle kit on before I get out to the bike – just for enough time to create heat, without sweating, and I’ll always start the bike running straight away when I am out, before I start checking and adjusting anything.
We’ve written before about the principles of layering, and there’s no time this is more relevant than when the temperature drops. Warmth without weight is the name of the game; lightweight, breathable layers that help keep the cold and moisture out and the warmth in, without feeling like you’re a trussed up Christmas turkey.
Cold weather riding kit has improved dramatically in recent years, so it’s possible to get a good all-round kit system you can use throughout the winter without having to shell out too much. There’s a lot to be said for electrically heated kind mind you, as it offers the flexibility to increase and reduce your temperature at the touch of a button, without having to get off the bike and remove/add layers. We’ve been using KEiS heated vests, which work really well. By all means go for the full kit – heated gloves, insoles, jacket etc. – but if your budget it tight, a vest does the job – the warmer your core is, the warmer your extremities will be.
And make sure you tuck in! It’s vital to make sure that you haven’t got any gaps in your clothing for the cold air to seep in.
Weather and road conditions
Making a decision to ride in the winter requires that you understand the increased risks over summer riding. If you plan to travel any distance, check out the weather forecasts over the route you’ll be taking. It may be clear at your start destination but icy and snowy elsewhere on your route. Now it goes without saying that if you can avoid riding in the snow and ice, this is the best advice. But again if you are high up in the mountains or have just chosen your season wrongly, you might find yourself in some of the white stuff. Normally a fresh thinner layer of new snow is easier to ride in, by once again getting up on the pegs and using the techniques described for gravel. Deeper, wetter snow that already has ruts from other vehicles can be passable, but can be slow going and will normally involve paddling the bike through. In whatever situation, keep it slow and smooth and do not be heavy on any controls. Also if you have ABS, make sure it is off!
Be sensitive as to wind conditions and air temperatures to determine whether there is a risk of freezing and ice. Stronger winds blowing across the surface could easily turn compressed snow to ice due to wind chill. If you do suspect ice, then this is a major problem. If on your own, you need to consider turning back or if you think that the suspected icy area is only for a short distance, whether to get off the bike and walk with it. Bikes and ice do not mix!
Get a windscreen
Many think a screen spoils the beauty of the bike and gets in the way of enjoying the wind in your hair! However, riding in 2C degree temperatures with severe wind chill factors may make you change your mind. We upgrade our Triumph Tiger 800 to taller screens for our long distance expeditions.
Make sure your battery is up to the task
Many motorcycle batteries won’t last more than two years. Winter riding puts even more strain on a battery. Invest in an optimiser/charger to keep it in top condition.
Use proper oil and check your coolant
Usually 10W – 40 weight oil designed for motorcycles is sufficient to keep things lubricated properly in lower temperatures. If you have a liquid-cooled bike, be sure that the reading on the anti-freeze is sufficient for the temperatures you expect.
Corrosion during winter can be avoided by washing of the salt and road dirt causing oxidisation. Wax your alloy rims with a nice hard wax to prevent the outboard motor effect. Try putting a little grease or vaseline in areas you want additional protection for. And remember, bike covers will actually get a little moisture underneath them, so keep your bike covered in more ways than one.
Like clothing, tyre technology has moved on significantly in recent years and now most manufacturers will offer an option for colder, wetter conditions. Although it can seem like a large expense for just a few months of riding, the amount it can save on damage from a fall – and the peace of mind you’ll experience whilst out riding – is well worth it. Tyres like the Continental ContiTrailAttack 2 and TKC 70 offer quick warm-up times, and excellent wet weather grip, and are well-worth investing in. And if you are on dirt and snow, then the TKC80‘s, like in this picture, taken in Tibet, are perfect.
The painted surface of white lines gets extremely slippery in the rain. Avoid riding to close to the centre of the road during rain, as these markings collect a lot of fuel and dirt deposits. Add directional arrows and manhole covers to this list of snags!
Be aware that pedestrians in rainy, cold weather are always not very aware, especially when running across the road to avoid getting wet! They usually keep their heads down to avoid the rain, so keep yours up to avoid them.
Speed and Corners
Make sure the centrifugal forces on the bike are minimised heading into bends. Just ride a little slower, keeping those forces under control. Never sharply brake or accelerate to quickly either. Additionally, gearing down too rapidly could cause a lockup of the back tyre where it normally wouldn’t on a dry road.