Adventure Motorcycle Riding in Winter
Why wrap your bike up every winter, wrap yourself up instead and get out and about to enjoy some of the most rewarding motorcycling experiences available. Winter riding is more challenging, and takes more consideration however is equally as enjoyable as any other time of the year. Here are some tips to get the most out of it. See at the bottom of each section for Extreme advice, for Arctic or Alpine travel.
Shorter winter rides need little extra preparation above a warm set of clothes, however be aware that riding in winter should always be done with forethought and preparation. Check your tyres (more on this below), lights and brakes. All must be in good order, with spare bulbs being carried, as there is more chance you will need them to get home, than long summer ride outs. Be sure to carry tools and a torch so you can use them.
It is worth applying anti corrosion measures to the bike before setting out, roads are salted in winter to bring down the freezing point of water that settles on the surface therefore preventing Icing.
The salt on the roads will eat into the highest quality bike parts, ACF90 is a common one, as is Scottoiler FS365. I hear of people using WD40, I find this good as a water dispersant, so it chases out any water from the bike, but not as a rust inhibitor. Although others might disagree I see WD40 as a good thing to use just after you have washed your bike, rather than before the ride. Also, Waxoil can be used for inside steel frames and pannier racks, this is highly effective and only needs be applied once, but not for outside surfaces. If you don’t mind the mess, don’t be afraid to grease parts that might be vulnerable, just be sure the parts are not near where you will be in contact with the bike or you will transfer the grease all around. Keep any application away from the brakes and importantly, after finishing any application be sure to wipe clean your light and indicator lenses, a dirty lens seriously impedes the light output. Regardless of the above a good hose down after use will help wash away road salt.
Another less obvious consideration is Icing of Carburettors, I had an old ZXR 750 H1, and if I set off and got hard on the throttle I’d get fuel starvation. It turned out to be the carbs being prone to icing inside. This was solved by warming the bike up gently and thoroughly before pinning the throttle back. I expect this will be less of an issue on modern bikes, but be aware of this for older and modified bikes.
Your winter ride will be a little more fun if you have a windshield and hand guards equipped, although not essential the benefit of keeping the wind at bay will allow you to be less well layered and only prove to help keep you warm and dry. This also helps keep road salt contamination more to the outside cleanable areas of the bike. Some Riders wear a gaucho type leg cover, great for a scooter and used all around Europe and gaining popularity here.
Alternatively Heat pads can be placed around the battery to warm it up, (or take it off into a warm room) and it has been known to warm the sump with a stove, but this is obviously a risky move only as a last resort.
Planning Your ride
Road Salt (Grit) works well down to -5C and becomes ineffective at -8C. So be aware of forecasts when choosing to ride. Keep in mind to prepare for rain at 1C, but below that prepare for snow. If riding in mountains then this can be difficult to prepare as you will need to be equipped for all weathers and be sure not to get wet before climbing to colder area’s where what was manageable at a lower altitude can quickly become hypothermic.
Personally, I don’t like to be the first and last person on the roads, as the pressure and friction of car and truck tyres will keep a busy road ridable. Also it is probably true that winter riding has its own risks, so if riding alone it is wise to leave your route with someone. Finally, about planning, with night’s drawing in fast, it is essential to be able to keep to your intended route, it’s no fun being lost in the dark and cold, there is less room for error.
Tyres are vitally important due to reduced road grip. Most tyres will suffice for UK riding, a decent tread pattern is an advantage as it will help displace water, consideration needs to be more seriously taken when venturing into Europe or Scandinavia. Legally you may be required to equip winter tyres or even studded tyres to ride in ice or snow. Here is an example of the German legislation which states you do need to have winter tyres if riding in Ice or Snow. http://www.adac.de/infotestrat/reifen/winterreifen/Winterreifenpflicht/default.aspx
Look out for tyres marked, (Winterreif or M+S). For Adventure bikes look out for options from Continental, Heidenau, Mitas and Anlas. I have found that Winter Tyres do improve grip, so worth the investment if you expect to ride a lot in winter. Winter tyres have a fit for purpose tread pattern and often are made with Silica added to the tyres rubber compound so they don’t harden up in low temperatures. They do wear out quicker, but do seem to give improved grip (my experiences are with TKC80’s and K60 Scout’s).
A final note on tyres, you will need to be aware or variants in tyre pressures for extreme temperatures. This doesn’t mean you will need to adjust the pressures, it just means if you check them expect to see the pressure reading higher in hot weather and lower in cold. Look online for details on this as it’s a detailed subject that can’t be covered well here. Some will advocate lowering tyre pressures a few psi so the tyre footprint is increased therefore giving better traction, there is sense in this however to date I have always run standard pressures with good tyres unless going off road.
Ice racers and other more serious fitters of studs may line the inside of the tyre with a liner to stop the stud penetrating the tube, however with a deep tread tyre it is possible to stud your own tyres with the aid of a power drill without breaking through. Studs should be applied randomly around the tyre, typically you will need a minimum of approximately 80 studs per tyre depending on configuration.
Wind chill and rain are the main enemies. I found my Summer riding trousers and jacket are too tight to get my winter layers beneath. So it might be the case that larger outer layers are required to remain comfortable. The key to getting clothing right is to apply what you know about summer riding and rain repellence and add in more layers. It is not always a great idea to pack in the layers too tight because your outer clothing is too small, keep the clothing comfortable and allow for loft of the insulating layers. The same goes for boots, you will need space for the extra layers to feel their benefit.
For short rides the addition of Merino wool base layer is good, as merino wool is warm and wicks away any perspiration. I find wearing a Buffalo windshirt and buffalo trousers as a base layer particularly good, these are very warm when worm next to the skin and keep you warm even if your outer clothing leaks. http://www.buffalosystems.co.uk/products/windshirt/ Importantly the windshirt is windproof but has a detachable hood, as neck space is a problem on almost all clothing I have tried, once the layers get piled on, so integral hoods are to be avoided.
Down jackets also work well over a base layer and under a shell layer but you must keep them dry, so have a failsafe outer layer. Although winter spec motorcycle clothing should be the first choice, Mountaineering clothing does give great cold, wet and wind protection, however lacks the armour, so it can be considered if you want to supplement this with stand alone bike armour from say Knox or Forcefield. I tend to go this route, but mainly because I already have good cold weather mountaineering clothes.
Before your first long ride, get geared up and take a short fast ride, try and feel for the cold spots in your set up, these are most likely to be neck, cuffs, helmet shins. Ensure your trousers are long enough, gloves have a gauntlet, you have a windproof neck and chin protector and helmet vents seal closed. It may be required to wear a thin balaclava under your helmet or tape over the vents to keep the heat in. I wear a Cyclists under helmet cap from Aldi, it is a small cap for the very top of the head and works great, and when I stop I put my wool hat over the top of this, so don’t lose any heat. Remember the Eskimo saying, “if your feet are cold put your hat on”. Most heat is lost from the head. Do the same in the rain, test your kit for leaks, as the cold will exploit any area that gets wet.
For long rides heated clothing is ideal, I prefer heated gloves to grips, although grips are a certain benefit, and work very well with handlebar muffs. I also prefer a long sleeve heated jacket to a vest. Heated trousers are rarely needed in the UK, and I wear Sorel boots, rather than motorcycle boots, so my feet stay warm and dry without heated insoles or socks. If you are going to use heated clothing, (I use Gerbing) check out the advice online about fuse ratings, and if your bike’s electrical system is up to it. Two of the best things I equipped to my bike is a Large Odyssey Battery and Voltmeter, although voltage is not the best measure, it tells me if with lights, satnav, clothing etc in use if I am >12v or <12V. Obviously, if you stay at <12V for too long the battery will be being drained. This method has served me well and helped identify faults in the charging system straight away, with enough battery reserves to get to my destination. Gerbing have a very nice panel mounted temperature controller, this will help, as it regulates the current required therefore not taking up so much valuable alternator output. An important note regarding heated clothing, it is possible to slip heated clothing under your normal bike gear and ride very comfortably, it is normally thin, and will fit and keep you warm. This is well and good until there is a problem, or you stop riding. These jackets/ trousers do not have much insulation in them, so once you stop you get cold quick, and if a long way from home the journey could be punishing if you don’t have a back up plan, so use them as a luxury, enjoy the warmth, but have ample clothing with you to put on if needed.
Finally a real problem is visor icing or misting, a pinlock insert works very well, and mine remains fog free below zero. Riding with your visor up is not pleasant so it is useful to keep something to hand to keep it clean, particularly for night riding. It is handy to wear some safety glasses under your visor, so you can ride on a little further if your visor does need to be lifted due to dirt.
Slow and steady… Grip is reduced so gives obvious braking cornering issues and in freezing conditions a smooth riding approach is essential. Not having ever had a bike with ABS or traction control it is hard for me to comment, but on a traditional bike the difference in technique is preparation of the mind first. Most importantly give more braking distance, pay more attention to road surfaces, keep your visor clean (it will need attention), limit where possible breaking into a corner or acceleration while leaving it, avoid tar strips and manhole covers when cornering, don’t let the cold or needing the toilet (I am always reluctant to peel off the layers to go!) compromise you attention, expect to stop more often. Plan to stop every hour, when sat stationary for long periods the body only generates a small amount of heat, unlike when active, so sitting still on a bike for long periods will make you more prone to this than usual. Take breaks, walk around (but don’t get sweaty), eat something calorific, drink hot chocolate, or soup.
There are more advanced riding techniques that I am not qualified to teach, such as pulsing brake pedals, changing front/rear brake balance, shifting weight and steering rather than leaning into bends. Taking care, being alert and not in a hurry has always served me well.
Dehydration can be an issue, when wrapped up and cold, drinking can be overlooked, and the hassle of using the toilet when fully geared up can also put you off drinking. Be sure not to overlook this, as alertness and attention span can seriously be effected. Be aware of symptoms of Hypothermia, if caught out in the cold, through accident, breakdown or sudden change in the weather an awareness of what to do is invaluable. Below are useful links with detailed information.
The information provided here is opinion only from personal experience, and other sources verbal and online, this information is to help stimulate your ideas, so please take it as it is meant, and research heavily for yourself if planning an extreme cold trip.