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Common Tread

Ten tips for winter motorcycle riding

Oct 24, 2019

You don't have to live in Miami or Phoenix to be able to ride through the the winter instead of storing your motorcycle. But at the same time, you don't have to be exploring the ice roads of northern Canada to face challenges if you keep riding when cold weather hits.

Riding in cold weather makes some demands on us, if we want to stay as safe and comfortable as possible. Now maybe you're the type who's about to say, "That's why I have a $30,000 pickup truck with a nice warm heater and a roof, because riding in the winter is no fun." That's fine. I won't think you any less of a motorcyclist but recognize that some of us actually enjoy taking on the challenge of winter riding and don't want a multi-month layoff from riding. Let's just respect each other's risk tolerances and preferences. I don't ride as far or as often in the winter, but even short rides improve my mood and I also like not being totally rusty when the first nice spring ride comes around.

If you're like me, and you'd rather winter ride than winterize, you have to deal with the challenges of cold-weather motorcycle riding that require extra thought and vigilance. Those fall into three categories: the environment, your body and your equipment. Here are 10 things to consider.

frosty tires
Your tires don't have to be this cold to provide reduced traction. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Winter riding: The harsh environment

It's a cold cruel world out there, so consider these dangers.

  1. Expected loss of traction: snow and ice. Get the obvious out of the way first. I've been caught out in snow on a motorcycle two times, about 25 years apart, both while commuting and, fortunately, both times I was less than two miles from my destination. I survived, but I'll never do it intentionally. Riding a dirt bike in a snowy field can be fun (at least for a while) and instructive and they say ice racing is a blast, but riding on the street in snowy or icy conditions puts you at the mercy of traffic situations you may not be able to deal with competently. As I mentioned above, we all have to determine our own risk tolerance, but ice or snow is where I personally draw the line. You make your choices and live with the consequences. If you do decide to ride in the snow intentionally, you'll want studded tires and laws on those vary widely, so check locally.
  2. Unexpected loss of traction: hidden ice. Even if you never intentionally go out in icy conditions, you still have to increase your vigilance. Say it's sunny and dry with temperatures in the 40s at midday. You can still encounter leftover frost or ice in shaded or low-lying areas, so be alert to those situations. It's never a good idea to ride a motorcycle on the street in a carefree fashion with your mind wandering, but in winter weather, you have to be even more engaged, constantly scanning and analyzing potential hazards.
  3. Unexpected loss of traction: salt, cinders, patches, damage. We love to complain about the corrosion damage road salt does to our motorcycles and for many people that's reason enough not to ride. (If you're one of those, see suggestion number one in the equipment section below.) But salt can also rob you of traction. It's similar to gravel when freshly strewn on the pavement and similar to dust when it's been ground up by a thousand passing vehicles. Yes, even that fine dusting of salt reduces your tire's grip. Other jurisdictions spread cinders (this is common in the Hocking Hills, a popular riding area near me, and creates a hazard in winter that lasts into spring), which is even worse. Another thing motorcyclists love to complain about on hot summer days, tar snakes, are also a cold-weather hazard. Just as they get gooey and slippery in the heat, those asphalt patches turn hard and slick in the cold. Finally, we all know the freeze-thaw cycle causes potholes and snowplows can gouge them up even worse, so be alert for new hazards even on your regular route.
  4. Expected loss of traction: cold tires. In the 18 years since I moved back from the tropics to 39.96 degrees north latitude, I've had two small crashes on the street. Both were very low-speed, both on especially cold April mornings, both within a mile of my house and, not surprisingly, cold tires contributed to both. Probably just about everyone knows that cold tires offer less grip, but as I proved a few years ago, knowledge is useless if you don't act on it. Braking, accelerating and leaning all must be moderated to accommodate cold tires, especially at the beginning of the ride.

Winter riding: Care and feeding of the operator

Polar Bear Grand Tour run
The Polar Bear Grand Tour consists of organized rides during the time of year when most motorcyclists wouldn't even think of riding. Photo by Sherry Loughin.
In his Common Tread article and video, Brandon has already provided some tips about gear and accessories that will help you stay comfortable (and therefore safer) while riding in cold weather. Beyond having the right gear, you also have to keep yourself in proper operating condition.

  1. The cold makes you tired. The longest cold-weather ride I ever did was a trip to ZLA HQ in February. It was sunny with temperatures in the 40s, so I didn't have to worry about ice or snow. A 500-mile day is tiring under any conditions, but in the cold your body is working harder, generating heat. Extra rest stops and eating right and regularly are important. Don't think you can only get dehydrated in hot weather, either. The dry air of winter sucks moisture out of you without you noticing. Days are shorter and temperatures can drop rapidly after sundown, so factor that into your planned distance. Nearly all my cold-weather rides are short ones, but if you are going to cover distance, consider what distance is realistic.
  2. The cold reduces dexterity. So there you are on a salt-dusted road with cold tires and wearing insulated gloves when a car turns left in front of you, forcing you to threshold brake at the limits of reduced adhesion to avoid a crash. Do you have that level of fine control in your fingers when you need it most? When I choose winter gear, I put a lot of effort into keeping my hands warm (heated gloves, heated grips, handguards, quality gloves are all deployed in various combinations). On the road in winter, two things call for a mandatory stop: a shiver (means my core is getting cold) and stiff hands. A little warm water and time with the air hand dryer at the rest area restroom restores blood flow in my metacarpals.
  3. The cold reduces mental concentration. It's not just your frozen fingers. Hypothermia sets in gradually and it also affects your most vital organ, your brain. Words of warning from my friend Eric Trow, principal at Stayin' Safe Motorcycle Training: "We tend to associate hypothermia with physical effects, such as stiff, numb, or aching hands and feet. But perhaps the greatest threat to the rider is the impact hypothermia can have on mental sharpness. Our thinking often slows, our active scanning and anticipation of potential threats diminishes, and our judgment can become seriously compromised. As a result, bad situations seem to develop more quickly and more often. And when they do, the physical limitations of stiff and numb hands and feet make responding to a threat even more ineffective. That's a rather 'chilling' combination when you think about the potential consequences." Rest stops to warm up or calling it a day early will keep you from getting to that danger point.

winter motorcycle ride
Even northern winters offer days when the roads are clear, even if the landscape looks positively wintry. This photo is from a 500-mile day I did in February. Temperatures were in the 40s and the day was sunny, despite the snow on the ground. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Winter riding: Equipment matters

There is no ride without your motorcycle, the essential third part of the equation. My tips:

  1. Buy a winter beater. Here's a great excuse to buy another motorcycle. If you're one of those riders who puts away your expensive bike for four months of the year because you don't want to expose it to salt or test your throttle-control skills with a high-powered machine in iffy conditions, buy a cheap dual-sport. Back when I had a Monday-through-Friday regular commute to an office job, I bought a humble Honda NX250 for $1,100 and rode it to work all winter for several years. The dual-sport tires worked well in the cold, the light weight and modest power made it easy to handle in sub-optimal traction conditions and when the salt corroded a bolt on the brake caliper, a replacement caliper on eBay cost me a whopping $30. And since it was already a beater when I bought it, I didn't feel bad about its hard life. Winter is a great time to slow down and try a new motorcycle experience.
  2. Don't neglect maintenance. Days are short. You ride home from work and arrive in darkness. Performing maintenance in the cold sounds about as appealing as taking a staple gun to your forehead. But the salt is at work on components (possibly vital ones, such as the sole front brake caliper on my old NX250 commuter). Sticky cables aren't likely to move more freely as the temperature drops. Make time to keep on top of what's happening to your ride (easier to do if you've stored your good bike and have only your winter beater to attend to).
  3. Tires, again. We're probably not going to be like the car driver who switches to snow tires for the season, but it does make sense to consider all-around performance when choosing tires. Sport-touring tires are generally designed with more siping to move water and with compounds that perform well over a wider temperature range. If you're riding that dual-sport I recommended, today's 50-50 adventure tires make great street tires in wet conditions and could be a real lifesaver if you do get caught in some slushy snow.

So there's 10 of my tips. There's got to be a zillion Zillan miles of experience under the wheels of the combined readership of Common Tread, however, so add your own tips below.