Cold Weather Motorcycle Riding: Protect and Survive
When the cold weather sets in, it’s all too easy to park up the bike and go into hibernation mode until the sun makes a return. Faced with ice on the ground and gloomy weather reports on the TV, it can all too tempting to close the garage door, whack up the central heating and turn into a couch potato. Cold weather riding sucks – right?
Yet with the correct preparation to both yourself and your bike, riding in even the cold weather and wettest conditions can be overcome and even enjoyed almost as much as a day in the sun. OK it’s never going to be quite the same as hooking a monster wheelie in 35 degrees, but for some of us, that’s not even a prospect at the height of summer. Winter and cold weather riding is a reality, so coming up with a plan to keep up the saddle time makes sense.
So for this blog, we’re going to look at ways to keep the wheels turning when the mercury is heading way down the thermometer.
STAGE #1 – PREPPING THE BIKE
Extremes of temperature, both hot and cold, will test your bike to the limit. Although you might think that in cold conditions your bike will run appreciably colder, in many conditions, the exact opposite can be the case. Slow speeds, sloppy mud and deep snow can make the motor work far harder than skipping through the landscape on a balmy summer day.
Add in cold water being propelled at every comnponent, corrosive road salt covering all that precious alloy and cloying mud dragging your pride and joy towards the ground and it’s an battleground from the moment you drop the clutch
So let’s start by giving the motor a fighting chance to deal with the cold and work on from there.
OK to begin at the beginning we should look at the coolant running in your radiator. Do you know how much anti-freeze is in there? Do you know the lowest temperature is will withstand? Is there anything in there to raise the boiling point and thus aid cooling? If the answer is no to all three, then it’s time to drop the coolant and replace with some new fluid.
Pre-made fluids are the easiest as they will typically contain anti-freeze and will state the lowest temperature it will protect. You can also mix yourself, but be sure you use deionised water and understand percentages!
To raise the boiling point of the fluid, you can also add products like Water Wetter to the fluid, or you could ditch water entirely and head for something like Evans Waterless Coolant.
On the oil side of things, check the rating of your oil covers the lower limits of the temperatures you’ll be riding in and if you’re not sure – like the coolant – drain it out and start again with fresh oil. On a four stroke, if you are swapping out the oil for a different brand or rating, then swap the filter too.
Cold conditions will test your electrical systems too, so it’s important that the components are in good condition and adequately protected from cold and wet.
Start with the battery – how old is it and does it fire up your motor each and every time? If no, a recovery charge and regular use of a trickle charger like an Optimate can help keep the battery ready for action.
But if it’s a few years since you replaced it, a new battery may be a wise investment to take you through the cold snap.
While lightweight lithium –ion batteries may be tempting and a good move if you are a top-level racer, you have to question whether a few hundred grams weight saving really justifies the additional cost for recreational riders. The answer is probably no – losing some weight yourself is likely to be far better than shaving a few ounces in the battery box ….
For dirt bike riders, spending a bit of time removing, inspecting and cleaning the brushes in the starter motor will reap rewards, returning the unit’s efficiency for just an hour’s workshop time. We did this to the trusty KTM EXC250 and we haven’t used the kickstart since
As for the rest of the electrical systems, a generous dousing of WD40 or ACF50 is a great way to protect from water ingress and damage. If you are going to be riding through a lot of water, taping up connectors can offer another level of protection, as can making a waterproof cover from a piece of old inner tube. Protect everything you can and you’ll not need to look at the connectors again.
STAY & SPRAY OR THROW AWAY
We’ve just mentioned protecting your electrical components, and the same is true for enduring all moving parts start the cold period working well. Salt on the roads can play havoc with all the bikes components, so starting with free moving parts is a great plan. Take the can of WD to the levers, footpegs, stand, twist grip – anything that needs to keep moving.
If you run a cable clutch and the cable is stiff and old – replace it, life’s too short to fiddle around with lubing cheaply replaced items. The same goes for throttle cables – you could lube them, but as the lube may run into a carb, be careful. If in doubt, invest in new.
For the chassis and bodywork, then using that ACF50 or Scottoiler FS365 will keep corrosion from salt and road muck at bay between washes. Again for dirt bikes, then using silicone sprays like 3 -in 1 Silicone Lubricant on the underside of fenders will prevent mud and snow sticking in the first place, reducing the weight loading on your bike out on the trails. On a road bike, it might keep the road grime from sticking too!
It stands to reason that if conditions are a tad slithery to start with then having good tyres will be pretty high up on the list. Don’t try to stretch out the life of old tyres, it’s a false economy that could leave you on the floor. Enough said?
As regards pressures in those off-road hoops, many will use lower pressures in winter but the effect is at best, mixed. Yes it will give a wider profile, but as the tyre doesn’t cut down through the slop so well, then you’ll not necessarily get better grip. And don’t forget that those sharp-edged rocks don’t’ get any softer in the cold. Modern tyres are designed for optimum grip at certain pressures, and the strength and stickiness of the compound is what controls the grip.
Setting your suspension a tad softer in slippery conditions will increase grip as in reduced speeds your bike will benefit from more a compliant set-up than you might use in the summer months. Try just two or three clicks off the compression damping and maybe just one of the rebound to start with and monitor the effects. Don’t make drastic changes and write down what you’ve done so you can return to base settings if you find the changes have not worked!
If you are going to be riding in muddy and sloppy conditions, you might also want to drop the forks through the clamps and run less sag on the rear end so the bike sits a bit lower to the ground as this makes paddling and general slithering around a bit easier.
Again, don’t go too mad on softening up the rear as the weight of mud on the bike will increase the effect of your adjustments.
Riding with cold hands is downright miserable, so addressing this issue is a major priority. At the very basic level, just fitting handguards to each side will keep an element of wind from your mitts and the muck out of your controls.
Extend these to be wraparound guards and there’s now far more protection in a crash or even small off, so you won’t snap levers like twigs every time you slide off in the mud. Some companies offer extended guards that come higher than normal wrap-arounds and hence increased weather protection. And go top end like MachineArt Moto’s new ADVance guard and they are three different settings to chose according to temperature
But what if all these are not enough to keep the frostbitten fingers at bay? A tip from motorcycle despatch riders comes in here – if you are riding all day then you tend to get these things right, and bar muffs are the device of choice for the parcel monkeys.
For road riders this is a big step and one many are reticent to take for fear of ridicule – for dirt riders it’s even worse! Yet moving vanity aside, bar muffs are astoundingly effective and if fitted properly and well made, should not affect your riding in any other way. Try them – you might just like them
But if muffs are a step too far, maybe an electrical solution is a more acceptable way to fight the cold. Heated grips are easy to fit and make an instant difference to the comfort of winter rides. You can go for complete grip units that fit just like conventional grip and then just need wiring in, or go for the cheaper stick-on elements that go straight onto the bars and throttle tubes. Check the final diameter of the grips as they tend to be slightly bigger on the complete units, and on the wired elements – don’t expect them to last too long on a dirt bike.
For both – if you wire them direct to the battery, be careful that you switch them off when you get off – they will drain the battery very, very quickly! Ideally, wire them into an ignition circuit if you have one.
Riding in the winter can mean that light levels are low to start with, so at the start and end of the day, trying to see where you are going is a problem. While road bikes tend to be fitted with pretty good lights, dirt bikes traditionally have terrible lights that vary between lighting the front mudguard or the sky. But whether your bike stays on the tarmac or ventures off – then upgrading your lighting will offer you greater options and better visibility.
First options could be to uprate the bulbs, so maybe spending a tad more on halogen or HID bulbs will work, but just be sure your electrical system has enough power for the increased load
Heading for the manufacturers accessory catalogue will doubtless offer some additional lighting options if you’ve got a road bike, but the prices are unlikely to bring a smile. For those of modest means or just those who object to spending disproportionate money on glorified bulb holders, then eBay or Amazon will offer plenty of other far cheaper options. When you can get a pair of LED spots for less than $20 shipped direct to your door, it’s hard to argue
FANCY AN EPIC ADVENTURE?
STAGE #2 – PREPPING YOURSELF
OK so the bike is pimped, prepped and ready to go. So how about you? Going badly dressed is going to bring end to your bike time, so it’s worthy putting some thought into what you wear in cold weather. Don’t wear enough and you are going to be shivering like a nervous jelly on a twin tub, wear too much and you are going to look like the Pillsbury Doughboy and ride just about as well.
So let’s look at how we are going to get the best balance.
Staying warm on a motorcycle is all about layers. It’s no good thinking a T shirt and a thick riding jacket will do the trick – you’ll be a Choc Ice within minutes.
The first thing should be a good base layer, both leggings and top. If you can, try to get one with wicking properties which will take perspiration away from the skin but keep the warmth in. We’ve had a set of Alpinestars base layers and used it almost constantly for the past five years without any signs of wear, keeping us warm in winter and, somewhat cleverly, cool in summer. For 2018, we’ll be trying some of the kit from Forcefield to see if it stands up as well!
After the base layer, it’s going to depend on whether you are off-road or on road. For the dirt junkies, the layers should continue with something like armoured shirt, race shirt, chest protector and finishing up with a riding jacket – ideally one that has a removable inner liner. If this is still not enough, then a fleece gilet will keep your core warm without adding another restricting layer to your arms.
But bear in mind that as you work harder on the rough stuff, you may get progressively warmer, so it’s a good plan to carry a backpack in case you need to shed layers rather than getting overheated.
For the road riders, then the layers can be made up of T-shirts, long sleeved T-shirts, fleeces and fleece gilets under good winter weight jacket. The lack of movement on a road bike means you are likely to cool down as you ride – particularly on fast roads – so in this case your back pack may need to contain additional layers, keeping to the thin and insulating criteria, rather than thick and bulky. If all else fails, call into a petrol station and buy yourself a newspaper to stick down the front of your jacket – it will make a difference.
NECK TUBES AND SKULL CAPS
Whatever you are riding, the gap between your helmet and your jacket is a major point for heat loss. All the layers in the world are not going to help if there is sub-zero wind whistling down your jacket. And that’s where neck tubes come to the rescue, effectively sealing the join all round and stooping the draught.
Again we favour thin layers over thick, so for off road we use two tubes overlapping so that there is a double thickness on the neck and down into the jacket and just one layer over the nose and mouth, ideally covering up to the goggle line. For road work, we go for a ticker fleece tube over a thinner version to combat the increased cold from higher speeds. You can also buy ones that extend right down the front and rear of your upper body, but be careful of buying too bulky as it may affect how well your jacket closes at the neck.
For your head, those with less hair than a boiled egg may also feel the cold, especially in off-road helmets which tend to have greater air flow. Thin skull caps will avoid the issue without affecting the helmet fit – it’s almost like having hair again!
But don’t think the skull cap is just for the winter – cotton versions will absorb the sweat and stop your crash helmets becoming minging, whether you have luscious locks or a slap head – Perfect.
Keeping the cold off your face is important, whether you are wearing goggles or relying on a conventional visor. Invest in a fresh lens rather than one that splits low sun into a dazzling starburst or buy a new visor, and either chose one pre-treated with an anti-fog coating or get some quality anti- fog spray to treat normal lenses. Relying on spit or washing up liquid is OK in emergencies but it’s more effective to use proper sprays.
Never go without eye protection, so if you don’t get on with goggles, maybe try safety glasses to keep out the wind and guard against dirt or anything else that’s heading for your peepers.
For the off-road guys, icy cold or winter riding may be the time to try something different from your usual off-road helmet. Adventure or dual sport helmets are a great hallway-house between the lightness and wide field of view of a motocross style helmet and the warmth and protection of a road based full face helmet. Most of the big manufacturers are offering these helmets – responding to the unstoppable popularity of adventure motorcycles, so you can head for the familiar brands like Arai or Shoei and find some good option.
We’re currently testing a relative newcomer to this market the LS2 Pioneer MX436, which boasts a massive field of view, large clear visor, internal dark visor, lightweight and all manner of cool features. We’ll be doing a full review in coming months, but in the meantime, it’s definitely worth considering as a winter or cold weather option.
With all this focus on the cold, let’s not forget that it’s not only reduced temperatures that become our enemies on a motorcycle. Unless you are lucky enough to live and ride in the more sun kissed regions of the world, then rain is a common irritation.
You would think that getting hold of waterproof clothing would be relatively easy, but jackets and riding trousers that are genuinely as good at keeping out water as well as their makers claim is incredibly hard.
Even garments that rank highly in magazine tests seem to forget their water-resisting role faced with hour after hour in torrents of British rain, but it’s a good place to start with the high scorers on those tests if you can afford it. The real top end stuff within off road is probably Klim, and their kit transfers well for on road use too. For the road stuff, Rukka brings universal plaudits from all quarters, but with their top Gore-Tex jacket coming in at just below £1000, then you would probably hope so. But if they keep out the rain, keep you warm and last five times longer than a £200 jacket, then it begins to make sense …
For those with a lesser budget, we’re big fans of military or police issue Gore-Tex jackets and trousers that can be found on eBay or in Army Surplus outlets. With a price tag of less than £60 for a two piece, these garments offer an impressive imperviousness to the worst the clouds can muster, shrug of rain or mud with equal enthusiasm and as long as washed without detergents, will keep being waterproofs time after time.
Whatever you chose, getting waterproofs that actually keep you dry should be an absolute priority for cold weather riding.
So if we’re hoping to keep even vaguely warm then maintaining dry and warm feet is another box to tick. Riding with wet feet is miserable and likely to put off even the most hard core of riders. But like the waterproof clothing, there seems to be a lot of boots out there claiming to keep the water out that actually don’t manage the one job you’ve bought them for.
Of the off-road side of things, it gets even worse as many dirt riders use motocross derived boots which are about as watertight as a colander. Go out into the trails on a cold day and your boots are filled with icy water within seconds which turn your feet to ice. Something needs to be done.
One option is waterproof socks from brands like Seal Skins and the do the job, sealing your feet away from the water so that you do stay dry. That however is not the while issue, as with MX style boots water still gets in and wets the outer surface of the socks – they might be dry, but surrounded by cold water, your feet are still frozen. Army Gore-Tex boots liners are slightly better as the surface is not absorbent, but in reality is that MX boots are hopeless in cold conditions.
From feedback we’ve received, Sidi Adventure Goretex are the boots of choice for the rider who favours a warm dry foot as they actually manage to keep out the wet stuff even if you stand in a river, which is not uncommon out on the trails. Expect to pay around £250 or around $330
As to road boots, there are endless options out there across the globe, but from a UK perspective we’d be heading towards Daytona boots, purely on the basis that so many motorcycle instructors choose them. They are more expensive than the Sidis at a smidge over £330, so if you can manage to ride your road bike in adventure boots, then the Italians may be a good all-rounder.
So that’s a few pointers as to how you can learn to love cold weather riding without tears and tantrums. If you’ve got any kit suggestions or recommendations to share, we’d love to hear them.