Snow Job: Riding in Winter

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Unless you are lucky enough to live somewhere that escapes winter's icy grip, there is a special set of hazards everyone else has to deal with to keep rolling year-round: the cold, the dark, the precipitation, and changes in traction. And winter conditions are a potential hazard on high mountain passes all year. Put them all together, and make way for a new frontier in adventurous riding.

Hazard 1: I've heard it said that mountains make their own weather. As I turn the FZ1 east onto Utah's Highway 6 for the climb over 7,500ft Soldier Summit to Price, the heavens open. The deluge continues as I climb, and though my rainsuit keeps my body core dry, both of my "waterproof" gloves begin to fill with water. My own bike has heated grips, but my "press" FZ1 doesn't, and I soon lose contact with my fingertips.

Hazard 2: As I continue climbing, I hit the cloud base. Now I can see little more than 25 yards ahead. Can I be sure other road users will see me?

Hazard 3: At 6,500ft, the precipitation turns solid. At first the sleet just melts on the grass verge, but soon starts coating the wet road. As soon as there is enough for tire tracks to be visible, I stop, turn around, and head back down toward Salt Lake.

Did I feel like I lost my nerve? A little, for sure; but safe discretion beats foolhardy valor every time. In his masterful tome, Proficient Motorcycling, riding guru David L. Hough concludes, "It's not smart to keep motoring ahead into worsening conditions if you have a choice."

So, what can you do to make winter riding safer and more enjoyable?

Cold and Wet: It may sound like stating the obvious, but keeping warm and dry is vital to your personal riding comfort in winter. And layering is the most effective way to stay warm: more, thinner layers of clothing are more effective at trapping body heat than fewer, heavier layers. Just adding an extra T-shirt, for example, can make an enormous difference. I also buy thermal underwear from my local mountain equipment store to wear as a base layer. Changing into that extra pair of dry socks you have in your tank bag can make a huge difference to your mental state if your feet get wet, keeping them warm for a bit longer even in rain.

Three areas of the body require special attention, though: body core, head, and hands. It's essential to maintain body core temperature to ward off hypothermia, and adding an electrically heated vest is a favored option. A neck warmer also helps keep good circulation flowing to the command center above. Maintaining dexterity is critical to safe operation of a motorcycle too, so either use heated gloves or install heated grips. There seems to be a positive psychological benefit to having warm hands - and that's also important in winter riding.

Clearly, your winter riding gear should prevent wind and water from getting to your skin. Few things will cause you to lose body heat faster than riding in winter in wet gear. And though there's a trend now toward windproof, waterproof liners worn under jackets and pants, it makes more sense to me to put the waterproof layer on the outside. Otherwise, evaporation will cause even more heat loss. A simple rainsuit can make a huge difference in winter riding comfort simply by keeping out wind and water, trapping warm air inside.

Finally, knowing when your safe riding ability is being compromised by the conditions is critical for survival. If you notice that you're shivering uncontrollably, or start making errors of judgment, it's time to pull over for a hot drink.

Being Seen
Light is generally at a premium in winter, especially in more northerly regions. Riding with headlights on and wearing a high-visibility vest is a minimum in terms of winter conspicuity. Also look for clothing that has reflective piping or patches. Bear in mind that some materials look bright in daylight, but if they're not reflective, they may not stand out in the dark. A quick test with a flashlight in a darkened room will show how effectively you'll be seen at night.

It's worth remembering that a motorcycle's lowest energy state is lying on its side: that's the position it will tend toward if the lateral forces on the tire exceed the friction between the tire and the road. Plenty of factors negatively impact that friction, and most of them are at play in winter at some time. Another given is that your bike should be in top mechanical condition with good tires.

Black ice is perhaps the most dangerous because it is difficult to see. And because it's caused by moisture freezing out of still air, it also occurs when there's no precipitation. Patches may remain on bridge decks and in shaded areas even after the air temperature has risen above freezing. So if you can't avoid riding in sub-freezing temperatures, look for a telltale sheen on the tarmac, and test the surface by dragging a boot every so often. If your bike does start to slide, try to retain as much traction as possible: avoid braking or sudden throttle transitions. If you're lucky, it may just be a small patch, and your tires will hook up again. Best plan - have another coffee and wait for the day to warm up.

It is better to avoid snow, too, if you can; but if not, try to stay out of the tracks of other vehicles: in the tracks the snow will have been compacted, making it even more slippery. You may be tempted to slide your boots on the road for extra stability; but this probably won't help, and you may trap a leg or ankle if the bike does go down. It's usually safer to adopt general loose-surface riding techniques: transfer weight to the footpegs to lower the bike's center of gravity, and try to keep the tires as close to vertical as possible in bends - you stand a greater chance of keeping the bike upright in a slide that way. And consider lowering your tire pressures for a larger contact patch. Just remember to re-inflate the tires later.

Riding year round can be fun as long as you're ready for what winter can throw at you. Just be prepared and always ready to turn back.