by Steve Manes
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In the olden days, some twenty-five years ago, those of us who lived in northern climates had two options when the leaves left the trees and the world disappeared into their warm homes for winter. The first and, probably most sane, choice was to put the bike away till green appeared once again. The other was to grab what riding days you could, bundled up like a spaceman with thermals, wool and even crushed newspaper under your leather jacket.
Fortunately, modern technology has given us a third option: full fairings, heated garments, heated grips, Goretex, Thinsulate, neck gaitors, fog-free helmet shields, fuel injection, synthetic oils. better electrical systems... lots of products to reduce the sting of winter cold and extend the riding season into the ridiculous. But, technology, like griping, hasn't done much about the weather itself.
Cold weather riding can be a lot of fun if you're prepared for it. Nothing beats the crisp, clean air and knowing that you're out there, defying the elements, while lesser riders are curled up around the TV with their bikes gathering rust. If you're one of the latter, make sure to read the "Motorcycle Storage" FAQ, you wimp.
But riding when the temps dip into the 40s, 30s and below also means that you need to be prepared for a set of variables that summer riders don't encounter.
Hypothermia is a physical condition that occurs when body temperature drops below 95 degrees. The onset of hypothermia begins with shivering, cold hands and feet, then numbness. It progresses to drowsiness, mental confusion, reduced heart rate and finally unconsciousness. It will eventually end in death, but if you're on a bike you will have already landed in a ditch long before that happens. The critical point in hypothermia is loss of judgement. When you hit that, you're as good as dead on a 60mph motorcycle. I've been there and I was very lucky. I woke up in the back seat of a Volvo on the NY Thruway, wrapped in blankets. My kneecaps were still ice cold the next morning. The main thing to remember is that if you're freezing your ass off one minute and then stop shaking like an old FL the next you've either wisely decided to stop at warm diner for a cup of hot coffee or you're in the danger zone of hypothermia.
Lots of layers will postpone the onset of hypothermia but when windchill overcomes the ability of your body to replace lost heat, you're on the road to a miserable and possibly dangerous destination. All you can do is reduce the rate of loss of body heat. Leather is a good windbreaker but not a great insulator. A thick down jacket over leather is much better (and probably even better if you could wear it the other way around). While your hands and feet will be the first to feel the cold, they aren't as critical as your torso. In fact, cold hands and feet are just early symptoms of hypothermia as your body constricts the vessels in your extremities in order to conserve heat for the vital organs.
This is the way to go! Heated motorcycle clothing actually isn't all that new. A British company produced a heated body suit back in the early 70s but, unfortunately, the Lucas electrical systems on brit bikes were barely up to the task of driving a headlight, let alone a 150-watt suit, so it never worked out.
The most popular manufacturers of heated motorcycle garments are Widder, Gerbing and Eclipse. All are good quality and terrific investments. None of them will disappoint. In fact, you'll probably find that it was the best motorcycle-related purchase you ever made outside of the bike itself. Widder is more affordable (around $225 for a vest/gloves combo) but my favorite is Gerbing's jacket liner/glove combo, about $100 more. Add $60 or so for a thermostat and it's not cheap. Gerbing has a finer network of wires and so provides more evenly distributed heat, albeit at a cost of higher drain on your electrical system. Caveat: if you decide to buy heated gear, check the output of your alternator and do the math. Late-model Harleys will usually handle it fine.
There is debate among heated garment users about gloves vs. gloves/vest and thermostat vs. manual switch options. My opinion: keeping your body core warm is more important as a deterrent to hypothermia than your hands. And the thermostat, which is basically an automatic on/off switch, will be friendlier on your charging system, assuring that the motorcycle's battery will get its turn. Heated garments can exceed the available power from the bike's alternator. In that event, you'll be running off the battery so this is important. A thermostat is also safer than taking your hands off the bars every few minutes at potentially vulnerable moments to adjust the heat. Whichever you decide, don't bother with Thinsulate lining. If you're cold, just turn on the friggin heat! Those thick linings will just make you feel bulkier.
Several companies make aftermarket heated grip kits. Some motorcycles, like the BMW R1100RT, come with it as a standard feature. The advantage of heated grips is that it doesn't take space in the saddlebags. If you're caught in a cold mountain chill on a June evening, just hit the switch. The downside: heated grips cost almost as much as heated gloves, require (semi)permanent installation on the bike and don't work nearly as well gloves. After all, the weather is on the outside of your hand.
A must for cold weather. It reduces the windchill on your body, preserving body heat. There are several Harley and aftermarket quick-detachable options. A good investment.
These are large fabric shrouds around the grips which cover your hands and the motorcycle's controls... basically, hand windscreens. They're fugly but they work well and aren't as crippling as they look.
Fog City Face Shields
If you ride with a beanie and don't own a fullface helmet, skip this. For those of us who do, one of the more annoying routines of cold weather riding is tilting the face shield at red lights to prevent the face shield from fogging. Fog City has a cure - a plastic laminate which fastens to the shield preventing this problem. Actually, I've never used one so I can't speak about its effectiveness. All I know is that the folks I know who have used it say that it works, but complain about its optical clarity and permanent mounting, which is what has deterred me from using one. It might be a great product for all I know and your mileage may indeed vary.
On the subject of face shields and cold weather, I've found that if you keep it clean with a good plastic polish like Meguiars or Novus that it will have less of a tendency to fog. Others swear by a dilute solution of dishwashing liquid.
Winter means ice and ice means bad news for anyone caught on it, from a pedestrian (I broke my wrist on an icey sidewalk) to cars (totalled a car on it) to especially motorcycles. Ice has no traction and lack of traction is even worse news on a motorcycle. If you think otherwise, ask me again. Ice isn't your friend.
Black ice is particularly nasty. Black ice occurs on road surfaces, usually from melting snow which refreezes into a transparent glaze, hence the name. It can also occur from running water which meets a sub-freezing surface (see above link). Black ice is found in cities, where the warmth from underground utilities melts the snow above, and on rural roads, where afternoon sun causes melt along the shoulders, which then refreezes at dusk.
The only practical rule is: don't ride when there is precipitation on the ground (including heavy dew) and when the air temp is below freezing or was below freezing within the previous 24 hours. If you must ride, stick to well-travelled highways and be very careful on exit ramps. Avoid secondary roads with heavy canopy flora. The sun will melt snow from tree limbs onto the road surface but it doesn't make it through to warm the road and evaporate the moisture. Very dangerous stuff.
Sand and Salt
'nuff said. Where this stuff exists you don't want to be. But also be aware that, even if there has been no precipitation or recent freezing weather, some municipalities spread it anyway as a precaution, especially on highway exit ramps. That's what nailed Mike Tyson on his bike on a mild October day.
Many rural areas also lay an evil road coating called cold pack or pea gravel in the fall, especially in curves worn by use. It's a loose bed of small rocks, sometimes a few inches thick, and there will usually be no warning of it.