Here in the middle of New Hampshire winter, it has actually warmed up a bit, hitting the mid 30’s F during the day. The roads are more or less bare and dry. Lovely riding weather!
But I know winter riding isn’t for everyone. If I had $16K or more invested in a showroom condition chrome goddess, for example, there might only be 3 or 4 worthy riding days a year. More generally, though, most North American motorcycles are ridden for pleasure and pleasure rides are typically long, often a whole day. Winter is too cold for that.
Conventional wisdom assumes you will properly prep your bike for storage, squirrel it away in late fall, and then prep it again for riding in the spring. Even a serious enthusiast like Peter Egan of Cycle World keeps his Wisconsin garage door shut this time of year.
For these and many other reasons, winter riding is almost universally a non-starter. And that means I am definitely interested in doing it.
My winter prep is simple. Late last fall I changed the normal 20W50 oil to 10W40. Coated vulnerable parts with ACF50 aircraft corrosion inhibitor. Snapped the big muffs over the handlebar controls. That’s it. Good to go.
By cold weather, I mean 10 degrees F overnight and 20 degrees or more when I start it. Nothing severe. But even with the lighter oil, the engine is pretty stiff cranking over. If I have enough time, I like to put the bike up on the center stand, start it, and then let it idle until it thoroughly warms up.
After the initial cold start, there is a big white vapor stream coming out the exhaust, but after it warms up the white puffs disappear. I usually make a few short trips during the day and the subsequent starts are more like normal warm-weather starts.
The spots on the pavement are frost droplets that melted and ran off the dark cover after the sun had been on it for awhile. Normally the bike is under a tarp/enclosure at the house we are building, but last night I left it in the parking lot behind our condo. I know where to park it so no space ranger will run over it in the dim pre-dawn light.
There is something very satisfying about firing up the trusty BMW, defying the cold. The bike is like medicine and road conditions can leave it sitting for days at a time and me in a funk. Sure, I can borrow my wife’s Infiniti and enjoy those heated seats and the “snow-mode” AWD traction, but the F650 is the thing that puts the happy magic on me. It’s what I need.
I do a lot of shuttling back and forth between the new house and the condo. It’s about 1/4 mile. For these brief trips I don’t need any special clothing no matter what the temperature, just what I would normally wear outside. Plus helmet of course.
A serious winter ride for me is 20-25 minutes at 25 degrees, and I dress warm.
The head gets a close fitting black balaclava under the full face modular black HJC helmet with internal sun shade. When stopped, the clear visor can fog up so I try to exhaust my breath out the bottom of the helmet. Worst case I can partially raise the visor to see while stopped then drop it when I get under way. The sun shade seems to help with the fogging, somehow altering the air flow in front of my face.
Here’s a secret: The full face modular helmet is like sticking your head into an insulated case and it’s amazing how a warm head will tame the cold. Huddled inside their cars, you just know people are wondering what’s wrong with you, out there in the brutal cold. For some reason a snowmobile rider (also wearing a helmet) makes more sense to them, but I’d rather be me with my short, useful rides.
The torso gets a cotton T shirt, a long sleeved mock turtle neck UnderArmor layer, a light wool long sleeved layer, a second UnderArmor layer, a turtle neck long sleeved cotton pullover, a light down jacket and finally my windproof warm-up jacket. Seven relatively thin layers.
By the way, bright sunshine in the cold is worth almost 10 degrees F of comfort.
Legs have tight fitting UnderArmor bottoms and Duluth canvas work pants with cargo pockets.
Feet get ordinary winter socks and my Skarpa insulated, waterproof hiking boots. I have good circulation in my feet.
For the hands, I use an UnderArmor mitten liner glove, down mittens, and the handlebar muffs. My hand circulation is not that great, so they can get chilled on a long ride. Mittens make it harder to operate the directional button and especially the high beam switch, but the clutch, front brake and throttle are manageable and not a safety issue.
It sounds like a lot to deal with, but working on the house I already have a a lot of it on. The thing is, this configuration works for me. I can ride in comfort with confidence, knowing I will be fine. Worst case I feel a little chill near the end of the ride. I prefer the low tech approach and have so far resisted electric heat of any kind on my short trips. Winter touring would be another story.
Surprise! Wind chill is mostly irrelevant in winter riding. Why? You are already moving through the air at 40-50 mph and that’s typically much more than any breezes in the forecast. So whether the wind is blowing or not, you have already covered that issue with your gear. Winter wind briefly becomes an issue when you are stopped and have your gloves off to organize things or work on the bike. Fueling it, etc.
Keep in mind that cold tires don’t grip the pavement as well as warm tires, and the road can have a light dusting of sand or salt, or patches of black ice in the morning from snowbanks melting onto the roadway and freezing overnight. You have to ride more conservatively. Extensive black ice is a show stopper, by the way. It is fortunate, in one sense, that the suspension is stiffer in the cold. It offers a bumpy reminder of the wintry conditions. But with the upright F650, I can easily shift my weight onto the pegs and glide over anything.
I don’t see any other bikes on the road, and I do mean none, when the temperature drops below 40F and stays there. Winter riding is apparently a secret pleasure. What is the secret? If you have a minimalist attitude, warm clothes, flexible schedule, the need to make a lot of short purposeful trips and a bike that weathers well, you can keep the motorcycle magic going all winter long.