Cold Weather Riding

Here in semi-rural New England, you don’t walk anywhere.  You take your car. Okay, you can hike or jog a lot, if you want, but it’s best if you look like you are a hiker or a jogger. Otherwise, you’ll be pegged as some kind of social anomaly. For that reason, you don’t see anyone thumbing a ride. There’s no legitimate reason for anyone to be thumbing a ride, so no one is going to pick you up. The energy it takes to stick your thumb in the air and walk backwards is going to be wasted energy.

Despite what I just said, I don’t have a car. That’s good news. I don’t have to pay for it. The other good news is I do have a reliable 1997 BMW F650 motorcycle that I love to ride. And I can schedule my foraging trips to take advantage of iPhone weather predictions. It’s all good news.

Which is why I want to ride the BMW all winter long.

Nonetheless, until recently I had no cold weather riding experience and I didn’t quite know what to expect. But I have since discovered that I am able to make short trips comfortably in the 30-40 degree range using thermal underwear, layers, full face helmet, neck and face protection, and mittens with liner gloves. The helmet is essentially an insulated case for your head, where most of the heat would otherwise be lost.

In the 20-30 range, I add another thermal top, but I realize I am reaching a limit.

I wear canvas-like work pants and I may try waxing the front to block more wind. My legs feel bit chilly when I start out, but they seem to adjust and are not really a problem.

My limiting issue so far is the space around my eyes. My face shield tends to fog, especially when stopped or moving slow. And when it’s not fogged, the cold air circulating over my face makes my forehead cold. It’s not a show stopper, but like the pants, improvements would be welcome.

What about the roads? If the road is dry, it’s good to ride on, regardless of temperature. Below freezing, though, I need to keep an eye out for patches of ice. Snow banks melt and the water flows onto the road and when the temperature drops, it freezes. Above freezing, a wet road is manageable as long as there is no lingering ice. Another hazard is loose sand left over from the plowing, sanding and salting that happens when it storms. I have to slow down. In general, more conservative riding is called for in winter.

I really haven’t had much issue with salt on the roads yet, but I don’t intend to let that stop me as it gets heavier in the dead of winter. I have sprayed a lot of ACF50 on the rims and exposed metal, and it seems to do a good job of keeping the water out of joints and off surfaces where corrosion could cause trouble. It’s expensive stuff, but I like it and plan to stay with it. I guess I’ll need to wash the bike when conditions allow to keep it reasonably clean.

I imagine every bike has quirks getting it started in cold weather. My F650 oddly has two carburetors for the single cylinder, plus two sets of valves and spark plugs. The carbs don’t have a choke, but they do have an enrichment circuit that sucks in extra fuel, operated via a lever on the left handlebar. My starting procedure for a cold bike in cold weather is to turn the enrichment on all the way, disengage the clutch, put it in neutral to minimize what is spinning, hit the starter button momentarily and then wait a couple seconds and then hit the button again and it starts right away. It seems like the first spin sucks cold raw fuel into the intake manifold and a pause is needed to vaporize it. It never starts on that first brief hit, but then always starts on the second hit. After it runs a few seconds I shut off the enrichment, and let the clutch out to limber up the 10W40 oil a little in the transmission. After a minute or so I put it in gear and take off.

For cold weather, it helps if I have been moving around, preferable outside, getting my body throwing off heat before riding. The Under Armor salespeople say their thermal underwear needs the generation of body heat to work well.

Also, a good mental attitude helps. I minimize the threat of cold by reminding myself that temperatures around freezing are balmy compared to below-zero conditions. I avoid being mentally victimized by the cold by successfully handling it. Being outdoors and riding in the open has me engaging winter and the elements and I find it enjoyable. Of course, snowmobilers already knew that. Nonetheless, in the 20-40 degree range I am the only bike on the road.