Winter wonderland: 16 secrets of conquering even the coldest conditions

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Riding all year round is one of the most life-enriching things you can do. Yes – some people will think you’re mad; yes – you’ll have to wash your bike more in salty conditions and be more attentive to maintenance; and yes – you might even get chilly.

But the rewards are huge. So what do you need to think about when riding in winter? We hooked up with the gurus at Rapid Training to get their 16 golden steps to riding in a winter wonderland (and guess what? Most of them apply to riding in every other season, too).

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Beware of vision creep

It's important to beware of vision creep

Winter road surfaces can be wet, cold, and covered in slimy leaves, salt, or gravel that’s washed in from the verge.

Understandably, this barrage of hazards can make us nervous and it’s easy for our vision to come closer and closer to the bike with every potential problem we spot until we’re almost looking straight down rather than taking in all the information available. The trick is to do exactly what you would be doing in summer – use ‘rolling road vision’.

By continuously scanning ahead and updating your observation rather than fixating on any particular hazard you’ll have more time to process the implications and develop a plan of action.

No matter what time of year it is, the single most transformational thing you can do for your riding is to improve your ability to see and interpret detail at speed – and if you can do it in winter, summer riding will be a breeze.

Use the ‘So what?’ test

Having great observation is useless if you don’t use all that information properly. And in winter this means the ‘so what?’ test is more important than ever.

For example, if you’re barrelling along, look across some fields and see a right-hander ahead with overhanging trees and a van approaching, ask yourself ‘so what?’. It might mean the road is in shadow so there could be ice, even though it’s OK where you are.

So what? Obviously, you need to approach carefully, not just because you might lose traction, but because the van might, too. In this instance, your ‘so what?’ process might lead you to time your approach so the van takes the corner first while you hang back and see what happens.  

Hunting for grip

Hunt for grip on a winters ride

A novice rider will position themselves down the middle of the lane no matter what. A partially trained rider will robotically ride for position – for example, always hanging left on right handers to maximise vision through the corner.

But in winter, an expert rider will compromise the view to find the best traction available and adjust their speed accordingly. On a wet, slippery winter road you’re looking for the bits of tarmac with the most texture – ie not worn smooth by cars – or any dry bits, and you’re keeping out of the shadows where there might be ice lingering, even in daytime.

You’re continuously balancing being in the best position for view with where the grip is, and adjusting your speed accordingly. It’s complicated, but when this technique becomes intuitive you can ride surprisingly quickly on cold, wet roads.

Take regular breaks

With decent kit, most people can ride all day in freezing conditions provided they stop once an hour for five to ten minutes to get off the bike and get their body moving.

If there’s a café, it makes sense to have a warm drink, but if not, and you’re in the middle of the Lakes for example, just walk about and enjoy the view – it will set you up for the next hour in the saddle.

When you get back on the bike, you’re fresh. There is absolutely no point pushing on for two or three hours and getting really cold. Besides being dangerous, it’s also a deeply unpleasant experience.

Watch car exhausts

Take regular breaks whilst riding to stay warm

Cars with frosted windscreens and wing mirrors are a nightmare – not just because the drivers can’t see much, but because they’re distracted by trying to sort out the situation.

If you see a car billowing exhaust fumes, the chances are it’s just been started and should be treated with maximum caution.

  

Understand the cold

Getting chilled is a very bad idea on a motorcycle for several reasons. For a start, there are dozens of studies showing how your brain’s processing speed slows down when your body’s core temperature drops even slightly.

That’s when you start making bad decisions. Not only that but your body becomes tense, which makes it difficult to control the bike, and if your hands get cold your ability to brake and control the throttle are seriously compromised.

Every rider’s sensitivity to cold is different, but the symptoms to look out for are the same:

  • Cold hands and feet: This usually means your body is moving blood to your major organs. Stop as soon as possible to warm up.
  • Shivering: This is your body’s attempt to warm up and means you’re becoming properly cold. Stop as soon as possible.
  • Shallow or slow breathing: You’re well on the way to hypothermia. Stop immediately.
  • Loss of coordination, poor throttle control, confusion? Seriously risky. Stop immediately.

Check tyre pressures

Riding in the winter can be great fun

If it’s below 10°C, your tyre pressures will drop by 2-3psi, which doesn’t sound much but if your tyres were on the low side to start with this could be enough to make the steering heavy and give an unstable feeling on the brakes. Check them on cold mornings.

Beware low sun

If the sun is low and behind you – particularly if the road is wet and reflective – oncoming traffic will struggle to see you.

Look in your mirrors and if all you see is blinding glare, that’s what the oncoming traffic are having to cope with. Adjust your plan on the basis that they haven’t seen you.

Do a pre-ride draft check

Yes, you need layers and waterproofing, but many riders forget about sealing around neck, cuffs and waist closures more effectively. Freezing drafts don’t just undo most of your insulation efforts, they’re dangerously distracting so it’s important to sort them before you set off on your ride.

Beware of the low sun

  

It’s all about your front brake

The old-school advice was to brake using 50:50 front and rear in the cold and wet but with modern bikes and tyres that’s nonsense.

The front brake is the main brake in winter, just like it is in summer. You should always be smooth on the brakes, but it’s more important when it’s slippery – load up the front progressively, but not slowly, and get as much weight as possible over the front for maximum braking.

Wet weather riding

Be ready to move

Most of the time in winter you won’t need to move your body because you won’t be carrying enough lean angle to make it worth bothering, and shifting about might unsettle the bike.

But you need to be ready to move and be prepared to take your weight on your feet so you can shift about if necessary. In winter, it’s usually tight corners and roundabouts where you need to think about your body position.

Here, nervous riders often lean their body away from the bend, pushing the bike down beneath them. This is an error, because it means the bike is carrying more lean, and is at more risk of sliding. In those situations, it pays to smoothly drop your upper body towards the inside of the corner so the bike doesn’t have to lean as far.

Check for shadows

If it was frosty first thing, look for shadows. Even if it’s warmed up by the time you’re out riding, ice can linger all day out of the sun.

Pick the right line

Minimising lean angle is crucial in winter, yet many riders don’t straighten out bends and roundabouts where they could do safely. Straight-lining roundabouts has the added advantage that it keeps you away from the edges where diesel is most likely to have sloshed out from cars and trucks.

Also, consider squaring off tighter corners by taking a straighter line in, slowing down more than usual, turning the bike, and then lifting it up to drive out. This reduces the time you spend leant over, yet in our tests proved quicker than taking the traditional long sweeping line.

Know your friction coefficients

It's important to know your limitations when riding in winter

Most riders are over-cautious in the wet. On a good dry road the coefficient of friction (COF) will be around 0.7 – this is a ratio of how much sideways force is required to move a block compared to its weight.

If the road is wet, the COF would be about 0.5. If it was icy you’d get about 0.1. The drop-off from 0.7 to 0.5 is just under 30 percent, but most riders’ speed reduction is much greater than that – you don’t have to slow down as much as you think – unless it’s icy, in which case you need to slow down a huge amount. Don’t forget that black ice is harder to spot than white ice, too.

Ride, ride, ride!

Skill-fade will be very significant if you don’t ride in winter. Use the dodgy conditions as a chance to hone skills that will make you faster and safer once the roads dry out and the sun reappears. You’ll especially feel the benefit when negotiating summer showers.

Get some training

If you live in the UK and you’re not confident in poor conditions, you’re missing out on a huge amount of riding.

Decent training could transform your winter, spring, summer and autumn enjoyment on two wheels. It’s not as expensive as you might think (certainly cheaper than that shiny end-can you keep looking at online), and it’ll transform every single mile you ride, all year, forever.


Don’t ignore the obvious

  • Good kit Multiple thin layers are better than a few thick ones, non-motorcycle specific thermals work fine, and heated kit is an absolute godsend. Getting wet sucks out heat, so keep your outer layer coated with a fabric waterproofer. If you’re going a long way and it’s going to be wet, carry spare gloves and socks.
  • Good vision Make sure your visor is clean and scratch free, and always carry a visor cleaner in winter. Products such as Nikwax Visor Proof help rain and dirt roll off your visor. Pinlock visor inserts are a must.
  • Be smooth In winter you don’t have to ride gently, but you must be smooth. Throttle, brakes, and steering all have to be controlled with a velvety touch.
  • Look at the forecast Especially important if you’re heading anywhere hilly – higher ground is usually colder, so 5° in the valley can mean -1° and black ice up on the passes. It’s also worth having a Plan B in case the weather turns nasty.


Spring in the air? Learn how to take on a trackday:


Ice ‘n easy! Your MCN guide to using a motorbike in winter

First published 03 December 2019 by Ben Clarke

Riding in the winter can be challenging

Riding in winter conditions with the wrong kit can be awful, but with some better gear to keep you warm there’s no need to put the bike away over winter and you can keep building your #ride5000miles total all year.

Jump to

The safest thing to do in really bad conditions is not to ride at all, but that’s not an option for many bikers who either need to get to work, or ride for a living.

Keeping warm is crucial, not only for your comfort, but because while your mind is occupied by thinking about how cold you are it isn’t concentrating properly on the road. Numb hands and feet will also make using your bike’s controls more difficult, which isn’t ideal for tip-toeing around in low-grip conditions.

Staying warm is addressed by sticking to three basic principles: get insulated, get wind-proofed and stay dry. These three things can all be accomplished on a budget if you’re not keen on shelling out hundreds on specialist winter kit you might only use a few times a year.

CCM motorbike in the snow

Insulation comes by trapping layers of air in your clothing and keeping it there, and by preventing draughts. Add layers of air by adding additional layers of clothes. If you can’t afford the latest fabric super-suit, no problem – just wear your leathers for protection with additional under/over layers and seal yourself with a windproof/waterproof outer shell.

Keep several pairs of petrol station gloves handy. They might not look like much, but they could keep your hands dry in a downpour, and keeping them dry goes someway to keeping them warm, too. If you’ve got more than one pair of winter gloves take them both with you on long journeys in case the first pair gets soaked.

Try your best to create a seal with all your kit. Make sure there are no gaps around your neck or at the ends of your arms where the icy wind could penetrate. A small gap can be irritating and bloody cold on a long ride. Try to get your helmet on while you’re still inside if it’s raining as this could prevent fogging.

Motorbikes riding through the snow


Riding in the cold weather

Assuming you’ve got all your winter kit sorted and you feel like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, there are still some practicalities of riding in seriously cold weather on two wheels. The theory is much the same as riding in the wet, but exaggerated even further.

Stick to the straight and narrow

Do all your work in a straight line and be smooth with the controls – avoid braking and accelerating hard with lean angle. ABS and traction control will stop you slipping and sliding in a straight line.

Get your body position right

Body position is crucial when riding in poor conditions

When cornering, move your head and shoulders into the corner with your inside arm bent to maximise grip and feel. When exiting corners, tap the throttle gently and wait for the weight to transfer to the rear end, then wind the throttle on progressively.

Braking in low grip conditions

Before applying the brakes, wait for the weight to transfer fully to the front end after you’ve shut the throttle. Once you’ve lightly applied the front brake and the tyre has dug in, brake progressively harder. Change down through the gears smoothly and slowly to avoid rear wheel lock-up.

It’s just cold water! Here’s how to beat the snow

Try to avoid riding in it. But if you have to, stick to busy roads which will have been salted and cleared by traffic. On back roads, assume every corner is covered in black ice. Slow right down and adopt an even more cautious version of riding in the wet. Keep an eye out on traffic ahead to see if they’re slipping and sliding on ice… or have crashed.

Sometimes friendly oncoming traffic will give you an early warning of ice ahead. If it all goes wrong and the rear wheel starts to slide, pull in the clutch and stop drive to the rear, it should then straighten up.

Forget carrots, here’s how to ride well in the dark

Riding a motorbike in the dark can be tricky

Some riders actually prefer riding in the dark. It focuses the mind and blots out unnecessary distractions. But some struggle, especially with their night vision. Don’t be too proud to wear glasses if you can’t see clearly in the dark.

A clean, unscratched and clear visor is a must, as are clean headlights, even if the rest of your bike is dirty. When you’re riding on unlit country roads dip your lights briefly on the approach to corners, so you can look out for the lights of approaching vehicles. Look as far ahead as your light beam will allow, but knock your speed off as things like gravel, hedgehogs, wet patches and holes in the road will be hard to see and can catch you out.

And it’s not just the dark that can be a challenge, the low sun can make things tricky too. If you haven’t got a tinted visor or internal sun visor, stick a strip of electrical tape at the top of your visor to shield your eyes when the sun’s low in the sky. If you use dark visors remember to pack a clear one. Night will fall quicker than you expect.


Winter motorbike maintenance

Cleaning your motorbike

Riding in winter is tough on you, but it’s even worse for your motorbike. If you’re in a position to run a winter hack then that’s great, but even winter hacks will require some simple maintenance to keep them in proper working order.

Cleaning your bike in the winter can feel like painting the Forth Bridge, it can be tough to do a good job when you know it will need doing again in a short space of time. But getting the road salt cleaned off can make a real difference to the onset of corrosion.

Using a protective lubricant and anti-corrosion spray will not only keep components from dissolving into a puddle, but will make the job of cleaning the bike quicker and easier.

It’s also more important than ever to keep on top of your tyre pressures. As the amount of grip available diminishes, the effect of a few PSI increases dramatically.

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