Street Savvy - Motorcycle Riding in the Winter - Cold Case

Survival 101 for the shrewd winter warrior

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Tim Carrithers

It's cold. That nifty thermometer you got for Christmas read 30 degrees when the garage door went up, but the sun is out, skies are blue and all is well. Rolling up the ramp that leads to work, it's a whole lot colder than that at 60 mph. Now things are getting a little weird. Numb toes and fingertips are nothing new, even inside decent boots and gloves, but three ramps later you can't stop shivering. After four or five more-can't recall exactly how many-it feels like somebody brewed a pot of decaf instead of the good stuff. Despite a full eight hours of sack time, you're sleepy, cranky and mildly dopey. What's up with that?

For starters, the wind is pulling heat out of your body faster than your body can pump it in. According to the handy-dandy National Weather Service windchill chart, 30 degrees in still air is equivalent to 10 degrees at 60 mph. At that rate, exposed skin is 30 minutes away from a case of frostbite. Maybe less. The sleepy/grumpy/dopey syndrome is more than 43 percent of the seven dwarfs. It's your body's way of trying to warm up, otherwise known as the early stages of hypothermia. That, according to the Mayo Clinic, is when body temperature drops from the usual 98.6 to something below 95 degrees. Ignore sleepy, grumpy and dopey and you'll meet oblivious, unconscious and your maker in roughly that order. It's an insidious process, but easily reversible as long as you know what to do when.

Your metabolic furnace needs fuel, so start with a good breakfast. No Pop Tarts. And take the next ramp toward somewhere, something or someone warm before sleepy, dopey and grumpy arrive. Warm food and drink at the first likely place is usually all it takes, but caffeine confounds the process so skip the French roast. Segue to a warm bathtub or shower stall if that doesn't work, and if you're still pale and shivering, call the doctor. Slurred words or blue skin mean the doctor should see you now. But as with most painful experiences, prevention is better than any cure.

Chilly in the driveway can literally translate to freezing at 70 mph. Know your enemy. Cue up an online weather report for the route du jour, and dress accordingly. Multiple layers work best, letting you peel off what you don't need down the road. Start with something thin against your skin to trap heat and wick sweat away to evaporate in the outer layers: form-fitting long undies made from high-tech synthetics like Patagonia's Capaline or Polartech Power Dry. Wool or silk are solid natural alternatives to cotton socks and drawers that trap moisture against your skin for hours. A microfleece jacket on top of that will keep in heat while helping to dissipate moisture from below. But a breathable laminate fabric like Gore-Tex Windstopper keeps wind out as well, which is the key to keeping body heat in. Slip an electric vest underneath to keep your core temperature up on long, frigid rides.

Your outer layer is the first line of defense against weather as well as impact and abrasion, so choose wisely. Leather provides better pavement protection than anything else, but fends off wind better than water. High-end textiles come together in garments that are ready for just about anything, including an unexpected monsoon. Just make sure everything fits well enough to let you move around on the motorcycle. Add insulated gloves and boots for those sensitive extremities, keep your brain engaged at all times and you're ready to roll.

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