Winter Riding - Stone Cold Crazy | Street Savvy

By Larry Cornwell, Photography by Tim Carrithers

“You’re crazy; it’s too cold to ride!” Sound familiar? Even the coldest winter days aren’t enough to keep some of us off the bike. If you’re tempted to saddle up year-round, a little knowledge goes a long way toward another season of safe, relatively comfortable rides. Just to be clear, our definition of cold is somewhere between 20-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Take on snow/ice and you’re on your own, because that is crazy.

Winter riding can go from uncomfortable to downright dangerous if you’re unprepared. Cold wind is the biggest thief of precious body heat. When the wind-chill factor cracks like an icy whip, it can leave you gasping. The thermometer may register a reasonable 40 degrees at a standstill, but at 65 mph on a motorcycle, it’s more like 23 degrees. If it really is freezing, 32 degrees in the driveway turns into a potentially dangerous 12 degrees at that same speed. So what do you do?

The motorcycle you ride, and whether it has a fairing or windshield, will greatly determine how hard the cold hits you. Breaking that wind dramatically reduces the loss of body heat. More wind protection is clearly better, and big touring bikes offer the most. Sport-tourers offer just enough, while pure sportbikes, naked standards and cruisers provide little or none.

Motorcycle-specific winter gear is vital, and quality trumps quantity every time. Random layers from the closet will retain some warmth, but piling on too many can restrict range of motion, and if you can’t move, you can’t ride. Should you wear a leather or textile outer layer? Both have their advantages. Quality leather gear provides substantial pavement protection and can keep the wind out, but may not be as flexible or offer sufficient insulation underneath. Modern textiles are generally lighter, quite breathable and more moisture-resistant. Thanks to advances in materials technology, the best textile materials are almost as tough as leather, so it comes down to personal preference. Buy the best you can afford.

Underneath, you want light, relatively thin layers to keep body heat in and wind out while allowing full range of motion. Cotton traps moisture against your skin, where it conspires with cold air to rob body heat. Start with a soft, moisture-wicking synthetic base-layer or wool thermals beneath a breathable windproof mid-layer.

Warm hands and feet are crucial. Solid, insulated riding boots and winter socks capable of wicking moisture away from the skin are a good start. Nothing is worse than clumsy, numb, frozen fingers. Silk glove-liners can make three-season gloves bearable unless it’s bitter cold. If you have trouble keeping Jack Frost from gnawing at your fingers, heated grips and/or electrically heated gloves should do the trick. Heated socks and insoles are available if your feet are still cold. Wires can be a hassle, but when temps are in the 20s, staying warm is worth whatever you have to do. Start with an electric vest: a warm core warms the rest of the body as well.

Even a sliver of exposed skin can turn painful when it’s cold, so protect your neck and face, even if it’s inside a full-face helmet. A tall wrap-around jacket collar is great, especially if you back it up with a silk or synthetic balaclava. After all that, riding in ice and snow is still crazy. Otherwise, when someone calls you crazy for riding in the cold, just smile. Speaking of which: Nobody likes cracked lips, so don’t forget the lip-balm.

By Larry Cornwell
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