The thermometer plummets towards the zero line, and the snow-plow just covered over the fresh shoveled drive. Again. It is definitely winter in the north. Or, maybe you live in a kinder, gentler, warmer place where riding a motorcycle in January is a non-event. If you live in a warm climate you should be so thankful. The cold is an insidious opponent for the motorcyclists to combat, but it can be beaten with preparedness. The first step is to realize when not to ride. For some people the decision is easy. If the weather isn’t perfect then you don’t ride. The decision could be just as easy for you also. If the bike still rolls more then it slides it’s a riding day.
If you are going to ride in severe winter weather your going to need a few things. The first thing you will need is practice. If you have never ridden in anything worse than a summer shower considerable thought should be given to riding in severe cold. Riders should have excellent skills in good weather, and build hours in the saddle during bad weather slowly. The rider must attempt this slowly or avoid it entirely. The skills necessary for riding in severe weather will benefit a rider when caught by surprising conditions anytime of the year. Several riders I know ride in snow, ice, and torrential rains during the winter. They do this every year for several months of the year. They each can explain exactly how they managed to break bones, or destroy a motorcycle while riding on ice or other slippery items. In other words riding is a risk, and riding in marginal conditions dangerous.
Severe cold has its own special hazards to the motorcyclist. Not only does the rider need to protect the body from the cold, but the motorcycle needs protection too. Many articles have been written on protecting the rider. Layering, electric clothes, and breathable materials are in many riders closets. The motorcycle is a special problem, fluids (hydraulic, engine, coolant) become thicker or solid at extreme temperatures. Rubber parts can become brittle. Beautiful, imitation leather, guaranteed Naugahyde seats become hard enough to make anyone wince. Plastic body panels can become brittle, and the weak electrical current from the battery becomes even weaker. Proper preventive maintenance of a motorcycle will take care of many of the problems.
So, if you decide to learn how to ride when the thermometer plummets begin with protecting yourself. The light, soft, stylish leather boots you wear in the summer will not provide the warmth and physical protection a rider will require in the cold. Any boot that has the suppleness to actuate the foot controls of a motorcycle can still allow lower leg injuries to occur. Specifically ankle injuries. Riders beware if you ride in marginal conditions you probably will fall down sooner than later. Outer clothing with body armor protection such as the fine Aerostitch(R) products and others allow proper layering, and should provide ample physical protection. Full face helmets with anti-fog coatings or electric defrosters are a must for their wind protection properties. Gloves that are thick enough to keep you warm, sturdy enough to protect, and supple enough to allow easy use of controls are difficult to find. There are several appropriate products available however. Do preplan for every contingency of riding based on your weather. Do not think you can think of everything. There is always some new twist to the way things happen. Balance in preparation, and a firm understanding of your own riding style are a requirement any time a rider takes on an additional unnecessary risk.
After you have picked out the clothing you are going to wear start thinking about what you will do to prepare the motorcycle. The road surfaces you will be dealing with will vary between dry well prepared, and snow covered glistening ice. You will want to plan routes filled with the former, and hopefully avoid the latter. When you get to the snow covered ice, and you find yourself required to ride in such horrible conditions there are a few things you can do.
There are several schools of thought on how to deal with poor traction situations. The first is the most obvious; avoid them. Some technicians have also explained to me that if you lower the air pressure in the tires to approximately half the normal maximum a traction gain will result. Of course, a rider will be required to reset the air-pressure when they return to the highway, or are in reasonable traction situation to keep from damaging the tires. Some authorities seem to believe that lowering the air-pressure in a Goldwing’s tires will only result in damage, removing any small benefit in added traction to the tires, and probably creating a dangerous condition. An adequate statement for denying product liability, but not likely to get a rider out of a snowed in parking lot. Lowering the air-pressure will increase the slow-speed contact area of a tire, and in certain conditions allow for better control at below normal traffic speeds. Dirt bike riders have long known the utility of “airing down” tires for riding in sand, and some riders use similar techniques in snow. All Goldwing sized tires I have seen do not have appropriate traction characteristics, or tread types that will work acceptably in any ultra-low traction situation.
Goldwing touring tires have large surface areas of blocked tread with minimal rain grooves that give the tire a smooth feel. The very characteristics that were designed into the Goldwing tires to make them such road worthy, smooth, comfortable tires make them utterly useless in most winter low-traction situations. So, if you as a rider set out to cross the country in early spring leaving home in warm weather, and find yourself caught in the mountains unaware what do you do? If you are not prepared you still have some options. The first option is to wait in place for a melt to occur, and attempt to ride out then. The second option is to pick up the Gold Book, or the local phone book and start contacting local dealers. If you contact a dealer you may be able to hire a truck to tow your bike, or trailer your bike to a more hospitable area out side the snow zone. If serious icing conditions result for a large area of the country seriously consider Ryder(R) or U-Haul(R) to move the bike.
If you decide to ride the bike out of poor traction areas consider trying this. First consider the risk of injury and damage to the motorcycle as opposed to the probable slight cost of towing the bike to safety. Second consider if your insurance will still be in force if you ride in snow, or are there any exclusions to the policy for certain types of weather. Lighten the bike as much as possible. This is not the time to try and ride with a co-rider and full saddlebags. Depending on the type of tires you have, you can lower the air-pressure so the maximum contact patch is meeting the road. This is another reason for lightening the bike. Use the ultra low reverse gear to move the bike around or to unstick yourself. When moving forward keep the bike at an idle and use second gear instead of first. Using second gear will allow for easing power through the rear wheel smoothly. Avoid using any brakes at all. The front brake on a Goldwing will not exist in most ultra slippery conditions. Locking the front wheel could happen without warning removing all stability instantly causing a fall. The unified braking system on a Goldwing actuates one of the front disks along with the rear brake. Obviously the rear brake is off limits too. Use engine braking to slow, and since you are only at an idle in second gear there should be only very little acceleration or slowing. The clutch will get a superior work out during any low traction maneuver, but remember to stay off the throttle. Speed, and power are your enemies when attempting to garner traction. Smoothness, and gentleness should be the main efforts for anyone riding in poor traction situations.
As an intellectual exercise severe winter weather riding is interesting, and makes a great topic to debate technique. As long as riders understand that serious injury could result, and that they are responsible for when they ride have fun discussing it. I purposely left any discussion of accessory traction devices for motorcycles for the end of this article. The few chains or cleat systems I have seen for motorcycles will not clear the body work of a Goldwing motorcycle. Carrying a bucket of sand in a saddlebag would make sense if it would not just increase the weight of the motorcycle that you might have to pick up. And, that brings up the last point. A Goldwing motorcycle weighs almost a thousand pounds. It is difficult for some people to pick a Goldwing up on a nice sunny spring day with a perfectly dry parking lot. Imagine trying to pick the same motorcycle in heavy traffic on a patch of black ice. The final technique almost guaranteed to make your winter riding bearable is to move to Arizona or Florida. I hear the weather is quite nice this time of year. Ride Safe.