Late spring can be a tricky time of year as winter does its best to keep a grip, and long rides can quickly turn miserable if you’re not prepared.
Like many Canadian bikers, I spend my winter polishing chrome and dreaming of warm days in the saddle. Yet not all riding days are pleasant ones in the Great White North. We enjoy a relatively short season and extreme weather occurs year round. Not only can the cold ruin a ride it can become a serious safety concern. Wind and moisture rips heat away from our bodies. Yet, with the proper preparation and mindset you can stay comfortable in marginal weather and maximize your number of riding days each year.
Warmth starts at your base layer. Throw out those cotton undershirts and jeans. Cotton, called death cloth by mountaineers, looses its insulating capacity when wet whereas wool retains heat. Outdoors stores stock a wide variety of light woolen shirts, long johns, and socks. Merino wool, though pricey, is compact, and has moisture wicking and insulating properties that help maintain your core temperature.
Pay particular attention to your extremities during cold weather rides —neck, hands, and feet. A pair of waterproof mountaineering mittens keeps hands dry and warm. Be careful that the mittens don’t overly restrict your ability to use bike controls though. Neck buffs and balaclavas are great to protect your neck and head. Skiers recreate in cold, windy, and wet conditions and I find their gear works well for bikers too.
The ankles and feet are trouble spots. Exposed footpegs and the wash from knobby tires can turn a light spring drizzle into a swirling hurricane around your feet. Wool socks are a requirement. I’ve been experimenting with hiking gators (waterproof fabric that wraps around a leg from the top of the foot to mid-shin) and so far the results have been very good. They allow you to grip the pegs and operate controls like normal but shed water away from your ankles and boot-tops.
Although motorcycle jackets and pants often claim to be waterproof they rarely are. Gear is built for the majority of the conditions it will be used in and otherwise function elements like zippered vents can let moisture in. A dedicated waterproof shell prevents wind and water from penetrating to your protection and base layers. Shells are particularly important as leather losses its tensile strength when wet. Oversized polyurethane pants and jackets fit nicely over your protective gear and are available at quality outdoors stores. I find the Mountain Equipment Co-Op in-house brand to be relatively affordable and well built.
Not only do wind and rain rob away heat during cold weather rides; tight clothing and static riding positions constrict circulation, chilling extremities. Two years ago I was riding through Chilean Patagonia in early spring when a cold Antarctic wind picked up. In my inexperience I put on every shred of fabric I could dig out of my beatup rucksack, including fleece gloves under my already tight riding leathers. After several hours I peeled my gloves off and found my fingers marked by purple streaks. It took several weeks to regain full feeling in my fingers and the lesson has stuck. Make sure your cold weather kit fits comfortably; tight socks or gloves will cut off blood flow. Too tight gear will also compress the insulating layers of air that you need to stay warm.
You have a warm wool base layer, you’ve protected your extremities, and your shell is keeping you dry but you are still missing the most important protection against the cold—the mental armour that will keep you in the saddle. The weather is bad but focusing on your own misery will only magnify your discomfort. We don’t ride motorcycles because they are a comfortable means of transportation. Embrace the adventure and move on.
There is a point though where pushing-on exceeds toughness and puts you in danger. During an ill-conceived winter ride up the remote west coast of Vancouver Island I encountered heavy rain in 2C temperature.
Propelled by the thoughts of a warm shower I foolishly pressed home. Instead of a warm cup o’ Joe, I was greeted with the classic signs of onsetting hypothermia.
There is a line between tenacity and stupidity. Marginal riding conditions can create serious safety risks. Know what you are physically capable of and never let a desired destination prevent you from stopping to warm up.
Outdoors gear developed for skiing, hiking, and mountaineering works great and supplements specialty motorcycle orientated gear.
With the proper preparation and right mental attitude marginal weather days become enjoyable cold weather rides. So be prepared and make the most out of this season.
by Jared Marley Canadian Biker Issue #312