Nuts About Bikes

Riding With Old Man Winter

polar bearFor a while, it looked like winter 2006 was going to be an also-ran. We enjoyed quite an extended riding season with 60-degree December days that confused everybody, mother nature included.

But the strangeness and record highs were short-lived. Only a few weeks later the nation was locked in a dungeon of ice and snow and the temps here on the East Coast sunk to where they belong, in the 20s and 30s.

Time to review those winter riding strategies, for those of us who plan to keep our oil warm throughout the winter months.

The layers are the thing

Talk to any experienced rider who has not graduated to a technological solution and you'll find significant agreement over the weapon of choice when combatting the chill: layers. Everybody favors a different flavor, but layering is the key to keeping comfy in the horsepower-induced wind chill.

In my case, layer one is a Hot Chillys microfiber undershirt I picked up at the local ski shack. It's skin tight, designed to be worn against bare skin, providing the first line of defense against the chilling winds.

Layer two is a turtleneck of some sort to provide neck protection and another layer all around.

For the third layer, there are a few options. For an everyday ride, mine is a high-end fleece. I tend to choose a style with a collar that won't get in the way of the other layers above and below. For maximum warmth, however - especially in wet weather, make this layer wool.

If you spend any time outside or reading outdoor gear propaganda, you will undoubtedly see a variety of magical qualities ascribed to the various space-age liners and insulators that have made their way into outerwear these days. These products are quite amazing in their own right, but veterans of nasty weather will tell you that few materials will keep you as warm as wool, which works even when soaking wet. Even if you are sensitive to it, the inner layers will keep your skin away from the fabric.

Atop all this is a fleece collar and chest protector that really keeps the wind out. Finally, my riding jacket, with liner installed. If it's really nuts outside I will also pull a balaclava over my head before the helmet but that's only for a really extreme day (the kind of day that generally inspires me to keep the bike in the garage.) I know leather would be warmer but I am paranoid about my bright red textile coats so I am sticking with Cordura.

Down south, it's thermal longs followed by bluejeans followed by my FieldSheer winter riding pants. I've yet to have cold legs riding.

Socks are another topic altogether. I had tried a few varieties over the years including some high-tech polypropylene ones. Right now my favorites are the Carhartt High Performance Boot Socks I picked up for cheap at the local hardware store ($11US). Warmest socks I ever biked with. The secret, once again, is wool. In this case, it's blended with warm synthetics so they don't irritate the skin. (See the Nuts About Bikes review for more.)

This getup (with good gloves) has done me well down into the high 30s F with no windshield. (See the Nuts About Bikes review for more.)

Ask a polar bear

To get perspective from other riders, we motored over to a recent Polar Bear Grand Tour stop, this one in Lewes, Del. These Polar Bears do not do any wintertime swimming, but there are some diehard winter riders among them and these guys know how to stay comfy in the cold.

Carhartt is not paying us for kind words. But it's well known among tough dudes who work outside that you can depend on them to get you through. One such rider is Bill Morgan of Monroe, N.J.

A 30-year rider, Bill's been a Polar Bear for five years or so. Today he's on an '03 Wide Glide, sans windshield. He also has an '06 Buell Ulysses for the gravel roads and has been riding dirt for years. As a carpenter who works outside, he knows what works.

"I just layer up. Gloves are probably the most important thing. I like the Alpinestars - for me these are the warmest gloves I've owned that aren't too heavy and hard to maneuver - they're medium weight. The Buell is good in that department - it has plastic hand guards, like the bark-busters you see on dirt bikes," Bill explains. That keeps the wind off your knuckles.

Bill doesn't wear any leather, preferring his everyday Carhartt work gear for the top layer. Bill's not much into high-tech biker gear. He rides with an open face helmet in all conditions.

"My army-issue face mask and a bandanna keep the chill off my face," he says.

Dave Kuperberg of Fairlawn, N.J., was out testing his first foray into electric apparel, a pair of gloves he had installed that morning. Dave was on his '04 V-Strom. He's been licensed about three years.

Since they were so new, Dave did not want to mention the make before he had a chance to give them a thorough shakedown. But day one had impressed him, after 160 miles.

"What a difference. It was 32F when I left home this morning. No problems. All the other gloves I'd tried were useless below 55F," he says. Dave likes the integrated gel pad for comfort. And installation took all of five minutes.

Hopefully the next time Nuts About Bikes catches up with him, he'll be ready to endorse the brand.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bruce Harris of Burlington, N.C. Bruce is a walking testimonial for electric apparel and he's happy to tell us why. In addition to electric pants, gloves, socks and vest and chaps - Bruce rides an '06 Goldwing - with heated seat and grips. Electrons on the move keep him a warm and cozy camper.

He was not at all worried about his eight-hour trek home from Delaware. "The deer are a bigger problem. But the 'Wing's got lots of lights," he says.

Bruce has been in the saddle since learning to ride a Honda 50 at age 12. "I was a BMW man for a long time. This is my first Honda in 25 years," Bruce says as he demonstrates how all his gear daisy-chains together with compatible plugs. There's a thermostat in his pocket and one plug for the bike. Of course, the Wing's car-grade electrical system can handle the draw.

His migration to heated gear occurred after one particularly cold ride in 1973, as a young and bulletproof motorcyclist. "I was lucky to survive that night. Dead of winter, cold. I rode my BMW R75 from Burlington to Knoxville. My gear and Vetter Windjammer fairing wasn't nearly enough to keep me warm. "I knew I was in deep kimchee when I almost fell asleep. It happened twice and I knew I never wanted to do that again," he recalls.

Fortunately, that was just about the time Pat Widder started selling heated riding clothing. Bruce bought a pair of chaps - all that was available at the time - and has never turned back. "I recommend Widder to everybody. These are those same chaps I bought 30 years ago and they are just fine," he says.

Bruce was in all likelihood in the early stages of hypothermia - when your body temperature drops below normal. None of the warning signs would be fun on two wheels:

  • Shivering - exhaustion
  • Confusion - fumbling hands
  • Memory loss - slurred speech
  • Drowsiness

Read more at the federal Centers for Disease Control hypothermia page.

The shield lives up to its name

I've ridden with and without a windshield. All things being equal, a rider behind a windshield will be better protected against the cold. There are tradeoffs, however, mostly in the noise and head-buffeting department. These days I'm riding without. The full-face helmet, balaclava and neck protector keep the chill at bay.

If you decide to explore windshields, be sure you size it properly. Too high and you will have visibility problems; too low and the turbulence will make you wish you had a detachable head. Here's a handy sizing guide from California Scientific.

Get out and ride!

With the exception of black ice, there's really no reason to keep the bike stabled when the temp drops. But be aware that it's always colder at 50 mph - and hypothermia is not something you want to experiment with from the saddle of a motorcycle.

Stay warm and keep the shiny side up.

-Sal Emma, Editor