This is one of a series of articles on advanced riding techniques that appears in the Club’s monthly magazine, Slipstream. This month we look at winter riding and the conditions which dictate some different thinking when out on the road with regards to your riding, your kit and the weather. As the nights draw in and the temperature begins to drop, many riders call it a day and pack up their bike and gear for the winter. However, I often hear statements like ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing’ and, ‘As advanced riders we do it all year round,’ both of which are true in parts. But as an advanced rider out and about during the coming months, what additional aspects of riding should you be aware of?
In summer the airflow jacket and summer gloves were a godsend, but already these are at the back of the cupboard and the textiles are back on, which is great until the first really cold morning when an early start is required for a long ride ahead. Cold weather is dangerous. As your body’s core cools, your thinking becomes slower and reaction times get longer. The body starts to protect the vital organs so blood circulation to the extremities like your hands and feet reduce, and they lose most of their sensitivity. The result is you lose control of them. Hyperthermia alone can kill, riding a motorcycle while hyperthermic is not big or clever, so always be self-aware and recognise if you’re getting cold, and take action. Wear multiple insulating thin layers, but ensure you retain enough movement for effective control and observation. Avoid clothes that make you sweat, as damp clothing under a waterproof layer can make you even colder. Outdoor stores sell a range of base and intermediate layer garments which work just as well on the bike and are cheaper than some of the fancy motorbike brands. Ensure you close all the zips and fasteners to prevent ballooning, including pockets. Keep your head, hands and feet well insulated. If you regularly travel distances in winter, consider the use of electrically heated gloves or the jackets. Remember if you feel you are getting cold find somewhere sheltered to stop, warm up and maybe have a hot drink.
Collisions are often blamed on bad weather, but the real cause is human error. You must ride according to the conditions and deal with these safely. This starts before you start out. Check the forecast, anticipate changes that may occur during your journey, and if necessary check the weather again during your journey. There are many free weather Apps you can download to do this including RainToday which gives real-time rainfall maps for the whole of the UK. The weather affects both you and your machine. How far can you see, how fast are your reactions and what level of grip do your tyres have?
Riding in Poor Visibility
Do you commute? Is the low sun always in your eyes when riding east in the morning or west in the evening? If it’s a social ride, could you plan a north/south route during these shorter days to avoid this? Other examples of weather that reduces visibility are fog, mist, heavy rain, road spray, falling snow and sleet. When weather reduces your visibility, reduce your speed so you can still stop within the distance you can see to be clear on your side of the road. Regularly check your actual speed on the speedometer, as it can drift upwards without the usual reference points. Ensure your headlight and rear lights are all working and are clean and bright. Keep good rearward observation for vehicles that want to travel using your rear light to navigate with, or worse, are approaching from behind at speed as they may not have seen you. Focus on the edge of the carriageway, hazard lines, and cat’s eyes to help guide where the road goes, especially near junctions or corners. Staring into a featureless mist, you will quickly lose any sense of where you are and your eyes will get tired. Focus on what you can see, but avoid being drawn into just looking at the lights of the vehicle in front. The distance between you could quickly reduce and you could collide with it if it stops suddenly. Fog, mist, cold weather and rain can all cause your visor to mist up on the inside. This further reduces your visibility. Riding with your visor up is not practical in cold weather as your eyes begin to stream with water and you can get cold very quickly. Use anti-misting spray on both surfaces of the visor. Pin-lock double glazed visors significantly reduce misting, but if it still occurs raise your visor a fraction to increase the airflow over the inner surface. You can also try fitting a nose-guard to your helmet to direct your warm, damp breath downwards. Clearly, riding with a tinted or smoked visor at night or in poor visibility is just stupid!
Weather and road surface combine to affect the level of tyre grip your bike will have, and could also affect the handling. We’ve all experienced a wet road and expect a reduction of some kind in the grip available. This changes depending on the road surface type and in winter a further reduction in grip will occur due to colder tyre temperatures. If salt has been spread to disperse ice, the resulting wet road will have a further reduction in grip due to the emulsion that water and salt form when mixed. If you don’t believe, me try using an eye wash without salt in the water. It’s the salt in your tears that enable your eyelids to glide painlessly open and shut! The same will happen to your tyres if you don’t allow for it. Always look well ahead to identify changes in road surface, and adapt accordingly. Control of your bike depends on tyre grip for steering, braking, acceleration and banking. Adjust the demands you make on your tyres grip according to the changing conditions. If your bike has different mode settings, read and understand the effects they have on handling. Selecting rain mode may not only flatten the engine’s torque delivery but could adjust the ABS and traction control settings to be more sensitive. Common road surfaces that can cause a hazard for motorcyclists are tar-banding around road repairs, mud, wet leaves, drain covers, diesel spills – especially on roundabouts – smooth shiny areas (especially when wet) where the tar ‘puddled’ during the recent hot summer, and road-marking paint. Look out for pot-holes or puddles of water which may conceal one. Hitting a pot-hole at any speed can damage a wheel and be seriously dangerous for the rider. If you fail to spot one of these and can’t avoid them, slow down on the approach if possible and pass over them with care, trying not to put steering, braking, or acceleration inputs into the bike while you cross them. Harsh steering or braking can destabilise the bike, especially if the grip is already compromised. Weather conditions can cause ice to form on the road. Ice comes in many forms, but generally you can’t see black ice, while white haw-frost you can. Look out for both types under trees and in other shaded areas even when the sun has been out for some time and melted it everywhere else. Generally bikes and snow or ice don’t mix…
Strangely it’s harder to see in the dark than in daylight. Observation therefore requires a different level of skill to be effective. Contrast levels fall and edges become less distinct. Motorcycles generally have poor headlights, so your visibility is reduced in range. It’s no longer possible to pick out hedge lines way up ahead or the camber of the road so clearly. Night riding also puts additional strain on your eyes and highlights any defects in focus you may have. Ensure you’ve had your eyes tested recently. Being able to read a number plate at 20 metres in sunlight may not be good enough to ride a country road safely at night. Ensure you have a clear visor and it’s clean and unscratched. Same for all your lights. Are they clean, working, bright and correctly adjusted? Use main beam on unlit roads but remember to dip it for other road users, including when following another vehicle. You may also find a dipped headlight more effective if riding in mist, fog, snow or sleet, as it reduces the reflected glare. Think about your clothing. Hi-vis generally doesn’t work at night as it appears black or grey under artificial light. What you need is reflective clothing. Does your riding gear have good reflective areas? Are these clean and visible? Rucksacks generally mask any reflective areas on jackets, so if you use one be aware and consider fitting a topbox with reflective tape if riding regularly at night.
As the more challenging conditions of winter approach, think about if your journey is really necessary on the bike if poor weather is forecast. If necessary take the bus, car, train, or even walk. Examiners will cancel tests if the forecast is to be below 5c on the day. There’s a reason for this, as there are old riders and bold riders, but no old, bold riders. And examiners are generally the former. However, winter riding on those lovely bright, clear days can be fun. It presents new challenges for the thinking rider which with care and consideration you can master and reap the rewards. There are TVAM social rides throughout the season, including normally the New Year’s Eve one. Prepare well, enjoy the ride, and a hot coffee generally tastes better at the end.
You can find out more about all advanced riding techniques in Motorcycle Roadcraft and the IAM RoadSmart Advanced Rider Course handbook. Read all our articles printed in 2018.