12 Dec 2014

The Sheer Misery Of Being A Motorcyclist In Winter

You non-motorcyclists have it easy. You drive your car all year round, perhaps suffering a little in the winter but generally you're cushioned from the elements by a roof, a heater, brilliant lights and smooth suspension. And when you're done you lock the car, leave it on the drive and forget about it. These dark times are much harder for us bikers.

As a motorcyclist you have one of two choices when autumn starts to bite - to ride or not to ride.

If you ride you are doing so either because you've got no choice or because you are a sadomasochist.

The winter poses many problems for us fans of powered two wheelers (as the government calls motorcycles). For three years in the mid-2000s I worked in Reading town centre in an office with a tiny car park, and I wasn't allocated a space. I decided that public transport was simply not for me so I rode to work every day.

Even in the deepest, darkest gloom of winter I rode to work, such was my allergy to trains and buses.

People say there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. This isn't true. Even if you've read our article on how to choose the right motorcycle gear and you've covered yourself from head to toe in expensive waterproof kit you'll still get soggy when it rains hard enough.

Rain will find its way down the front of your jacket, into your boots, down your sleeves into your gloves. Sometimes you'll be so wet you might as well have sat in a bath.  This is unpleasant at the best of times.

Then we have to contend with the cold. You can do your best to alleviate the cold by wearing thick winter gloves and fitting heated handlebar grips to your bike. When the outside temperature gets down to below 10 degrees neither of these make a difference, especially when you add in wind chill from travelling at speed.

I used to arrive at work on a winter's morn and wrap my hands round a cup of tea. My fingers would sting from the heat but until I'd warmed them up they wouldn't work properly. The smug car drivers, warm, dry and cosy, would have done half an hour's work before my hands were working enough to operate my keyboard.

And then we have visor misting. Imagine your car windscreen on a cold day. It would mist up if you leaned forwards and breathed on it. In a helmet you cannot hold your breath for the entire journey so you crack the visor open a touch.

This is fine if it is not raining, but when it does rain the water gets into the gap, no matter how infinitesimally small, and soaks your face. It also dribbles down the inside of your visor. If you wear glasses, as I do, it will get wet on both sides of the lenses.

Can you imagine how hard it is to see anything with water on the inside and outside of two clear layers immediately in front of your eyes? Add in unintentionally homicidal drivers, checking their Facebook status and drinking from a bucket of coffee, and the commute becomes a thing of nightmares.

It's still better than taking the bus though.

In a car when the roads become slippery from wet and mud you just have to take a bit more care. When you hit an extra slippery patch your stability control will sort it out.

On a bike there is no stability control. The power to weight ratio of even a 675cc bike such as mine is more than that in a Lamborghini. The contact patch from the tyres is minuscule, only the rear tyre feeds the power to the road and the front tyre provides 99% of the braking force.

Unless you are an expert this is a recipe for disaster. You quickly learn to become an expert, but one who is constantly balancing on a tightrope - and you can't see all the terrors being thrown at you because of all the rain on your visor and glasses.

I even rode when it was snowing. Even staying upright on a gritted road is hard work, add in corners and roundabouts and you soon end up with a train of angry drivers behind as you desperately try not to lean more than 1 degree off upright. That horrible black sludge that forms on snowy roads is sprayed all over you from the vehicles coming the other way. The cold is unbearable. Visor misting happens even when you've opened it a touch. Your eyeballs freeze solid. Your nose dribbles liquid snot, which is the only thing that doesn't freeze.

Why the hell would anyone ride in the winter?

Because we love our bikes. To a rider a motorcycle has a personality. The bike and the rider become one when on the road. We share the pleasures of riding and we share the miseries of riding. Motorcycling provides more highs and more lows than anyone who has only ever driven a car could imagine.

When we arrive home we park the bike in its place and we fuss over it. In the winter we have to clean all the muck it is coated in because we care for our bikes. When we walk away from the bike we look back at it and smile.

For those of us who don't ride through the winter we feel guilt when we see our bike. It is like a neglected pet. Mine lives in the garage. It is on an umbilical electrical lead to make sure the battery is working when the sun comes out. I see it every day and every day I am reminded of what a bad person I am for not taking it out for a spin.

Once Christmas and New Year are over a biker thinks two things - the Isle of Man TT is not too far away and I'll be able to ride my bike soon.

From February onwards we wake up in the morning and think, "Is it time? Should I ride today?"

Then one day it is dry enough and warm enough and we sling a leg over the seat, start the engine from its winter slumber and we go for a ride.

That day is a good day.
My Triumph Street Triple in its winter hibernation place

By Matt Hubbard