The last ride before winter

The last ride of the season is always bittersweet. It should be cold, but not too cold, and it should be dry. You want to enjoy it, but not so much you don’t drain the oil at the end and try for just one more week. Timing is everything.

Here in southern Ontario, I try to keep riding into December, because that just seems right. My rule of thumb is to not ride once there’s salt on the road, because there’s lots of chrome on my pretty Harley and it doesn’t mix well with salt.  I’ve got a dirt bike for that, anyway.

So last Sunday, Dec. 4, seemed perfect: a glorious day with no wind, blue sky and a high of one degree above freezing. For some reason, nobody wanted to come with me, which was fine because I’ve only got one electric vest.

It took a while to kit up: T-shirt and jeans, then electric vest, then wool sweater, then heavy riding pants and jacket, a polo-neck dickie to act as a scarf, and a balaclava. Heavy, warm gloves and boots and full-face helmet.  I remembered to pee first.

Dressing like that doesn’t allow much movement, but it’s enough to walk out to the bike and thumb the starter into life. When I was in university, I used to ride my dirt bike year-round into Toronto from Brampton and wore a snowmobile suit that worked well; more often than not, the bike took dozens of kicks before starting and I’d be stripped back down again, clammy and sweaty, before the engine would be running. I’m too old for that crap now.

The road goes ever on, etc. When it’s really cold, you don’t want too many curves – especially if you’re on a Harley.

I set out and almost immediately was in the country, heading north toward Rice Lake through the Northumberland Hills. The shaded parts of the road glistened a little and ice was a concern, but I kept a steady speed and the bike felt good, loping along. No wind cut through the suit, and I’d not yet turned on the vest – I try to leave that for the return.

There’s a finality when you know this will be the last ride for a few months. The dull fields. The bare trees. There’s also an extra sense of care: you don’t want to mess it up. A friend of mine went for his last ride of the season a few years ago and hit a runaway horse five minutes from home – he damaged his shoulder so badly, he was off work for a year.  This is the same guy who, years earlier, took his sport bike for a last blast after selling it and flipped it over backwards pulling a wheelie. Oops.

It’s a bear riding Mark’s bike! Did we fool you? Maybe for a moment?

So I rode carefully and conservatively. There was no hurry. I figured I’d turn for home when I started to get cold, or at least when the sun began to drop. I rode for about an hour, composing a poem in my head, then stopped for coffee at a Tim’s. The young kids at the table alongside watched fascinated as I stripped off the layers.

Years ago, I rode my GPZ 750 from Toronto to a family Christmas in Montreal. Now that was dumb. I had no electric heat back then, and was wrapped in so many layers I could barely move. I wore an “applewarmer” between my helmet and jacket so I could hardly turn my head. I was cold by Napanee, about half-way, and then just got colder. I stopped at every rest area on the highway to drink gallons of hot chocolate and warm up under the hot-air dryers of the bathrooms. When I reached Montreal, I spent all Christmas worrying about snow and more cold on the way home.

As one goes in, another comes out. It is possible for motorcyclists to still enjoy Canada’s winters, especially with spikes like those on their tracks.

That’s not for me anymore. My car-driving alter-ego likes to be warm, so I finished my coffee, wrapped all the layers back on again (hugely entertaining to the young audience), strode outside and fired up the bike. This time, I plugged in the vest and the warmth was like slipping into a hot bath. My vest is 15 years old and one of my smartest purchases.

Many bikes in Canada have heated grips and some even have heated seats, but there’s nothing like that on my Harley. I carry chemical hand-warmers just in case, but my fingers didn’t start getting cold until I was 30 minutes from home. It didn’t seem necessary to use them. By the time I reached the gas station near my house for the winter storage fill-up, the tips of the fingers of my right hand were almost numb. Should have worn mitts.

Under wraps now for the season. Maybe out of sight, but not out of mind.

I got home and parked in the garage, took off the bike clothes and put on a pair of overalls, then drained the oil while it was still hot enough to pour thinly into the pan. I put new regular oil back in, which will be changed for synthetic in the spring, along with the filter, and covered the bike. I’ll connect the battery tender when I find it.

The next morning, there was five centimetres of snow covering my street. I walked the dog around the block and saw one of my neighbours had a visitor – a rider with a BMW K1200 LT. The bike was covered in snow in the driveway. Like I said, timing is everything.

Not a good sight for any rider. He can always just leave it there until March…


  1. I’m winterizing this weekend, cars are already showing signs of salt and that’s my sign.

    I used to do that (change oil before storage, change oil again before start of season) but frankly it seems wasteful. Nowadays, many car manufacturers allow synthetic oil to go over 20000kms and a full year before a change is needed.

    Elevating the bike seems extreme too, I never elevated mine and never felt flat spotting in the spring – not sure there’s enough weight on bike tires. My car on the other hand is on stands.

    • I change the oil twice because there’s no simpler maintenance for a bike than to flush it out and keep it well lubricated. I like to remove the oil at the end of the season to make sure anything gunky doesn’t stay in there over the winter, and then I take it for a slow spin with regular oil as the first ride of the season and flush it again, putting high-quality oil in for the season. Yes, synthetic will last 20,000 km, but I like to flush everything out twice a year.
      Elevating might be extreme, but the concrete floor of my garage isn’t kind to tires. I’ll be replacing my tires in the spring anyway, but frankly, it’s easier to move the bike around on the stand than to push it back and forth on the wheels.

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