Taking back winter: Christmas shopping on a motorcycle

"Hrmmm ... with the right bungee cords, this just might work!"

Out the driveway, down the street. I waved at the kids in the school playground then quickly shoved my hand back into the oversized muffs on the handlebars. It was too chilly to be letting in a draft, and I could already feel the cold creeping into my Aerostich. No surprise, though — Environment Canada said it’s minus-6 C.

But it was also December 13, and I had Christmas shopping to do. I could have taken the car to town, but the roads seemed in good shape, so why not take the bike? It was the perfect chance to test out some of my cold-weather equipment! Carry on, and stay warm!

That Givi topbox doesn’t look big enough for all the gifts Zac’s kids will be expecting…

Riding a motorcycle mid-December isn’t the smartest thing to do, but once upon a time, I would have thought nothing of it. Back in my university days, I can remember riding into Summerside to pick up some Christmas gifts on my much-abused ’84 Yamaha XS650 Heritage Special. That bike was the only vehicle I had, and it was either go riding, or stay home.

Back in those days, I wasn’t so worried about weatherproof crashworthy gear, as my college student brain was mostly concerned with saving money and looking cool, in that order. However, I looked anything but cool once the weather turned cold or wet, as I didn’t even have a proper rainsuit at first. I wore three pairs of pants when I rode into class in the rain; upon arrival, I’d take off two pairs, let them dry out over the day, and repeat the performance on the trip home.

Later, I got a decent rainsuit and used that to cut the windchill a bit, but I still had to bundle up like the Michelin Man once November arrived. Nobody I knew had heated grips on their bike back then, and I certainly didn’t have the money for them. At least the XS650 had a kickstarter, so when the temperatures got cold, I wouldn’t kill my battery trying to start the bike. Other problems, I just dealt with as they arose, like the time I had to go raid the gas station coffee machine’s hot water supply — my fuel cap had frozen shut on the bike, and I couldn’t open it to gas up. That was the way things were on PEI. You figured it out, and you went riding.

A set of handlebar muffs (left) and heated grips (right) make the ride into town much easier than the old days, when Zac made do with a pair of snowmobile mitts.

Now, I’m much better prepared for the cold. Earlier in the week, I’d spent a few days winterizing the Suzuki DR650, and I’m not talking about adding stabilizer to the gas tank. Instead, I’d tinkered with the heated grips in an attempt to get them working again, and fixed the broken signal lights so I was less likely to be run over by an errant Christmas shopper. I even added a set of handlebar muffs, to keep the windblast off my gloves. When I plugged in the battery-heated vest and threw on the Aerostich, everything was good to go, in theory.

I decided to take the winding back road that follows the river into Saint John, as the extra speed on the four-lane highway would have been much colder in the winter air. Even though I was traveling a tad over the speed limit, I noticed a couple of cars backed up behind me and decided to pull over and let them past. The controls felt a little awkward, thanks to the handlebar muffs, and I wanted to take my time and enjoy the ride.

And it wasn’t so bad. Sure it was a bit chilly, but the roads were pretty much ice-free. There was a small bit of black ice here and there, but nothing that couldn’t be avoided as long as I could see it. That’s the advantage of riding on a cold, clear day; the temperature was supposed to rise above freezing the next day, but thawing snow running onto a still-frozen road can create an unpleasant loss of traction. I’d rather take my chances with the cold than ice; I just had to make sure I was home before sundown, because it’s much easier to get into trouble if you can’t see well.

Advantages of taking your motorcycle Christmas shopping: You can cut through traffic, making it easy to grab that parking spot close to the door.

Once in town, I realized the bike actually makes a great Christmas shopping vehicle in one sense — it slices and dices through the moronic masses of motorists like a ninja, grabbing choice parking spots before anyone else can make it, merging where no car could merge. I made a couple of quick stops, but ultimately headed to the indoor shopping complex in the uptown sector, because there, they’ve got what every motorcyclist really needs this time of winter: indoor parking. Indoor parking is beautiful for the winter rider, because it stops your engine oil from turning back into sludge while you’re shopping, and just generally makes it easier to start the bike when it’s time to go.

Unfortunately, the parkade’s door didn’t want to open, probably because the attendant could see me on a camera and didn’t want to let any moto-crazies into his parking lot. But another truck drove up behind me and the door opened. I slipped out of the ‘Stich, stowed the helmet in the Givi topbox, and presto, I looked like any other Christmas shopper, more or less. I hit the bookstore, the city market, the used bookstore (much more exciting than the one selling new books!), the coffee shop, and it was time to go home. Remember, I was like Cinderella: I had to get home by a certain time. I wasn’t worried about the motorcycle turning into a pumpkin, but I was worried I’d end up sliding on something I shouldn’t if I was riding after dark.

Underground parking is absolutely beautiful if you’re riding in the winter, as long as the parking lot attendant actually opens the door for you.

The temperature rose a bit while I was shopping; the Irving Oil sign said it’s minus-2, and the sign at the pulp mill said minus-4. It did feel warmer, although I’d taken the handlebar muffs  off (they made it too hard to use the signals) and the heated grips immediately decided to crap out again. Ah well. I was on my way home again, and I was feeling pretty good about life.

I could have stayed home that afternoon, raided my wife’s holiday baking stash in the downstairs freezer, maybe watched Charlie Brown’s Christmas with the kids, but instead I got out and did something on the bike. It might not have been a big, thrilling ride, but it was fun enough. And I’m not the only one who thought so. At a stoplight, an older man came up along the sidewalk, gave me a thumbs-up, and told me he envied me. In the last kilometre before home, I noticed high-school kids getting off the bus and walking up the street in a pack except for one kid, who kept looking back at my bike as I rattled down the road.

Hrm. Maybe time for ice racing, instead of street riding?

I certainly wouldn’t call a wintery motorcycle ride a feat worthy of a folk hero, but it does feel good to make someone else’s day better, along with your own.

And now, there was just one more stop before home: the Christmas tree lot. We’ve got an artificial tree up already this year, but I’ve always wondered: would it be possible to buy a real tree, and get it home on the bike? According to my rough guesstimate at the lot, the answer is yes. Now, I have a goal for next year …


  1. Wrapped all my wife’s presents at work, where I have access to a large flat table.
    Everything came home on the NC750X in the panniers and top case!
    Looking forward to 10C on Friday…

  2. Nice story Zac. Gotta ride in winter when we get the chance. I live in Calgary and I went for a nice ride yesterday. 8 deg but windy, with our chinooks. I have Lenz heated socks (very new addition for riding and skiing), power in motion heated gloves and a Milwaukee heated jacket. Between Calgary and a bike in Vancouver I am able to ride year round, albeit less so in winter of course. I was out on my KLX 250 yesterday, perfect bike when one encounters some snow and ice. Lots of fun. Saw a few other bikes out yesterday as well. Cam

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