Opinion: Winter riding

It may now be winter, and snow’s fallen pretty much everywhere in Canada, but not everyone’s put away their motorcycles. So when the temperature showed 3C on Sunday and the sun came out for the afternoon, I banged on my neighbour Andrew’s door and told him to kit up – we had to go for a ride!

Andrew didn’t take much persuading, although his Honda Varadero needed a little coaxing with its thick oil before it would run smoothly. My Harley fired right up, but she’s been plugged into a trickle charger for the last few weeks, so there’s no excuse. We dressed warmly and set off for Rice Lake, a half-hour north of our homes.

Winter driving? We’re not afraid of no severe whiteouts and drifting! Well, actually, yes we are.

We write a lot at CMG about riding motorcycles in the wintertime, as if it’s a common occurrence, or something most people would like to do. Last week, Zac went out on his motorcycle to do his Christmas shopping, which is no easy feat when the temperature in New Brunswick is minus-6. For some reason, he enjoys torturing himself by riding bikes in extreme environments, and we enjoy reading about his exploits, mostly from the pleasant warmth of our sofas and easy chairs.

We’ve told you about people who’ve crossed the country through frigid cold, or who have been the last travellers to make it into town before the road was closed during a storm, or who have ridden the rails to deliver supplies to isolated communities. We’ve raced a scooter on the ice and laughed at the cold, but the truth is, if you don’t do it right, riding in a Canadian winter can be very, very dangerous indeed. It should not be glorified, and nobody should be encouraged to do it.

Look waaaaay out there on the ice and you can see some fishermen. No trucks, though. Rice Lake isn’t frozen over that thick just yet.

There are three basic rules to riding a bike in winter: Only venture out if the roads are clear of snow and ice; never, ever ride after dark; and dress warmly in layers.

The first is obvious. If a two-wheeled vehicle hits snow or ice, it won’t just skid, like a car – it’ll slide out or flip over. (Yes, I know about the incredible traction of ice racers with spiked tires, but we’re talking here about riding on the roads.) So don’t do it. I once set out on my dirt bike and found myself on a country road riding on snow, with very little traction, so I slowed right down and skimmed my boots along the ground for support. A truck drove up behind and stayed there, a half-second behind. I couldn’t signal the driver to pass because I couldn’t take a hand from the bars, and he was probably enjoying the show, but if I’d slipped out, the truck would have driven over me. End of story.

The second is obvious when you think about it: after dark, you just can’t see the road surface well enough to know if you’re riding onto black ice, or onto sand from a snow plow. Plus, it’ll get a lot colder very quickly. So plan ahead to make sure you don’t do it, period.

All that sand from the plow is a major challenge on a leaning motorcycle, so take it easy around corners.

And the dressing-warmly thing – snowmobilers have figured it out and so can you, but if you bulk up too much, you can’t move around properly to control the bike while riding. And you need to move around, more than ever.

For the ride with Andrew, I wore lined riding pants over my jeans, a riding jacket with its removeable liner, a woolen turtle-neck dickie to keep drafts out and my neck warm, a T-shirt and a woolen sweater, and as the second layer, over the T-shirt, an electric vest. On a bike, your body only drains heat, it doesn’t create heat, so sometimes you need help. Warm boots, warm gloves and a helmet finished it off. In my panniers, I carried a balaclava, snowmobile mitts and battery–heated glove liners. At 3C, however, I didn’t need them and I didn’t even turn on the vest, but it was a comfort to know they were there, just in case.

Andrew gets ready to go say hello to the ice fishermen way out on the lake, and probably piss ’em right off, too.

The two of us rode fairly slowly, because there’s already enough sand and grit on the roads from the plows to make hard braking or leaning a risky proposition. But that’s not the point. We weren’t out there for Freedom of the Road, or corner strafing, or even just to shake out the cobwebs. We were out there to remember what it’s like to ride instead of drive, and to feel the rush of the highway beneath our boots, and to imagine how great it’s going to be when spring comes back in three months from now.

There is a fourth rule, for after a winter ride: wash off the grime and salt and crud from your bike before putting it back away. You don’t want anything corrosive to sit against the metal, and it might be a while before you go out again, so rinse it off and wipe it down. Then park the bike, head inside and warm up – you’ve deserved it.

The most important part of a winter ride, at the end. Don’t aim that water at full blast at your wiring, or things can start to break.


  1. It’s nice to be able to get even a short ride in during the winter. I’m retired so if there is a sunny day, with dry roads, I can go out for an hour or so on some of my favourite roads. Clears my head. I agree that the clean bike is best but unless you have a heated space to park, I would forgo it. Ice in your bike won’t be good the next time you ride and some argue against ever using high pressure washers on bikes since water and detergents can get forced into joints, seals, etc. I only go out when I’m sure the road is dry. I’ve learned my lesson.

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