Winter Riding Pt1
Updated: Jan 17
Brass monkeys and frozen balls
Welcome to this latest edition of the ACBT London Rider Training blog. It has been a busy and exciting couple of weeks since the last edition with CBT and DAS courses so there hasn’t been much time to write. It’s also cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey out there, as the old colloquialism goes, so we thought it would be the right time to offer some advice about winter riding.
In some parts of the world it is actually illegal to ride a motorcycle in winter and riders then have to put their bike into hibernation until spring. As if winter wasn’t miserable enough! In other countries, of course, it’s a decision a rider needs to make and winter riding isn’t for everyone. For some riding throughout the winter is cause for bragging rights. For others it is an unavoidable necessity.
Whatever your reason for riding in wintry conditions, always consider the safety aspect as priority number one. As a motorcycle instructor I am out on my bike every day and in all weathers however if conditions are unsafe we cancel the training courses. Safety first, every time. Winter poses a higher risk for a motorcyclist than for any other road user. Being risk averse isn’t being cowardly, it’s a survival mechanism. If you don’t feel confident riding throughout the winter months then don’t do it, stay safe. However, mastering some basic principles and using a little common sense can help you get through without having to mothball your bike for several months and will make the approach of spring even more pleasurable. And let’s face it, if you can ride in awful winter weather you can ride at any time of year.
The happy couple
Don’t forget the decision whether to ride at this time of year isn’t just about you. Your bike is a 50% stakeholder in the enterprise and you should devote as much attention to your machine as to you. It is just as important for your bike to be well prepared as you are. Your safety depends on the condition of your motorcycle. The condition of your motorcycle (from the point of view of damage) depends on you,
We all ride different motorbikes. Some are better suited to winter riding than others. Look at your bike and consider whether it’s the type of bike that will be able to survive the winter. Some are just too fragile for the climate. Is your bike tough enough for three months of darkness, salted roads, miserable conditions, low temperatures and higher stress on the components? Are you the sort of rider that is happy to clean the bike after a ride in the worse of the weather? Or is that the last thing you want to do on a freezing cold day. Salt from the road attacks the bike’s components. If untreated the condition of the bike will deteriorate. If that happens it can also begin to be less safe and / or reliable. If now you are thinking “sod that for a game of soldiers” then put it in the garage and bring it out again in early March!
The winter hack.
Some riders have a “winter hack” or a workhorse that they ride in the worst weather so that their pride and joy retains its looks. The humble winter hack tends to be respected as opposed to loved and is a bit more rough around the edges. It’s that old Sergeant that bugs the hell out you during basic training but teaches you how to stay alive. You don’t love them but boy do you thank them later. It’s a streetwise mongrel with battle scars as opposed to a finely tuned, lean, preened and manicured high maintenance greyhound. Yet the winter hack is the dependable old salt of the earth. This is the one that we paid peanuts for but that gets us through the snarl up on the M25 in a freezing blizzard or rainstorm. This is the one that gets us home safe and sound at the most demanding times. I’ve known and owned many a winter hack and many times it’s become the bike I’ve most enjoyed and the one I remember with the most admiring affection. My winter hacks may have not have looked pretty but they were properly looked after and went like a train. A winter hack is the Chrissy Hynde of the motorcycle universe. Not classically beautiful but talented as hell and boy you’d love to have a go! I’d certainly rather be down the pub with Chrissy than Charlize Theron that’s for sure! Apologies to those of a non-male persuasion…you get the idea.
So let’s explore some basic simple things to consider from the point of view of the bike and then the rider.
There are a number of things to consider with your motorcycle. At CBT stage we explain and discuss a number of checks that you will be performing each day to ensure your motorcycle is reliable and safe. We then also teach you how to make those checks in more detail once a week as things wear out. These will also help in winter but there are some specific things to consider.
Warm the engine. Always warm the engine sufficiently before riding. You should do this all the time but more so in winter, especially in very cold temperatures. Oil needs time to warm, thin and lubricate and it will need more time to do so in really cold weather. If your bike has carburettors you will need to use the choke to get it started so make sure your choke cable is well lubricated. Some older fuel injection bikes have a “choke” lever fitted. It’s not a choke but a rev-lifter that increases the revs to generate a richer mixture and more heat. Most modern efi systems no longer have this.
Check your coolant and fluids. Have you changed the ratio to cope with lower temperatures? If you don’t have enough anti-freeze in your coolant system it can freeze causing no end of problems and possibly damage to important and expensive components. Consult your manual for the correct grade of coolant and amount. Check your oil levels on a regular basis. Your engine will most likely be working harder during winter so keep an eye on the level and condition. Don’t forget your hydraulic clutch fluid if you have that type of clutch fitted. Make sure it’s a healthy colour and correctly topped up.
How good are your brakes? During CBT we show you how to check your brakes and fluids to ensure optimum safe performance. Over winter your brakes will need to operate in far more demanding weather than at other times of year so it is even more important that you check them regularly for wear. Drum brakes can be affected by temperature and atmospheric changes. It may be a good idea to remove the wheel and clean the components in the hub before the onset of the worse weather. Road salt can clog the operation of your brake systems and cause them to seize. ABS systems can also be affected.
Tyres save lives. At least tyres in good condition do. Road conditions are even more demanding for your tyres throughout the winter months. This is one of the most important components of your motorbike as it is your direct link to the road surface. Your handling, stability, performance, grip, braking, comfort, economy, your overall safety, all these are directly related to your rubber boots. Check your tyre pressures. Consult your manual for the correct pressures and check them more regularly than other times a year as atmospheric and temperature fluctuations are more severe in winter and the air pressure in your rubber will be affected just as severely. Always check with an accurate gauge when the tyres are cold. In other words, before you leave home, not at the petrol station. Air expands when it heats and the ride to the petrol station can heat the tyre and therefore the air inside resulting in an incorrect reading at the air pump. Be extra careful in winter with over inflation. Your tyre needs to flex and expand under braking. Too much air will harden the tyre making this difficult. Your contact patch, that is the amount of tyre that makes contact with the road, will also be more narrow affecting your stability and safety. Then check the tread wear indicators to make sure you have sufficient tread. You will need to disperse more water in winter so a good level of tread is even more important.
A word of caution about your mates and / or motorcycle forums. There is always a tyre thread on every forum or discussion group. There will always be a widely differing opinion as to which are the best tyres for your motorcycle and what are the best tyre pressures to operate. Everyone will always be happy to throw their tuppence into the discussion and never the twain shall meet. I have been riding bikes for many years and have been around bike groups and forums for years. All I will say, impartially, is to consult your owner’s handbook. Your manufacturer has spent $millions in R & D (research and development) finding the best performing tyre and operating pressures for your motorcycle. The bloke down the pub or on a forum has not, even if their advice is well intentioned. I’m not down-playing the value of advice from your friends or discussion groups. There are some incredibly knowledgeable and helpful people on forums but there are also quite a lot of charlatans. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate one from the other as the charlatan can sometimes make a reasonable sounding argument. It is your bike and your safety. If your bike is fitted with the tyres as recommended by the manufacturer then follow their recommended pressures. If you have different boots fitted consult the manufacturer of your tyre.
Finally, is there a winter tyre that you could fit instead? Winter tyres tend to have a different profile and tread pattern to help with grip and displacement. I know of riders that have purchased replacement wheels fitted with winter tyres and in late autumn they swap the wheels over. It’s an option.
The electrics. Are your electrickery components in good condition? With old bikes life was simple. If there was a problem it was either to do with fuel or with electrics. Nowadays bikes are infested with lots of unnecessary electronic nonsense and there are lots more things to go wrong. Your battery, circuitry and other electrical components will suffer more during winter. Your battery can lose amps over night with a temperature drop. Rain wind, crud, road salt and grime can attack connections and those sensor thingamybobs fitted to modern bikes. Try to weatherproof electrical connections. A little blob of lubricant, lithium grease or Vaseline can prevent connection problems. There’s nothing worse than breaking down on a cold, dark, freezing shitty day on the way home from a long day’s work because of a bad earth or dodgy connection.
There are those that swear by lead acid batteries and others that prefer the sealed type. I’m in the latter camp. It’s just a personal thing. Life is too short to be messing around with electrolyte levels. My gel battery cranks more amps to give the starting system the kick up the a**e it needs on a freezing cold morning. The trouble with gel batteries is that once they lose charge they never fully re-charge. So the way I deal with that is simple. I don’t let my battery get too low. If not riding the bike for a while, even if it’s just a few days use an optimiser and keep it on a trickle charge.
Your lights are the things that allow you to see and help you to be seen. It gets darker sooner for longer especially after the clocks change so make sure they are in good working order throughout the bike. Before each ride.
A clean bike is a happy bike. But don’t forget, some bits need to be greasy. Get into the habit of giving your motorbike a regular clean, more so than in the summer months. Yes it can be a pain on a crappy day but it really does help to make the machine more dependable. You will be riding through lots of dirt, crud and road salt. This will attack the exposed areas of the bike and affect components. Lubricate your fork stanchions to prevent corrosion.
If you own a cheaper brand of bike, there is a reason why your motorcycle cost half the price on one of the mainstream manufacturers. It doesn’t mean it’s no good, just that you need to pay closer and more regular attention to this.
Check the most exposed areas like underneath, suspension units, engine casings and wheel hubs. Use cold water as opposed to warm. Cold will wash away the crap whereas warm can dissolve it and allow to penetrate deeper. Don’t use a jet wash on your bike. The power of the jet can cause damage to delicate components and even blow away grease from areas you actually want to be greasy not shiny, like bearings and the chain and sprockets.
Be careful with how you use some products. WD40 is great for removing moisture and lubricating small components but not for lubricating your drive chain for example, although WD40 also now manufacture chain lubricant. Some say its salt content can actually cause corrosion but this is not my personal experience. I use it to clean the bodywork of the bike as it brings out a nice shine but also leaves an oily coating that can prevent corrosion and makes it easier to clean next time. It also smells great, I’d use it as aftershave if I could. Many riders use ACF50 for protecting exposed parts of the bike against corrosion. There are many other options out there such as Demon Shine which I’ve used for a long time and gives good results too. Don’t forget important components like control cables, and your clutch cable for example. A little squirt of chain lubricant can help prolong the life of your clutch cable by lubricating it and preventing corrosion.
A serviced bike is a safe bike. Your motorcycle handbook will recommend regular servicing to keep your bike in as good condition as possible, as reliable as possible, and therefore as safe as possible. In the real world, with our financial commitments ever stretched, it can be difficult to keep to that schedule. Prices for everything go up all the time and that includes servicing and parts costs. It is possible to save valuable pounds by doing some of the servicing yourself. If you aren't happy with a spanner in your hand then don't risk it, especially with the safety features of your motorcycle.
Many new vehicles, and that includes motorcycles, limit the servicing involvement an owner has. This is for two reasons. The first is so that the owner is compelled to use the dealer network. The second is less cynical, to ensure the bike is maintained to a specified standard. If you can, keep to the servicing schedule of the manufacturer but if that's not practical for any reason consider a winter service and a spring service. That way you can split the servicing cost and ensure your motorcycle is prepared for the different demands of different times of year.
Above I advised caution of forums and discussion groups as you will find some incredibly helpful and knowledgeable people online but also the odd charlatan. I've learned so much over the years on forums when it comes to maintenance. Most of the time I do my own servicing but as a beginner motorcyclist I found the prospect incredibly daunting. I was lucky enough to find an owners group where they would meet once a month at a member's garage and carry out group servicing. It was brilliant, you got to learn basic maintenance on the job from more experienced riders in a light hearted environment and there was someone on hand in case of mistakes. I always recommend to new riders to find and join their local motorcycling group for this reason. It's great to know you have a local supportive bunch that can help you out. The internet is a useful tool but it's no substitute for personal interaction.
To experienced riders this article may seem basic and teaching grandma to suck eggs but don't forget, we are a motorcycle training school. We work with new and inexperienced riders and there just isn't enough time in the training syllabus to go over a lot of this important information in detail so we decided to publish these articles so that new and learner riders can read further in their own time. If you are a new rider, this is not an exhaustive list but rather just some practical advice on some basic actions you can take to, if not winter proof, then winter ready your motorcycle.
During our CBT courses in the later part of the year many of our trainees ask about riding in winter. It can be a bit daunting as a new rider to have to get to grips with gaining experience on a the bike in the worst of the weather. I hope this article helps. If you need further advice please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Safety during winter training
On the subject of safety, if you have booked a training course in winter and are concerned be advised that we inspect the site and the surrounding area first thing in the morning. If we have any concerns for your safety during training we will cancel the course and let you know, either through our Whatsapp or by calling you direct. It is important that you have your mobile switched on the morning of your training course as early as possible. If you changed your mobile number in the period between booking and your training date let us know as soon as possible.
Be aware we can only carry out the safety inspection each day as we are not weather forecasters. That early morning call is unavoidable. If you haven’t received a call and / or message from us on the morning of your course then consider the training is going ahead. Any concerns or problems please call us as soon as possible. Don’t just fail to turn up and then get in touch several days later as you may lose your course fee.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. Next week, winter riding part 2, The Motorcyclist.
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