As the weather turns, a lot of riders will put their bikes in the garage until the following spring. However, there are an increasing number of us who will ride in the winter whether it is because it's an easier or our only form of transport, or because we wish to keep our skills up and will do some winter track days.
Whatever your reason for riding in the cold, damp, wet and dark winter months there are several techniques that will help us in the worsening conditions. That said the sun in the latter part of the year can be just as bigger enemy to you as it can be your friend. It sits very low on the horizon this time of year and this will cause glare whether the surface is wet or dry, or both. The dangers can be right there in front of you or hidden around the next bend, either way you will need to recognise them for what they are and react to them in some way to survive. Glare is the most common and the most lethal.
First of all take your eyes away from the brightest section of glare and look for the edge of the road or white line, ideally on your left! This will help you to determine that you are still heading in the right direction. Then you can move your road position to reduce the effect by using the side of the road as a guide. Always try and look as far down the side as the road as possible. The further you can see the better as it gives you more time to react to any changes.
If you are charging into a bend then take a quick look to see where the sun is. Will you be blinded on the exit? Will the sun be behind you and blind other road users coming the other way? Plan ahead, stay alive. Use your eyes to look ahead and plan when it will be a good time to brake. Too much of either brake could cause loss of traction and a slide will begin.
But that's okay if you recognise it. If the back of the bike starts to feel vague and your bum is telling you that the front and back are no longer in line then now is the time to release a little pressure off your right foot. If the front loses traction you will know about it pretty quickly. The handlebars will turn even though the bike is going straight and the front will feel vague as the suspension unloads. Again, release the brake to allow the wheel to start turning again and then re-apply gently.
Getting on the throttle to stabilise the bike will be difficult in the winter. You will need to be smoother than ever before to get the best grip. And the more upright the bike is on the exit of the corner the lower the cornering forces will be and the more grip you will have. It's harder to lose grip when the bike is fully upright than it is when the bike is leant over. As you come out of the bend get the bike upright as soon as possible remembering to counter act this with body weight on the inside of the bike. This will allow the bike to be more upright but still hold a line instead of going straight on.
But all of this will be useless if you are have not prepared for the conditions. There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. The one big thing we have to deal with on a bike is the wind chill factor. It doesn't have to be that cold for us, the rider, to end up in serious trouble in the form of hypothermia. A lot of crashes in the winter can be down to hypothermia. I would suggest a surprising amount as one of the stages of being too cold is a dramatic loss in concentration. If you get to this stage then no amount of riding technique is going to save you. Let's give you some hard facts:
If your core body temperature drops by as little as 1-2°C (normal temperature is 35-36°C). Mild to strong shivering occurs. The rider is unable to perform complex tasks with the hands; the hands become numb, this is an obvious issue for machine control. A test to see if you are entering Stage two is to see if can touch your thumb with your little finger; this is the first stage of muscles not working.
Your core body temperature drops by 2-4°C, shivering becomes more violent. Muscle mis-co-ordination becomes apparent, again another issue for bike control. Movements are slow and laboured, the rider becomes pale. Lips, ears, fingers and toes may become blue.
If your core body temperature drops below approximately 32°C then shivering usually stops. Difficulty speaking, sluggish thinking, and amnesia start to appear; inability to use hands and stumbling is also usually present which is difficult to see when you are sitting on a bike! You exhibit incoherent / irrational behaviour. Major organs fail. Clinical death occurs.
Any one of these stages can cause you to make a mistake on the bike and crash as a result. Keeping warm and wrapped up is just as important in the wet as the wind chill increases with water. For example, wind-chill temperature is only defined for temperatures at or below 10°C and wind speeds above 3 mph namely, walking speeds.
As the air temperature falls, the chilling effect of any wind that is present increases. For example, 10 mph wind will lower the apparent temperature by a wider margin at an air temperature of -20°C, than a wind of the same speed would if the air temperature were -10°C. This gets worse if it is raining.
So keeping warm by using the right gear is as much of a technique as the riding itself.
This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Andy Ibbott, school director of the California Superbike School.