Motorcycling in winter: How to keep riding safely

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Published on 17 November 2015 by Gill

During the winter when temperatures drop and the weather gets worse, treacherous roads can present new dangers. But that’s no reason to pack up your bike – here’s our guide to keeping riding in the winter.

The real world where we ride isn’t perfect. Whether we’re faced with snow and ice, diesel or oil spills, there’s a lot to prepare for. And at this time of year you can feel particularly wary, with wet and frosty roads more common. Hazards, expected and unexpected, confront us on the road all the time. Safety-conscious riders read on, and learn to expect and prepare for the unexpected.

SEE it coming

We’ll begin with a quick overview of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s SEE approach to anticipating potentially hazardous circumstances.

Search: Actively scan the area ahead of you for potential hazards.

Evaluate: Decide if what you see ahead presents a potential hazard.

Execute: Make a decision on a course of action (if required) and do it. Be confident, don’t hesitate.

The bottom line is, if you don’t identify potentially hazardous changes in the road surface before you reach them, it may be too late to react appropriately. Here’s how to handle some specific situations…

Rain and wet roads

Remember, wet roads are at their most slippery within the first few minutes after rain begins to fall, especially if it hasn’t rained for a while. This is because oil and other debris that has worked its way into the road surface can wash loose or, as with oil, float to the surface. So be extra careful at the beginning of a rain shower.

riding in winterReduce your speed and avoid making sudden braking, acceleration or steering inputs. One trick is to follow in the tyre tracks of vehicles ahead of you, where the water level is lower and your tyres are less likely to hydroplane.

When you have no choice but to ride through pooled water, ease off the throttle to lower your speed, squeeze the clutch, and coast through the puddle, or apply a steady, low throttle to get all the way through it. Avoid steering inputs.

Consider waiting out a rainstorm, if necessary, and be especially careful at intersections, where leaked oil may be more abundant. Take extra care when putting your foot down when stopping, as your footing may be compromised as well.

It’s also very important to watch out for slick surfaces such as road markings, railway tracks, metal construction plates etc. Even the white lines can be more slippery when wet, so take extra caution when changing lanes or making turns.

Snow and ice

Snow and ice are best avoided by not riding in such conditions. Keep in mind that road surfaces can be colder than the air temperature, especially shaded areas. If the air temperature has dipped below freezing overnight, morning can be a particularly troublesome time.

If you can’t avoid the slippery spots, approach them as you would a puddle of water: roll off the throttle to reduce your speed, pull in the clutch, and coast straight through with your eyes straight ahead.

Rain grooves

These are thin grooves that are sometimes cut into the road to help channel water away and provide better traction. While that may be great for cars and other four-wheeled vehicles, it’s not great for motorcycles.

Car and lorry tyres are flat on the bottom; motorcycle tyres are rounded. This means that the rain grooves tend to grab at your tyres as you ride.

It can be a little disconcerting, but it’s not really a hazard. The main things to remember are simply to avoid making any sudden steering inputs and lighten your grip slightly. That is, if you feel the front wheel wiggle a tiny but, go with the flow. Don’t overreact by tightening your grip and trying to counter the wiggle. Let your hands and arms absorb the vibration, keep looking straight ahead, and you’ll be fine.

Mud and spills

It doesn’t take an overturned tanker spill to create a hazardous situation. A bag of topsoil falling out of a car or lorry can create a significant hazard for a motorcycle.

Treat it the same way you would a patch of mud on the road. Try to avoid it if you can. If you have to ride through it, ease off the throttle, avoid braking, pull in the clutch, and coast through the hazard. Keep your eyes straight ahead, and avoid making any steering inputs, letting your hands and arms absorb any disturbances.

If it’s a big spill or patch of mud, and coasting would slow you down too much or even bring you to a stop, treat the spill as you would a dirt or gravel road.

Dirt road in winter 3Dirt or gravel roads

Riders with experience on dirt bikes generally have no problems on dirt or gravel roads – unless their experience makes them overconfident and they forge the basics.

Many of the techniques required for riding on such roads are common to riding in most difficult conditions: ease off the throttle and lower your speed; avoid any sudden actions (brakes, throttle, or steering), and keep your eyes looking ahead, not down at the road directly in front of you. Keep a moderately tight grip on the handgrips and don’t overreact (with sudden corrections) if the motorcycle wiggles or wobbles a little bit. Go with the flow.

Be especially careful when making turns. Keep your speed to a minimum and turn as you otherwise would. Keep a steady throttle through the turn and accelerate smoothly as you exit.

Of course, dirt and gravel are not exclusively found on dirt and gravel roads. Watch for loose debris on paved roads as well – especially in bends where other vehicles may have kicked up dirt from the side of the road.

Bottom line

In the end, handling rough roads and uneven surfaces comes down to a few basic principles. SEE what’s coming, avoid making any sudden inputs (brakes, throttle or steering), don’t overreact to disturbances and look straight ahead.

Keep these things in mind, and, while you may never find the ‘perfect road’, even the bad ones will look a little more inviting.