There was snow on the ground when I got up this morning with more on the way until changing to sleet and freezing rain. That transition was many hours away. When I made the above photo I had already made the decision to ride. Shoveling snow and cleaning the cars could wait until later. A rider has to have their priorities straight.
Winter riding, for me, is considered on three distinct levels: mental, physical, and technical. The mental aspects of winter riding, and especially riding if there’s snow, are focused on risk, acceptance, and patience.
The risk of an accident and bodily harm are greater in the winter. People aren’t looking for motorcycles and scooters. Traction is reduced. Snow, ice, sleet, cold temperatures all conspire to turn a miscalculation into a disaster. Anyone who asks me about riding in winter will be my elevator speech about risk. I simply suggest they think about a crash, an injury, or death as a possible outcome. This same thing applies in warm weather but a lot of riders sort of gloss over the risk. In winter the risk is greater (I don’t know how much) and I ask myself how important is riding. For me, riding is a quality of life issue. It’s not recreation or play that could easily be replaced by racketball or golf. It is important enough to me that I accept the risk. If you plan to head out in the snow you need to carefully consider how important it is to you.
Acceptance means letting go of your riding habits. In snow you simply have to ride differently. Snow means a rider must constantly scan the road surface and travel at a speed that will allow a stop in a very short distance. This means riding slow. A curve managed normally at 35mph may have to be negotiated at 15mph. Or slower. Some riders just can’t do this. If you can’t ride slow for many miles then leave the bike or scooter at home.
Acceptance also means having to yield to traffic. Constantly. When the road surface is snow covered and you’re moving along at a very slow speed it can mean moving to the side of the road for each and every vehicle approaching from the rear, waiting at intersections and traffic lights until there is a stretch of empty road to gain another 200 yards of distance before pulling over again. A 20 minute journey on dry roads can turn into a 2 hour adventure in snow because of the defensive posture you may have to apply. If you don’t have that kind of acceptance in you, leave the bike at home.
The physical part of the ride relates to the body and the environment. There are few things for me more miserable than being cold. With this knowledge I sometimes wonder why I spend more time on the road in cold weather than warm. Having the right gear to stay warm and dry is imperative. Don’t have that covered — then leave the motorcycle or scooter at home.
Environmentally checking the temperature and weather forecast comes first. Threats of heavy snow, sleet or freezing rain inform a go/kill decision. This morning indicated 29F, snow showers turning to sleet and freezing rain in the afternoon. For me that gave a green light to move to the next step.
I spend considerable time evaluating the environment before making a decision to ride. I’ll walk the road in front of the house testing my boots on the pavement to gauge slickness. After a lot of experience I can tell from that first test if I can manage on two wheels. This morning I determined the road surface in front of the house was easily managed and not much worse than wet roads. Slush with a few snowy patches. But conditions can quickly change down the road.
Two miles from the house the road was completely snow covered and almost packed. Because the temperature was close to the freezing mark the snow left enough give so that the Heidenau SnowTex tires had some bite. Some. On this stretch of road I would travel at 15mph. Slower on turns. Bicycle speeds.
Another physical aspect to address is the scooter or motorcycle. Each rider has to make an honest appraisal of their ability to manage weight and mass. I am comfortable with the 320 pound Vespa but would not want to deal with anything much bigger. Or taller. And don’t forget the pounding a scooter or motorcycle will take from salt and grime.
Being able to flatfoot easily when necessary or push the scooter through snow when it gets stuck is important. I read about riders moving through snow on Harleys and Goldwings but that’s not for me. Too often I have managed slides on the scooter that would be impossible on anything bigger.
And each rider will have to assess traffic. In the sticks I have the luxury of reasonably light traffic in most cases. For some suburban and urban riders the reality of traffic may absolutely preclude riding in snow. I still am amazed at how some riders negotiate big city traffic in winter. Gary Charpentier, author of Rush Hour Rambling, being one of many notable winter riders.
The last thing I consider is my riding skill and experience. The only times I’ve ever been tested on skills was on dry pavement in warm weather. Most of those skills have little bearing on snow and ice. The skills I deem important in winter are a sharp eye for road surface hazards, an ability to manage speed for conditions constantly and quickly, and being able to develop risk management solutions to navigate the journey.
In the MSF course they taught me to look far ahead on the road and evaluate hazards — mainly the course of the road and other vehicles. In snow it doesn’t work that way. You manage the road in front of you and adjust speed accordingly to deal with what you see. I can recall more than one instance of moving along a dry road and suddenly come upon a completely ice covered roadway. If I had not been managing for that I would have surely gone down.
Developing plans on how to get from point A to point B is an art. Part of it is knowing all the various routes available and what the traffic patterns and density might be. More than once I have had to put together some circuitous routes to get home from work. Or look for creative solutions to navigate a particularly steep and dangerous snow covered road. That kind of action has little resemblance to what most consider riding.
Another skill that comes in hand is sensitive braking. While riding up this snowy road I took the opportunity to play around with the front and rear brakes. The verdict remains the same. Don’t touch the front. Learn to modulate the rear. Learn to slide. Learn the limits for brake, traction and speed. I’m certain there must be an equation.
Well, those are the thoughts I had today, and this evening while looking at the pictures, related to riding in the snow. I don’t recommend this to anyone and there is ample argument in the motorcycle riding literature to avoid snow and for good reason. All I can say is be honest about your reasons, your abilities, temperament and limits. As I started up this hill which is much steeper than it looks I stopped to consider what I was getting into. I figured I might be able to get to the top but since it was a snow covered dirt path I didn’t really know what the surface would be like. And I could already feel the drive wheel break free on a minor incline. Coming down could be problematic and I didn’t want to drop the scooter on who knows what.
So I figured this was my limit. Besides, a warm house was waiting.
My final advice? Stay home when it snows. Why do I do this? I’m not sure but it is important for some reason. If I figure out an answer I’ll let you know…