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Winter motorcycle riding: safety tips for icy weather

From the Survival Skills SKILLS ON SATURDAY series on Facebook & Ko-Fi

You've probably noticed. It's cold outside. And since it's mid-January, there's still the potential for at least six weeks of pretty chilly weather before there's even a chance of it beginning to warm up at the beginning of March. So what are the top tips from Survival Skills for riding a motorcycle in icy weather?

Ice crystals
Frosty mornings are beautiful but pose us problems

If I learned one thing from far too many years of riding through the depths of the winter, in all conditions from driving snow to nights when the roads were covered in black ice to the crisp clear day when the freezing patches lurk in the shadows, it's this; if you can avoid riding, do so. Ice provides next to no grip. Even in snow, it's possible to steer and brake to some extent. Ice? Not a chance.

So first tip. Check the weather forecast.

Then if it looks bad, stay at home - that's best. If you can't manage that, make alternative plans to avoid traveling if you can. But if the roads are lethal on two wheels, they're still difficult on four. Taking the old Nissan Serena bus down to the training school rather than the bike one icy morning, I still nearly managed to stuff it up a grass bank. My plan had been to go back for the bike a bit later, when the roads had had a chance to thaw out, but when I hit a sheet of ice on a corner, I nearly didn't make it there in the people carrier. That's why I avoid going out riding in extreme weather conditions if possible.

What if you can't? What if your bike is your only means of transport? Here are the Survival Skills tip and best practices for safer winter motorcycle riding.


If you are planning on riding through the winter, the best time to fit new tyres is not for the spring. It's the other way round, in late autumn to maximise the tread for winter. Make sure the tyres are suitable for cold and wet conditions - sport touring tyres are usually a solid option. Sport tyres may work wonderfully in summer, but will be pretty rubbish when the temperature drops. Make sure the rest of the bike is in tip-top condition. Cold weather starting puts a drain on batteries, make sure the chain's in good nick and well-adjusted and ensure all the controls move smoothly.

Dress to stay warm - use layers or better yet, get a heated vest for longer runs - and make sure your protective gear is decent quality. Body armour in shoulders, elbows, hips and knees is a good idea - if the bike does go down, it's likely to be sudden and you could hit the deck hard. Make sure your visor is spotless to deal with low sun (guess what - late autumn is the best time to fit a new one) and have a clean, scratch free sun visor (if fitted) or shatterproof sunglasses. I'd avoid tinted visors as it tends to get dark, and then you can't make out issues on the surface.



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I don't often talk positively about bright and reflective clothing, but in the winter it makes sense. Day time can be dull and bikes can be difficult to pick up in flat light against the background of vehicles with day running lights. Bright clothing MIGHT help, but don't rely on it. Ditto reflective kit at night. But don't use vests, or worse, clothing with patches of colour. The former aren't easy to see when the rider's behind a screen, in front of a top box, or from the sides. The latter are worse than useless. Get a single colour jacket WITH SLEEVES. At night, the 'ghost' jackets which are all-over reflective are far superior to the stripes of reflective material on vests or riding jackets.

And if you're planning a long trip, prepare for the worst: it would be a good idea to have extra clothing, a torch and an emergency blanket, just in case.

As a courier, I always had a 'winterised' lightweight for the really bad days. I didn't worry about it getting covered in salt because it was already covered in grease, and at under 150 kg (330 lbs) it was easy to pick up WHEN, not if, I dropped it.

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Out on the road, consider your speed. If we need to double our stopping distance on wet roads (where the ice has melted) it'll be up to ten times longer to stop on ice. Reducing speed, keeping a good distance from vehicles ahead and being prepared for sudden stops where it matters is the key to avoiding lock-ups.

Be smooth on the controls. If you have any doubts about the surface under the wheels avoid sharp inputs - steer, brake, change gear and accelerate smoothly. Even with ABS, triggering it will make you tense up. Make sure the bike is upright before braking or accelerating - that way, if a tyre does lose traction, the bike will still be going in a straight line and you'll have a better chance of recovering, even with electronic stability aids. And it should be pretty obvious that modest lean angles are less likely to provoke a mid-corner slide too.

Gritter in icy landscape
Gritters help keep main roads free of ice - but won't go on back roads

Always be aware of the road conditions. If there's ice on car roofs, then it's below freezing. If you pass a gritting lorry, it's a good clue the council expect a hard freeze and it's time to watch out for ice. Remember - even if main roads have received anti-ice treatments, it's unlikely to have been used on minor rural roads or residential streets. Even if the sun's up and the ice is beginning to melt on grass and house roofs, watch out in shady areas, and anywhere the road tends to stay wet. One local lane in Kent used to be impassable in freezing conditions because of a spring in a field - the water used to run down a hill and create a sheet of ice which could be there for days. I've nearly come a cropper in a housing estate where half the residents had carefully washed their cars on Sunday. The road stayed wet and next morning as I was on the way to pick up a parcel from a private house, I came round a corner straight onto a sheet of ice.

Black ice in particular is very hard to spot - it looks like a wet road. It forms in very specific conditions - after a wet afternoon or evening when the sky clears and the stars come out. The temperature drops rapidly, and the wet surface turns icy. I encountered a sheet of black ice at 4am on a January morning on the way home from a blood run. I'd changed gear twice before I realised that the reason the revs were shooting up wasn't because I had missed a gear - it was the rear wheel spinning on the invisible ice. The only thing that saved me from a crash was the fact the bike was upright when I hanged gear. I was also fortunate that it was a short stretch of black ice and I rolled off it onto a less-icy surface.


Personally, I'm quite happy riding in cold weather, because I have the kit to stay warm. But I'm happy to confess that icy conditions make me twitchy. So don't let icy weather ruin your ride, but don't downplay the risks either. Apply these winter motorcycle safety tips and start with the first - it's always better to avoid riding in icy conditions if possible. And if you genuinely can't, then make sure to take these straightforward extra precautions.

Oh, and before I forget. If you have been out in the ice and the bike's covered in salt, you're going to have to clean it, or expect it to be covered in rust in hours rather than days. That's another good reason not to ride your pride and joy in the worst weather.



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