raving the latest ‘Beast from the East’ – especially in London – is a simple matter for drivers. But for motorcyclists – especially those who need to carry on riding throughout winter – it can be hazardous, demanding a different mindset, different kit – and different riding skills.
Car drivers have four points of contact with the road and sit inside heated metal and glass ‘shells’ but motorcyclists have just two tyres for grip and can struggle to stay warm, which is essential for maintaining concentration.
Richard Gladman, IAM RoadSmart’s Head of Driving & Riding Standards advises: “Staying warm is essential; your extremities will be uncomfortable when they get cold and detract from your concentration. When your core gets colder your concentration will fall off a cliff.”
Mr Gladman, a highly trained former police driver, adds: “Even if you are not riding in extreme cold, wind chill can be serious at 70mph.”
Many riders see panniers and top-boxes as summer touring kit but they are invaluable in winter too. It’s not always possible to gauge impending weather conditions right along your route so – no matter what you wear when departing, you may need to re-think en-route.
I had sturdy aluminium ‘luggage’ fitted to the Honda Africa Twin press bike I’ve been testing. The large 42-litre lockable top box is great but can be filled by stashing your crash helmet, gloves and water bottle while parking, leaving little extra space for winter essentials.
With the addition of cavernous 33 and 37-litre top-loading left and right lockable panniers, I can pack an extra fleece and other layers to slip under my jacket if temperatures plummet and – crucially in wet weather – spare gloves.
Other useful winter riding items to pack include something to clean your helmet visor with, as road grime can swiftly make safe, clear vision impossible. Another useful addition is a balaclava to wear inside the crash helmet in case it gets really cold, something to clean your motorcycle’s lights with and extra waterproofs.
Alternatively – if you’ve overdone the layers on departure and overheat – panniers are useful for stashing clothing. On the Honda Africa Twin the £1,270 panniers are superb; tough enough to withstand a topple, detachable in seconds, lockable, lightweight and perfect to sit on while performing basic bike maintenance.
If panniers hamper filtering through London traffic, consider a tank bag or tail bag. The cheapest option however is a stretchy luggage net such as Oxford’s £9.99 Bright Net. Secured with hooks and stretched over the seat, it’s ideal for stowing back-up wet or cold weather gear. They’re cheap, easy to use and reflective too for safety.
Bike maintenance is essential in winter, especially for tyres, brakes and lights. London riders, for whom a garage is usually an unheard-of luxury, can turn to motorcycle specialists such as Oxford for bike covers such as the thick, padded ‘Stormex’, that keeps your bike clean and dry through winter.
Costing £69.99 – less than a week’s garage rental – the rugged Stormex saves you wiping away rain or frost and the soft, heat-resistant lining reduces scratching. Covers deter thieves too but lock them on – I’ve had two stolen at the roadside in London.
“A layer of road grime can hide all sorts of problems and the last thing you want is to break down when it’s cold,” says Gladman. “Clean and maintain the bike, consider a winterising spray which will prevent corrosion and make cleaning easier.”
It’s wise to adjust motorcycle riding skills in winter. Says Mr Gladman: “Beware of microclimates on major routes which have been gritted, and avoid minor ones which may not have had council attention. Normally we love routes with no cars but when there’s frost they spread the salt and help with de-icing.”
Adds Mr Gladman: “If you see ice ahead (good effort for spotting it) try to ride in as straight a line as possible if you have to go over it. Don’t brake through the ice; antilock braking (ABS) is ineffective as the bits where the wheel does brake give little or no retardation. If you encounter ice on a bend aim to reduce the curve, stay upright and do not panic. If you have space there will probably be more grip available on the grass than on the ice, but the best way to avoid it is not to be there in the first place. A motorcycle should bring a smile to your face and in icy conditions it won’t.”
No matter how many layers you squeeze under a standard motorcycle jacket, it might not be enough when temperatures hit freezing, as they have done in London recently. Winter riding kit isn’t a luxury; it’s a must if you want to remain warm and safe.
Few equipment manufacturers have invested as much research into beating the cold as Italian firm Dainese, which specialises in cutting edge safety gear for sportsmen (including multiple MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi) and on-road motorcyclists too. Its R&D programme has created some of the highest-performing winter weather gear on the market. The clue with its latest gear is in the name: ‘Antartica’ (complete with Italian spelling), ‘for riders crossing the coldest lands on the planet’. In other words, it’s perfect for British winter.
By far the warmest gear I’ve tested, the jacket and pants incorporate extreme thermal qualities, alongside a GoreTex membrane for water-proofing. Central to the superbly engineered jacket, incorporating external adjustable lumbar belt, special pockets for storing gloves and reassuring back, elbow and shoulder armour – is the removable, ‘squashy’ goose down inner layer designed for temperatures right down to -25C. Capable of being worn on its own on arrival, this stashable layer fits snugly, warmly and comfortably inside the abrasion-resistant jacket without bunching or snagging, thanks to its shiny surface.
This state-of-the-art jacket, with two inner waterproof pockets, removable stormguard collar, removable thermal collar and reflective patches, even has advanced neoprene cuffs; perfect for keeping out wind, rain and cold, and costs from around £1,000 online. As well as a stout back protector, it has a chest protector compartment; even the vents are highly engineered with sophisticated, waterproof TIZIP zips.
The matching pants, with useful braces and belt loops, complete the winter protection with their own comfortable removable goose down lining, the same abrasion-resistant outer shell as the jacket, plus stout hip and knee armour in case of winter tumbles. Best of all is the double neoprene ankle cuff, one layer outside, one layer inside your boots for ultimate winter-proofing. For safety and even more winter protection, the pants, (from £634) can be zipped to the jacket.
In freezing temperatures in and around London the Antartica gear performed brilliantly, proving super-toasty and comfortable. It is flexible enough to allow free, easy movement and in torrential downpours proved totally impregnable to rain. Its high adjustability makes it ideal for keeping alert during cold weather riding.
The only crash helmet I’ve encountered that includes a purpose-built winter lining is AGV’s ‘SportModular’, from around £340. It’s a neat trick: flip the lining to ‘warm’ in winter (warm enough to dispense with a balaclava in most conditions) then flip to ‘cool’ in summer. It weighs a superlight 1,295 grammes thanks to advanced carbon fibre construction and has one of the best quality visors in the business, using an efficient locking system that holds it shut – or open one notch for ventilation. The visor aperture is extra wide and – in challenging London traffic – gives a particularly safe field of vision. The lining is super-plush, sound-deadening is at least as good as with any other helmet I’ve tried and the adjustable ventilation feeds in huge gulps of air. It’s stable at high speed, exceedingly comfortable and – even in recent harsh conditions – warm. The whole ensemble – including carbon fibre flip-front chin piece – is constructed to a very high quality.
Feet, ankles and calves are particularly cold and injury-prone in winter. Dainese invested huge sums into providing protective gear for high-speed racers, so it makes sense to follow suit on the road. Their best winter boots are the sturdy leather Centauris, designed to tackle harsh winter conditions with GoreTex waterproofing, extra ankle reinforcement inside and out, strengthened toe cap, shin protection and tough ski boot-style metal fasteners. Despite being some of the toughest winter boots in the business, they break in fast, are supple and reasonably lightweight. Buy them slightly on the large side (from around £272), to accommodate thick socks and they’ll help keep you safe and warm through winter.
Nothing gets colder than your hands on a bike but heated grips – like those on the Honda Africa Twin that get super-hot – help enormously. So do good gloves and they don’t come much warmer than Dainese’s highly technical £149.95 Scout 2s, which pack in thermal efficiency without being cumbersome; essential for maintaining fine bike control. Needing little breaking in, these soft but tough GoreTex gloves proved totally waterproof in heavy downpours, while the Primaloft lining kept my fingers warm. For finger and knuckle protection there are Techno inserts along with polyurethane palm inserts. They have ‘Smart Touch’ – so you don’t need to remove them in the cold for phone tasks; there’s even a built-in visor wiper.
If you can’t afford new gear just remember Mr Gladman’s advice: “Expensive kit that doesn’t fit properly will not be as effective as a well-fitting less expensive attire. Flapping waterproofs can be a distraction and the slightest ingress of water in cold conditions will speed up the journey to ‘your bones being cold’. You can stay dry for ages but once the first drop finds its way in it flows like a river.”