Cold Weather Motorcycle Riding

Winter motorcycle riding

Motorcycle parked out in the snow

It’s not necessarily easy, but cold weather, winter riding is definitely doable. Though much of the U.S. has been experiencing somewhat of an Indian Summer, Beijing has still been pretty cold this winter, as low as 5 degrees Farenheit (-15C), however that hasn’t stopped me from commuting daily on my Jincheng JC250-6!

The single biggest danger when riding in the winter is probably black ice, which is an ice patch that blends in with the color of the pavement and thus you have no idea what’s coming when you hit it. Luckily for me though Beijing has been almost entirely devoid of moisture and so the bitter cold and harsh winds have been the only challenges I’ve had to contend with.

To get a good breakdown of tips for winter riding, I highly recommend reading book Proficient Motorcycling: The Guide to Riding Well by David L. Hough. This is a book that I think every motorcycle rider should have to read, and not just for winter riding, but for tips and techniques that any rider can and should implement even on their daily commute. There also just so happens to be a good chapter on winter riding in the book.

The coldest I’ve ever been on a bike was on my trip around the U.S. in 2010 when i was going through Glacier National Park in October. I woke up that morning with the inside of my tent completely covered in a layer of frost and after about 1 or 2 hours of riding, I was praying for an open diner to be able to stop at and rest my nearly frost-bitten hands. Unfortunately, I wasn’t properly prepared for the subzero weather in the mountains. Luckily it’s not often one rides through conditions like that, particularly not for the extended periods of time I was riding for. Below are some tips to use to keep warm for the more reasonable rides.

Some Cold Weather Solutions:

The Hi-tech Route

One very good and solution for keeping warm, though not necessarily the most economical, is having heated gear. This is a system where you can actually plug in your clothing, like your jacket and gloves, into your motorcycle’s battery and electrically warm yourself up. I was able to test this out once borrowing my dad’s gear, and it is definitely a very comfortable way to travel in freezing temperature. I don’t have too much experience with these (I think my dad’s heated gear was by Harley), so any reviews or recommendations in the comments below are welcome.

Lo-Tech

The Stig in China

Has The Stig from Top Gear made an appearance in China?

Generally though, particularly in China, more lo-tech solutions tend to be the only available option. The important thing to keep in mind when you’re planning out your cold weather outfit is that you want to block out the wind. The wind is what will really make riding unbearable as it seeps through any opening it can. With this in mind, for my torso, I’ve generally found my leather jacket to be more than enough in almost any situation for my day-to-day commute. This keeps the wind out enough so that a sweater and scarf are usually enough to keep me warm otherwise on the inside of the jacket.

Legs

Likewise, for the legs, keeping the wind off of you is the primary goal. One of the most common strategies for this is to get a pair of leather chaps. Like the jacket, leather is good for keeping the wind off you, not to mention they complete the “biker” look. However, if you don’t have access or available funds for a pair of chaps, a good pair of rain pants will also do the trick. They’re easy to throw over your boots and pants, and it’s usually enough to keep most of the wind out. I find I don’t even need long underwear when I have my rain pants on.

Winter Leg Protection

My leg protection for the winter: Rain pants and Chinese shin guards

The Face and Neck

This is actually the easiest part of the body to keep warm I find. For those of you that prefer to wear bucket helmets, you might have a little more trouble. Having my full face helmet for the winter riding is invaluable, though I have to lift up my visor when I stop at lights since it will fog up extremely quickly. In addition to the helmet, one of my favorite pieces of cold weather equipment is my Polar Buff. For those who don’t know, the Buff is a essentially a cloth tube that can be worn in many different ways for a variety of functions including a skull cap, do-rag, hair tie, sweat band, neck warmer, balaclava, and more. The Polar Bluff is the same thing but the bottom quarter of the buff is polar fleece so it’s extra warm. This is great on the bike as I wear it as a balaclava with the fleece covering my neck and the added benefit of covering the top of my head and my mouth. After strapping on a face mask (or in my case my Respro mask for the pollution.), my face, neck, and head are toasty and cozy!

The Hands

The hands are without a doubt the most important part of the body for riding a motorcycle and so of course the hardest to sufficiently keep warm. I’ve found though that generally for the purposes of my 20 minute commute a good, hardy pair of winter, skiing gloves, lined with thinner cloth ones, will keep me warm enough that circulation is back to normal within 5-10 minutes after the ride. Longer than 30 minutes though and the gloves are thoroughly saturated with cold and feeling quickly starts draining from my hands.

The Chinese Solution

Motorcycle Riding Gloves

The Chinese style riding gloves mounted on my bike's handle bars

The Chinese however have a solution for this! As it is a Chinese solution, it is both cheap and relatively practical. These are ubiquitous on scooter and motorcycle riders in Beijing in the winter and are known as 手套 (shou3tao4), which really just means “gloves” but the ones used for motorcycles actually are more like giant oven mitts than gloves. They are big enough to fit over your hands, the grip of the bike, and the handles for brake and clutch and are usually lined with fake fur or fluff (which of course begins shedding almost immediately). They come in pairs, one for the left and right sides of the handlebar. These are actually incredible at how well they work as they essentially block out all of the wind. You feel almost invincible with how much cold you can endure. That said, I have found that I prefer to just use gloves because, even though the Chinese solution is warm, it is still the case that on a motorcycle, with grips that take up more room than on a scooter, I have too little mobility with my hands as my ability to turn is somewhat hindered as well as that it is much more difficult to get to my signals switch and horn.

The last piece of Chinese equipment are called 护膝 (hu4 xi1) in Chinese, which means “protect knee” (even though many of them don’t even go over your knee). These are pretty simply shinguards made of fabric and padding. They do a good job of keeping the wind off the part of your leg that gets hit with the most of it and they have a bit of extra insulation.

What’s great about these two items is that they are pretty easy to find and cheap to buy. I just had to go to a nearby underground Chinese market, pick out which ones I wanted and paid RMB 75 (about $12) for the gloves and shin guards.

If there are any other readers that continue to ride in the winter, we’d love to hear about your experiences and strategies for keeping warm. What’s the coldest weather you’ve ever ridden in?

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