Sunday, January 19, 2014

A cold day for a motorcycle ride

How cold is too cold to take a 20-mile ride on the motorcycle? 50? 40? 32? 25? How about 15?

I'm sure it's been done by somebody somewhere who lived to tell about riding in even colder weather than 15 Fahrenheit, and for longer distances than 20 miles each direction, but for me this was a first. I knew that a motorcycle trip was do-able, from discussions with others, but as the day approached when I might actually need to make the trip, I thought I'd better get ready.

The matter at hand was a semi-annual Toastmasters convention involving participants from about a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh. I motorcycled to last January's event, too, but that was on a day when it was 40 to 45, not 15, even if it was twice the distance. This time, it was a simple 21-mile ride straight up Perry Highway, four right turns from driveway to driveway. But how to prepare for that kind of cold? The weather forecast all week changed remarkably little: a bit of snow overnight, with a low of 12 to 15. The snow might be a deal breaker, but the cold was not, so I got ready.

First thing, a week out, I made sure I could get the bike started. The last I rode it was just after I got the tire fixed around Thanksgiving, so last Saturday, I made a short trip into West View. Three out, three back. It ran fine. Next, twice during the week, I rode it into the city, about 10 to 12 miles each way. This was to test riding in chilly, though not frigid, weather. I wanted to see what got cold. Gloves were an issue, as was some exposed skin around face, wrists and ankles. Getting feet and hands wet was itself a deal breaker, even in five miles. It was good that I practiced.

Saturday morning, I got up very early, prior to 5:00, and set to work getting the bike ready. Even before breakfast, I wanted to make sure it would start. No new snow since last evening, so the (one) road would be fine. Overnight temp: 14F. The engine turned over, but even on a good day it's hard to start. It wasn't long before the battery gave out, so again, even before breakfast, I dug out the long extension cord and battery charger, and got that humming. Only then did I have breakfast, shave, and so forth. It started easily enough with a good hour on the charger. I let it warm up while I set out my riding gear.

Getting dressed properly was paramount. I would be in a high school all day among casually dressed professionals, so figured on it being rather chilly but prepared for overheating. Schools can be like that. So, layers, but look nice. What I wore to work on Friday would be fine for the publicly visible layer.

Under that, I donned long johns top and bottom, with three pairs of socks. Innermost was wool, so as to wick away any moisture from my feet, particularly perspiration. Next was a tall pair of socks, possibly belonging to my wife or daughter, which went nearly up to my knees, for the earlier concern about wind exposure around my shins and ankles. Third, just another layer for warmth, but also to secure the bottom of the longjohns. Getting all this into my shoes took more than the usual amount of loosening laces, but it got done.

Top half, just the usual T-shirt, LJ top, and dress shirt, but then also a thick vest. I looked for my motorcycle rain gear to go over everything but managed to misplace it, so donned a set of waist-to-ankle bright orange waders with suspenders, which held everything together quite well. Over the top went my motorcycle rain jacket, which does an OK job of being a windbreaker as well. Add a knitted gaiter and balaclava, and I was just about ready.

Final things: helmet, gloves, and plastic covers for my hands and feet. Being pure ghetto, I went for plain old grocery bags for the feet (again, could not find my motorcycle rain boots) and the long bags newspapers come in to go over my hands and arms up to my elbows. With everything tied in place, out the door I went. The last I looked at the thermometer, it said 15F.

I knew in the first half mile that things were going to work, not even needing adjustment. Nothing even chilly a mile out. Two miles out, I could tell that I wouldn't last 100 miles on the very ends of my fingers, and there was a bit too much breeze around my eye sockets, but I could make it 20. Around mile 10, my fingertips were uncomfortable, but not dangerously so, and I was beginning to feel like I'd like this to be over soon. The last mile, I was still in much better shape than wet Wednesday night when my hands froze four miles out of downtown with seven to go. I arrived, parked the bike, pulled off my foot and hand covering, and walked in like I owned the world.

Once inside, I found a nice corner and peeled off all the extraneous layers, which rolled up into a ball I could stash in my helmet. I might have been an orange and yellow astronaut going up Perry Highway (oh, the looks on some people's faces, some of whom followed me into the parking lot), but inside, I looked normal enough.

I was cold, but not dangerously so. Two cups of hot coffee, the first chugged as quickly as I could get it in me, got me stable enough to conduct business. I wasn't late, but I would not have minded getting there 30 minutes sooner. Stupid battery.

Six hours later, it had only warmed to 19, and true to form, the bike wouldn't start. I had gotten back into the riding gear quickly enough, but then got overheated trying to push start it in the parking lot. Twenty minutes of frustration. Eventually, with a little help, it was running, so I re-donned the bags and was on my way. One of the grocery bags sliced open in the cold, so was troublesome in trying to stay on my feet. This was a bit of a problem, as there was still some standing snow in the driving lanes, and I really did not want my foot to get wet. I finally threw in the towel about three miles from home and stuffed it in my right hand to finish the last five minutes. Other than that, the trip went fine.

Back at home, I parked the bike and went in, feeling quite normal, not chilled beyond what one cup of something hot would serve in recovery.

Mission accomplished. If I had to do it over again, I would make sure I had proper hand and foot coverings, but I could surely handle 20, and likely a lot more mileage, and/or a lot colder.


  1. How I prepared for a super cold ride. Success!

  2. Great job !! I was riding last year down to 20 degrees wearing a similar outfit. I traveled up to 110 miles with a stop halfway through. I got pretty cold. You might want to consider a battery tender for your bike ... it's $30 well spent as your bike will always start and the battery will last longer.