Riding In The Cold

I was contacted recently by a fellow biker who moved to Maryland from Hawaii. Riding in Maryland is significantly different from Hawaii — the least of which is Hawaii’s tropical weather.

Back here in the Mid-Atlantic, I would not say that summertime riding is “tropical.” More like “seasonal” with intense heat and humidity from mid-May through the end of September. Likewise, in the shoulder riding season (mid-March to mid-May and October through mid-November), riders usually experience pleasant temperatures and lower humidity.

But between mid-November through mid-March in Maryland, we experience riding weather that…

…takes preparation to manage.

The first thing to know is that “wind chill” is a perception, rather than an actual thing. While it may feel okay to wear denim jeans and a light jacket whilst walking around when the temperatures are in the 40s (7C), such clothing is unacceptable when exposed to the wind astride your ride.

According to this chart:which is about as reliable as any other, it shows that once the ambient air temperatures are in the mid-40s (F, 7s C), the actual air temperature “feels like” it is below freezing. No, riding in cold temperatures will not cause your blood to freeze, BUT it will cause severe hypothermia to happen quickly, which can be deadly.

Note that wind does NOT actually reduce the temperature at all — a “wind chill” is the perception of cold that a biker feels on his body. Wind chill is one of the most controversial non-sciences among the weather community.

Regardless, many of us Mid-Atlantic bikers have learned the hard way: layers of gear reduce the effects of feeling bone-chilling cold because air is a good insulator, so trapping air between layers of leather wards off the feeling of the cold.

Okay, then, you wear a t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and maybe even a sweater under your leather jacket. So the core of the body is okay.

You wear layers over your jeans — such as chaps or leather jeans over long underwear (my preference)… so the legs are okay (mostly).

But now those places where cold air leaks and chills the rider: hands, feet and head.

Cold hands are managed well with good gloves. I wear gloves lined with Kevlar for protection, and wool for wicking away sweat. Some of my riding buddies also have heated gloves that they plug into their bike’s electrical system. They also make heated grips. Much like a heated steering wheel, heated grips keep the hands warm without frying them.

The best way to deal with cold feet is to wear tri-fabric socks that include wool. Or even get a pair of heated socks to keep your toes warm. (I don’t have heated gear, because when it is “that” cold out, I wuss out and get in my truck.) Not to mention: really good motorcycle boots. Boots that fit well and over jeans, pants, or breeches work best for riding in the cold.

Up around the head and neck, though, air can seep in through the collar and chill your core and face. During winter riding season, I deal with that by: 1) wearing a full-face helmet — sure keeps the cold away from the face; and 2) wearing a balaclava, such as shown here. This head garment keeps the head warm and the wind away from the neck. It is worn under the collar and a helmet.

Add a good pair of well-fitted eye protection, and one can ride in cold weather comfortably almost all day, depending on a rider’s tolerance for the cold.

I have several balaclavas that I have acquired over the years and they work great. The only thing that I do not like about a balaclava is that when I stop at a traffic signal or the end of a ride, my head begins to sweat like crazy and I fog up inside my helmet.

Then the final component of handling cold weather riding is mental: if you dwell on “how cold it feels” then it feels colder than it really is. Instead, concentrate on how comfortable you feel dressed in layers, wearing warm socks in a pair of good boots, and a full-face helmet with a balaclava. And man, you’ll fit right in with the Mid-Atlantic Bikers — a tough breed who know how to deal with the cold.

Life is short: be prepared to ride in all seasons.