Winter can be a hard mistress for riders, and a down right bitch to your bike, especially if you’re the kind of rider that like’s to keep going no matter how crappy the weather. Short trips, low temperatures and roads covered in a toxic mix of salt, sand and snow can really tear up your bike if you’re not careful. But with a little extra care and a good preventive maintenance program, you can thumb your nose at old man winter, and keep riding when lesser men have tucked their bikes away until spring. Here are a few simple tips for making the season as painless as possible.
Winter is hard on batteries, even more so when the bike sees only occasional use or is ridden on lots of short trips. Make sure the terminals are perfectly clean and keep that sucker plugged into the charger anytime the bike isn’t being used. If you’re running lots of electrical accessories, consider installing a voltmeter or battery monitor to keep tabs on the charging system. And, if the battery is an old-style flooded cell type, make sure it’s topped off with distilled water, before the cold weather hits.
It goes without saying that liquid cooled motorcycles should have their coolant checked: it should be able to protect your engine to at least 20 below zero (F). If you can’t recall the last time it was changed, do it before the cold weather hits.
The stuff they’re currently peddling at the pumps these days can only loosely be defined as gasoline. Even under the best of conditions it’s barely palatable. One problem is that it’s laced with lots of ethanol and ethanol is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water from the atmosphere. During the warmer months, it’s not that big a deal. Most of us probably burn at least a tank a week, so the water goes straight out the exhaust. In the winter, it’s just the opposite; even the most hard core among us don’t ride every day, so any entrained water settles in the tank and fuel system creating all kinds of mischief. The fuel also degrades over time, creating gum like deposits in the carburetor and fuel nozzles, which can cause real maintenance issues. The simple solution is to drop a few ounces of gas preservative (I prefer STA-BIL) into that tank before each fill up, and to keep the tank fuel, which prevents condensation from forming inside the tank, that way if you hit a bad stretch and the bikes sits for a few weeks, or more. Doing so means you won’t have to wonder what that crap in the tank is doing to the fuel system.
Tires are always important, that much is obvious, but even more so in the winter when traction can be dodgy. Watch the pressures and the tread depth. As far as the latter goes, make sure you’ve got at least 50% of the tread left before venturing out on winter roads, or leave the bike parked. Some of my hard core winter riding buddies go so far as to stud their tires, that’s great if you’re riding on dirt roads, hard pack snow or ice, but not so handy on dry pavement. If you do go that route be careful on clear roads, at least until you figure out how the studded tires work on asphalt.
As part of the normal combustion process all engines create some pretty nasty byproducts, mainly acids, water and carbon that make their way into and are held in suspension by the engine oil. It’s pretty nasty stuff and not healthy for the engine, but as the mill warms the majority of them are evaporated out of the oil, and one way or another make their way out of the engine. Unfortunately, during the winter, short rides and frigid temperatures may prevent the engine from warming up enough to evaporate the gunk, so it becomes entrained in the oil. When enough of it contaminates the oil, the oil starts to break down, which I’m sure we’d all agree is a bad thing. The solution is to change the oil and filter at half the recommend interval during the winter months, especially if your trips are very short, and be sure to use the factory’s recommended viscosity. Normally a lighter viscosity oil is specified for cold weather riding. The lighter oil eases starting chores, allows the engine to warm up somewhat quicker and flows better when it’s cold, which provides better protection during start up and short trips.
The bike’s cosmetics can take a real beating on winter roads; frequent washing helps, but for many, a weekly scrubbing just ain’t in the cards. When I can’t bucket-wash my bike, I hit the do-it-yourself car wash, and in between I keep the bright bits and the paint work well soused with WD-40. The WD (or any other moisture displacing lubricant) will do a decent job of forestalling rust and won’t attract dirt like a heavy grease might. Just remember to keep it away from the tires, grips and foot pegs. You might also want to hit the underside of your bike with one of the salt neutralizers that are on the market. I haven’t tried them on my bike, yet, but I’ve used them to great effect on my Jeep.
Lastly, winter roads are slick, visibility is low and car drivers have the windows up and the radio on. Most are preoccupied with a million things, like the winter holidays, screaming kids, and staying warm. The last thing they expect to see on the road is a motorcycle, so reduce your speed, wear a reflective jacket or helmet and be careful: it’s a jungle, or maybe an artic wasteland out there.