Riding All The Seasons: A Winter’s Tale
In the first of a four-part series on riding all year round, Parker Braithwaite was going to share his wisdom on riding a motorcycle through winter. Then he remembered it can actually be a right old drama.
‘It’s an art to live with pain… mix the light into grey.’
I don’t remember seeing the car pull out of the side road. I don’t remember flying through the air like a rag doll or the precise moment that my ankle snapped- for a second time. Honestly, I don’t remember much of the accident or through what process I came to be laying in the middle of the road, flat on my back with the harsh cold of the tarmac stinging my backside. But I do remember the sounds inside my helmet; the guttural groans and panicked breaths, gasping but never quite catching them. I also remember thinking to myself, as my awareness of the pain came to the fore, why don’t I just get a bloody car…
Act 1. Urgh
‘We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’
-John F Kennedy
The frigid breath of Jack Frost has frozen the ponds, rivers, fields, forests and roads of Great Britain. A crisp white sheet of ice covers our island home, the cold air sucking life from the land. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
While most people, sensible people, huddle under blankets in bed, their loved ones by their side; there are a select few who brave the weather and sneeze in the face of Mr Frost. Those few are the motorcycle commuters.
Whizzing past warmly lit windows and frost dusted roofs, the intrepid two-wheeled few motor on regardless. They dream of warmer days, glorious summers past and those still to come. But it takes a rarer rider still to appreciate the finer joys of winter riding.
I am certainly not among this select elite. I detest winter riding and all the pains that go with it. But I ride on through it all, not because I enjoy it but because I am a biker. So to hell with the weather; I will ride for passion and pride while secretly mocking the fair weather majority. Even if I envy them in their comfortable cars with their climate control and comfy massage seats. Often, while stopped at traffic lights, I find myself staring across at the car next to me, longing for the vacant passenger seat and warmth. But then I catch sight of the driver digging something out of his nose and the daydream melts- unlike the immovable iceberg that has already formed in my crotch this morning.
The air temp gauge reads ‘-1.5℃’ as I arrive at the office car park. I pull up on the 765 RS and gingerly remove my gloves. I have to flex my aching fingers to get the blood flowing again and can hear my ice filled veins crack and creak. Thankfully I have managed to ward off frostbite, for at least one more day.
I need better winter gloves. My previous ones had worn out last year and I haven’t yet bothered to replace them, instead relying on my cheap temporary gloves from two years ago. Akin to ice hockey gloves I can barely operate the clutch and brake levers and, to make things worse, the liner comes away every time I take them off. The novelty of poking it back in with pens and sticks, or anything long and thin (insert penis joke here), wore off faster than chocolate underwear on a hot day. So, by far the best advice I can give is: never buy kit online until you have tried it in a shop first. Simples.
I think about removing my helmet but, unwilling to deal with the moist mess of condensation and residue from another bout of sneezing, it stays on for now; I will wipe that clean before I put it back on tonight, lest I forget and curse my lack of personal hygiene the whole way home.
The short few steps to the front door help to thaw out my feet but my toes protest against the movement, the skin feeling tight and ready to split. Wearing my summer boots was a mistake. The fact that they were cheap is the only good thing about them- sure they offer good flexibility but at the price of warmth and protection. My left ankle, mostly metal now after a series of accidents, refuses to articulate forcing me to limp towards salvation.
The relief is palpable as I step into the office, greeted by the soft hum of the heating. I de-kit as quickly as possible and hug the nearest radiator, embracing it as if it were the missus. The ensuing comfort and warmth help settle my nerves from another fraught journey of slips and slides and, gently-gently, easy does it throttle control. After having thread the proverbial eye through hedge-lined B-roads in the early pre-dawn light; dodging patches of ice, manhole covers and suspiciously crispy looking piles of leaf mulch; I mutter a silent prayer to the Gods, and Pirelli, thanking them for their mercy as I roast my chestnuts on the heating.
Sarah comes into the office to be greeted by the sight of me in loving tangle with the radiator, blissfully emitting a highly suggestive noise of pleasure. Not even slightly perturbed she asks that often heard but seldom considered question, ‘Why don’t you just get a car?’
I look down at my bright red hands, the skin dry and flaking, and see a drop of mucus fall from my nose. I sniff the rest up quickly but refrain from wiping. My red-raw nose is likely to fall off with the slightest interference. I offer her a shrug in response and she sets about the beginning of her day. I still need another few minutes to defrost while daydreaming about my 765 (RS).
It is important to know that the 765 (RS) is not my winter bike, in fact she is brand new and far too nice to face the ravages of the icy British roads, but I have no choice. I ride her today because my poor little SV has succumbed to a salt-induced coma and coughed up the dreaded FI warning on the dash.
Disheartened, I elected not to spend my evenings toiling in a cold garage, trying to isolate the presumed wiring fault amongst the crusty crud of four years all-weather commuting and palmed it off on to my mechanic.
I offered my apologies to Pete when I dropped off the bike and assured him that I felt his pain, but I know he didn’t believe me. I feel equally bad for the SV as she has been a good friend over the years. Once my pride and joy, she has now been relegated to sacrificial lamb status and replaced by the Triumph as the apple of my eye. (She is an RS after all)…
My phone vibrates in my pocket and I feel it- At last, some sensation is returning to my body. I disengage from the radiator and carefully delve into my pocket, my still frozen hands set the nimble task of retrieving my phone, producing a wince or two from the glacier that is my face.
The message is from Pete; ‘The bike is fixed. £300 and the oil cooler could do with replacing’. I had prepared for this eventuality a few months previously and bought a donor cooler complete with lines but had not yet had the resolve to fit it. I regret my procrastination now as the weather app taunts me, showing minus figures this evening and for every night hereafter. It looks as though my plan to avoid a cold evening in the garage has been thwarted.
I feel a tinge of guilt, again; I should have looked after the SV better. I make the solemn promise that the 765 will be doted on and pampered by microfibre cloth rub downs, protective oil massages and probably even spa days. (Have I mentioned that she’s an RS?)…
Act 2. Grrrr
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’
I reach my desk and wake the computer as it’s time to exercise the fingers and ready-up for a thousand emails to be followed by a million pointless and uninspiring phone calls; the mundanity of my working life completely juxtaposed by my other, preferred life as a biker.
During one particularly long and sleep-inducing phone call, the small and occasional drip from my nose becomes a full-on torrent that no amount of sniffing will hold back. The steady thaw has broken the dam, and the resulting pile of tissues around my desk and bin begins to worry the health and safety height regulations. I make my excuses to end the phone call and dash off to fetch my next consignment from Kleenex.
Somewhat able to breathe again, I take this opportunity to nip outside and get my morning dose of nicotine. The irony of this not lost on me while I stomp my feet and huddle against the cold. The clouds, an ominous light grey, cover the sky and I fear the deluge of snow that the smiling TV weatherman had promised this morning- his smile seemingly warm and genuine at the time appears perverse upon reflection. Alas, his threat is yet to be fulfilled. I shudder and turn to head back inside, walking the walk of shame as the only smoker in the office.
Matt, with two sachets of lemsip in hand, catches me at the door and offers me one. I graciously accept and we head towards the kitchen. He offers idol chit and pointless chat until we hit the meat of the subject; ‘Has Stefan released the invoice yet?’. I shake my head and express my exasperation in the form of a downward glance and shrugged shoulders. He smiles back with a knowing expression and concedes; nothing will get done now, a few days before Christmas. He hands me a mug and I inhale deeply, closing my eyes to better enjoy the sensation. He then parts with a warning; ‘Don’t forget the Christmas meal this evening’.
Bugger! I had forgotten.
The meal is at half seven but I have already agreed to pick up the SV from Pete this evening. This is his last day before he buggers off to Jerez over the holiday (the lucky git) and I really do need the SV back. I do the calculations in my head; finish work at five, get home at six, have the missus take me to Petes by seven, ride back… I will never make it. The promise of a night of free food and beer in tatters. What’s more, I still need to inform the missus that she is taking me up to Petes and I feel a drawn-out series of negotiations coming on, but I have very little left to trade – she has bailed me out more times than I can count over the past few years.
The phone calls and emails finally end, the working day is done. I pack up, construct my clothing (an artform of itself, mashing engineering with post-modern expressionist dance) and head out into the ice caps for the ride home. Thankfully the clouds have not yet opened but in the snow’s absence hangs a thin layer of fog that thickens with every passing minute. The ride home, cold and unhygienic- I had forgotten to wipe my helmet- was remarkably unremarkable, and, with little to no hold-ups, I reach the sanctuary of home in good time. But, still, I am reduced to a shivering, mucus-producing wreck.
I pile into the missus’ car in full kit and crank the heat up to eleven. We had finalised the negotiations earlier whereby this evenings lift would be reimbursed through hard labour in the form of DIY, washing up and housework for a week; she is a hard negotiator.
But the journey is pleasant. The warmth, the radio, the distinct lack of peril and amazing headlights all seem alien to me as we effortlessly, and safely, traverse the tight and twisty Suffolk B-roads towards Pete’s place. I found myself not wanting to arrive knowing that I would have to exit this protective bubble and hurl myself at the night on the ride back home, but c’est la vie.
Act 3. F**k
‘From error to error one discovers the entire truth.’
We arrive and I shuffle out of the car and over to the garage door. I can hear Pete inside busily tinkering with a bike; the tell-tale clink of tools on the floor as I knock and let myself in.
Pete’s garage is a thing to behold. He’s not just a mechanic but also a bike builder. He builds and maintains numerous race bikes for customers all over the world and has a collection ranging from the 500cc two-strokes of the early ’90s to the latest and greatest full on BSB supersports. The man is, quite simply, one of the most sought after mechanics in the UK, and I get to call him fwiend.
I sit as close to the space heater as possible, storing heat like a bear stores fat just before hibernation, and talk all things bike and Jerez with Pete. He has a 765 just like mine, in fact, I bought mine on his recommendation, and we discuss the finer aspects of the bike. There are things that I want to do with it; tail tidy, fly screen, crash bungs et cetera, as well as a few electro gizmos such as an auto blipper- but most of that will have to wait until I win the lottery. For now, I must content myself with the standard RS version and resign myself to suffering the terrible burden of a first world problem.
The subject switches to the SV and my shoddy attempts at maintenance. He throws me a bottle of circuit cleaner and electrical grease with all the force and accuracy of a speed bowler, making me promise to spray down the electrics underneath the ignition every time I clean the bike. I solemnly swear to heed his advice, checking behind me to see if the wicket keeper had caught the grease, cos I hadn’t.
With our chat concluded I prepare myself for the expedition home, settle up, bunging him a few extra quid to ease my guilt, and head out into the cold. I mount old faithful (by that I mean the SV, not the missus as she had departed soon after arriving) as she sits, scratched dented and rusted waiting for another brutal journey on a cold winter’s night. She starts first time and I pull out of Pete’s drive and into the fog.
I check the time on the dash and, to my delight, I am making good time. If I hurry, I might just make it to the pub in time for free food and beer. Despite the socked in B-roads of rural middle of bumfuck nowhere, I decide to go for it and speed up. The promise of free stuff can make a man do stupid things.
The cold, now more insidious than ever, seeps into my bones and I feel the lulling effects of early stage hypothermia kicking in. My visor repeatedly fogs up, despite the anti-fog insert, forcing me to decide between vision and opening the visor to clear it, freezing my face off in the process. After I bought the shiniest helmet I could find (The £500 price tag directly related to the amount of shine) the smiling salesman informed me that for best results I should change the insert yearly; of course, being the cynical git that I am and sensing and upsale, I idiotically ignored his advice. Oh, do I regret it now; having to periodically open the visor to restore vision, the cold wind whipping tears from my eyes.
After half an hour or so, I can now see the comforting lights on the outskirts of town. They entice me, like a beacon of hope, with the promise of relative warmth and safety. Still making good time, I feel my body begin to relax slightly as I pass the halfway point of my journey.
I am tired, I am cold. I am miserable but I will be there soon. Soon in the warm with a beer in my hand, stuffing my face with Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes. The anticipation is almost too much the bear and I feel myself becoming a little emotional at the prospect. The mantra repeats in my head; pub be soon, soon be pub. I begin to speed up a little, wanting to get there as soon as I can.
Common sense, and good teachings, tell us to ride to the conditions; It is dark, it’s cold, it’s slippery and visibility is poor. I should not have relaxed. I should not have sped up.
I blacked out upon impact.
Act 4. Phew
‘Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’
-Henry Louis Gehrig
Though I don’t remember much about the actual accident or the events directly following it; what did become apparent, some days later, was the difference between good kit and cheap tat.
Unfortunately, my boots failed to save my ankle. The lack of protection and rigidity allowed my ankle to flex beyond its limits and snap.
My gloves tore open and one of them even came off mid-flight; the cheap velcro strap unable to cope with the g-forces and friction.
But three things stood out:
The helmet took a significant impact but, no doubt about it, saved me from serious injury (when buying it I had a budget of £250 and then doubled it – thank you HJC). It was dented and scratched. And though I had blacked out I can only put this down to fear and adrenaline as I do not recall having so much as a headache following the accident.
Thankfully, my jacket and trousers, though wrecked, had not worn through to my skin. And, other than a few bruises, the padding and back support held up.
It really does pay to spend well on kit, test thoroughly and never take anything for granted. No matter how good a rider you think you are the unexpected can always happen. Your motorcycling skills may save you from a bad accident, but it will be your kit that saves your life.
I have replaced my kit with an HJC helmet, Alpinestars gloves, boots, Jacket and Trousers (Drystars). I could not be happier with them though I am now seriously considering getting a car.
Get yourself sorted:
Unlike Hermione (look it up) and Parker here, there’s a good chance you don’t get to wake up again after a disaster. Ride safe, and to the conditions, and don’t take risks with your kit.