Embracing Winter
For those of you who care to inquire, the answer is yes: winter in Northern Illinois is cold. Very cold. Since moving back to
Illinois in 2005, for 3 months out of the year I did little but try to stay warm. The racing season would begin each March,
and my first race was usually my first ride of the year.

That all changed in 2009, with my transition to country life. With a few acres as my backyard, I could warm up in the
garage, open the door and start riding. All I needed were a few accessories.

Here's where it all starts: studs. I had Kyle DeFauw of
shreddinstuds.com stud a pair of Maxxis IT's for my riding
pleasure. The studs have carbide tips to dig into the icy underbelly of packed snow. These are not for ice - up here in
the Great White North, we leave
that to ice screws. The studs
allow me to go pretty much
everywhere I'm used to riding
during the other 9 months of the
year.

On another note, I would like to
apologize to my mail carrier for
what must have been an
uncomfortable handling, after the
studs poked their way through
the cardboard wrapping on the
trip to my home. They are sharp!
Mounting these is less painful
with a good set of Carhartts. In
total, there are over 200 studs in
each tire. Inserting these into
each knob is a long, tedious
process, which is probably why
the tires cost over $200 each. It's
a lot of money, but the alternative
is sitting on the couch watching
Jersey Shore in HD (I'll pass).
With traction taken care of, next up was working on keeping my body warm. Whenever temperatures drop into the 30's
(F), my fingers get cold. Another 10 degrees lower and my face and feet start needing some help. Here's what I did to
help keep from freezing off body parts:
Above: Grip warmers have been around for many years. These are
adhesive-backed heating elements that stick to the handlebars and
throttle tube. The grips slide over them, and the wires are hooked into
the bike's electrical system.
Right: These canvas-backed hand
guards, often called "Elephant Ears", help shield hands from wind.
These grip warmers are made by Symtec. The throttle side is pictured above. Symtec's grip warmers are designated
clutch and throttle side, due to the heat characteristics of the handlebars (clutch side) versus the throttle tube (throttle
side, obviously). The plastic throttle tube heats up quickly and transfers a great deal of heat through the grips. The
clutch side sucks away heat through the aluminum handlebars (aluminum makes a great heat sink), and the grips are
thicker on that side. Other brands compensate for this by sending full power to the clutch side and reducing power to the
throttle side with a resistor. Symtech, on the other hand, uses different heating elements. You can see the difference in
the side-by-side photo above. I screwed up and ordered grip warmers designed for ATV's. Both heating elements were
the same as the clutch side element in the motorcycle-only version. Unfortunately, this doesn't work well. When set on
the high position, the throttle side gets so hot that the tube just might start to melt if you let it heat up too long (and it will
nearly burn your hand off). Once I got the correct throttle side heating element, it worked much better. Between the
headlight, LED handlebar-mounted light and the grip warmers, this is the most wiring I've ever had to stuff in between the
triple clamps. It all seems
to fit, though. The
Symtec instructions do a
pretty good job showing
how to wire the grip
warmers. All I had to do
was figure out how I
wanted to tap into the
power. The stator pumps
out AC, which is fine for
the grip warmers. At 100
watts, I need all of it. The
halogen headlight is
about 65 watts on the
High setting. The grip
warmers are about 35
watts on the High
setting. However, with
my
LED lighting system,
the headlight isn't really
necessary when I ride at
night (which is mostly
when I ride). So most of
the time I turn it off and
let the LED's do all the
work.
One of the key advantages of snow machines over dirt bikes is their wind screens. In the sitting position, a snowmobile
rider can tuck in behind the screen, feel the warmth of the heated grips and a comfortable warm breeze of engine heat
on boots. Dirt bikers have to improvise a bit. I knew I'd need some help keeping my face warm, so I did a little research
on what the crazy bicyclists in Chicago used to wear when I'd see them riding to work in single digit temperatures.

Psolar had what I needed - an under-the-helmet mask that covers everything but my eyes. Perfect. It also has something
they call a heat exchanger, which is designed to warm up cold air before you breathe it. Some call this a
balaclava; I call
it
cool.
What up, ninjas
Dang, I got me a pointy head....
The final piece of cold weather gear
focuses on the toes. Off-road riding
boots are poorly designed for warmth,
so a little heat down there is necessary.
If you want to spend some serious
money, go with
Hotronics foot warmers.
They will set you back a couple hundred
bucks, but supposedly it's a pretty
awesome product. The cheaper
alternative is to buy some air-activated
toe warmers from your local sporting
goods store. They work pretty well. The
only downside is you can't control them
once they start producing heat - it's all
or nothing. But that's ok. There's no
wires or batteries to deal with, and I'll go
through about 100 of these for the same
cost as the fancy Hotronics product.
So, you say...in the end, all I have is a dirt bike that can ride moderately well in snow. But not as well as the snow
machines, though. Can't go through deep snow. Hard to stay warm in single-digit temperatures. Well, there's no arguing
that logic, but building a snow machine was not the point of this exercise. Staying on the bike during winter was my
intention, and that I have accomplished. And, thanks to my
lights, I can do this any time I want. In fact, I prefer night
riding. It's just flat-out cool to bust through snow drifts at night. If you ever want to know what complete seclusion and
silence feels like, shut off the engine in the middle of a harvested cornfield on a still night. Look up into a clear sky with a
full moon and thank the Man upstairs. Then go ride some more.
It was about 2 degrees (F) when I took this picture. That is just a bit below my
tolerance, even with all that I did to make the KTM rideable in the winter.
January 2010
Update February 2010
I'd have to say winter riding is pretty awesome. Once you're properly
prepared and the snow is suitable, it's a joy to ride. Generally,
temperatures above 20 degrees were just about right. Anything less and
some of my fingers would get cold. The coolest night I rode, at 13
degrees, was a little below my tolerance level. The studs work pretty well
until the snow accumulation reaches 8-10 inches. Any more than that is
still ridable, but the rear tire does a lot of spinning. In 4-5 inches of snow,
conditions were perfect. I was able to ride about 70 miles in mostly open
corn fields before hitting reserve on the 250XC. Fuel consumption
increases quite a bit with higher snow accumulations, as the RPM's tend
to rise while the rear tire searches for traction.

True ice conditions are not completely ideal for the studs. The tires will
still dance around on totally frozen water. For riding on lakes and ponds
(which I did not do), ice screws would be a better choice. The studs really
start to work well with a few inches of snow. Handling is definitely affected
by the studs, as they do add some unsprung weight to the wheels.

Snowmobiles are still a more comfortable choice for spending a day on
the trails, and around here you can ride as far as you want. The
snowmobile routes are linked up by the many local clubs who work with
landowners and mark the trails with endless arrows, stop signs, orange
diamonds, and many "danger" signs. The trails all pass through the local
towns (with special attention given to the bars in those towns) and allow a
snowmobile rider to fill up with gas and keep on riding. If you know where
you're going, you can pick up the trail behind the Casey's store in
Dakota, Illinois and ride all the way to Canada.

One of the dangers of riding a motorcycle across harvested cornfields
that have been tilled in some fashion is the frozen dirt clods left behind.
Any other season, the motorcycle's front suspension will handle these
with ease. In the winter, however, the dirt clods are solid as rocks. Snow
conceals many of these, and there were a few times when I was glad for
my Scotts steering damper (and wondering if I'd find a flat spot on my
rim).
Fresh studs left a little surprise when the
snow melted. The studs have no problems
digging into the icy layers below the snow.
One thing I would not recommend is riding a dirt bike on snowmobile trails. Some neighborly advice I received about this
turned out to be wrong - we are generally not welcome. Even though the impact to the trails seems pretty marginal
(compared to ATV's which are clearly prohibited, per trail signs), the snowmobile guys do all the work, and the trails are
theirs. Visions of one of
these have crept into my head at various times, but a true snow machine is the way to go, if the
intent is to ride the vast trail network that crisscrosses Northern Illinois and Wisconsin.