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 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
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 left: Grip warmers have been
around for many years. These are
adhesive-backed heating elements that
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 th
etriple 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
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),
Fresh studs left a little
surprise when the snow
melted. The studs have no
problems digging into the icy
layers below the snow
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

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).

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
stick to the handlebars and throttle tube. The grips slide over them,
and the wires are hooked into the bike's electrical system.
Above right: These canvas-backed hand guards, often called
"Elephant Ears", help shield hands from wind.
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
(in 2010 dollars). It's a lot of money,
but the alternative is sitting on the couch watching Jersey Shore in HD
(I'll pass).
Update: Winter 2018-19
After selling the 250XC in the summer of 2018, I decided to embrace
winter once again and set up the 350XC-F for cold weather riding.
Before the ground froze, I staked out a track in my pasture and began
riding when the snow came. This time, though, I did it a little
differently. Changing tires in the winter is bad enough; changing
studded tires is even worse. So I decided to find a second wheel set,
to be used just for my studded tires. As luck would have it, I found a
used set of KTM wheels already mounted with something I'd never
seen before: Canadian Ice Screw tires.
These are actually just used tires with the ice screws, but they look
seriously badass. I could probably saw off a man's leg with these
weapons. I had already mounted my original Maxxis studded rear tire
onto my original wheel, at great effort, blood and swearing (as usual).
I had no interest in mounting the front Maxxis onto my original front
wheel, so I dropped in the new (used) front wheel with the Canadian
ice screws. My first ride in 2019 was with the stud/ice screw combo.
Let's just say it was more than effective in about 5 inches of snow.
It's nice to have one of these in the shop.
I must also mention that both the studs and the screws attacked the
bike in various ways. Like I said, these things are weapons. When I
first took an easy ride around the pasture, twice I heard what seemed
like the wheels breaking through thin ice. Nothing unusual about that,
as we had some rains leading up to our first real snow. Turns out I
wasn't hearing ice breaking...my Canadian ice screws were ripping out
chunks of my fork guards.
Canadian Ice versus plastic guards.
The screws reshaped the guards
just a bit.
Studs versus muffler. I tried to use
spacers to position the muffler away
from the studs a bit. Didn't work.
I initially thought the chain
was rubbing against the
studs, causing knobs to
break off. Not so. Apparently
a 9-year-old tire doesn't like
cold weather much. After
two rides, both sides of the
tire had lost about half their
side knobs. I bought a chain
guide from a KTM SMR450
supermoto bike, which
keeps the chain from
slapping against the fat
street tires the supermoto
guys run. It also works well
for guys who stuff wide
studded tires into a space
not designed for wide
studded tires.
Not a great picture, but at
right is the supermoto chain
guide. It fits onto stock KTM
chain sliders going back
many model years, and
requires just one screw (the
same kind that secures the
radiator shrouds to the fuel
tank). The only downside is
that the chain must come
off to install it. Also, I would
imagine this will be a mud
magnet when the ground
thaws out. In this picture is
a tire with the standard
AMA-legal screws used in
ice racing in the United
States. It's not as critical to
use this guide with this tire,
as these screws don't make
the tire very much wider.
From top to bottom: 1) Canadian ice screws; 2) Kenda K-335 dual
sport tires with AMA-legal ice screws (built by Jeff Fredette); and 3)
Maxxis IT tire with studs.

The Fredette ice tires came from a friend who moved to a warmer
place. They are one of the common tires used for ice racing, because
they do well on flat surfaces and dig into the ice well. The tire
compound is stiff and hard, which makes them not much fun to
mount, but the screws stay in place pretty well. They're less effective
in snow and frozen ground that has any amount of ground cover
(grass or other). The first time I tried these out was in my pasture after
an ice storm. A few areas still had some snow, and they just couldn't
cut through it as well as studs or the Canadian ice screws.
Fredette ice tire on the back; Canadian ice screws on the
If any amount of snow is involved, the studs or Canadian ice screws
will do better. Same goes for ground which is frozen but covered in
grass or brush. It is really amazing the grip of these tires. They won't
quite give you the feeling of riding on fresh dirt, but hold on when you
lay on the throttle...in a straight line, not much holds back the studs.
I splurged a little and
bought a Rabaconda tire
changer. It's designed more
to help with foam insert
tires, but helped quite a bit
mounting this tire. One way
in which the Rabaconda
not help is protecting
your hands from the
screws. Gloves, folks...trust
me on this one.

And to demonstrate just
how sharp the Canadian
ice screws are, I rolled the
rear tire over a piece of
wood, and the wood stuck
to the screws. Like I said,
the screws are weapons.