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Riding the Cold Road

by Tammy Lee Cook

“I don’t care what the temperature is, I’m going” I thought to myself, after a half cup of extra strong coffee, as I clumped, quietly as I could with all my gear so as to not wake my sleeping partner, out of the back door.

It was 2:30 A.M. on the Friday before Bike Week when my little Honda VFR, “TFox”, rumbled into life spewing a big steamy vapor tail from her exhaust pipe. The cold outside air instantly stung my fingers when I again checked her load. While she warmed up, I geared up, tucking and zipping as carefully as I could. Each article of clothing had to be layered carefully to prevent a frigid 80 mile an hour air leak from invading my riding cocoon. Leaks would be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst with frostbite or even hypothermia a real possibility.

At 3:00 A.M., we rolled down our long gravel drive through the woods and popped out onto the road, TFox’s air temperature gauge read 27 degrees. “No problem, I know I can do this” I thought with determination...

In the course of several phone calls, during the month of planning for our trip, I discovered that my new riding buddies had been riding together for years and sounded pretty hard ass. I could tell from their questions, as each called me in turn, that they were worrying among themselves about my ability to ride such a long ride, only stopping for gas, in cold weather, on such a small bike as mine. For my part, the only woman in the group, I was determined not to be the ride’s weakest link. Still, pangs of self doubt persisted throughout my entire ride preparation since I hadn’t ridden any long, cold weather rides in a very long time. These guys weren’t helping at all. I kept my fears to myself.

So, TFox and I began our ride preparation by improving our gear and testing each improvement by riding with it. Our first attempts were pretty feeble. We were only able to do about 40 miles in 35 degrees. But we rode diligently throughout February, a total distance of almost a thousand miles, while trying each day to improve at least one thing. I also spent every morning walking, rain or shine. As ride time approached, I was walking over five miles in just over an hour, had lost ten pounds and could ride 225 Interstate miles, one full tank of gas, in 25 degrees without becoming cold or overly sore.

“No matter how hard ass these guys are, they’ll have to stop for gas. I can stretch and warm up then” I reasoned...

The forty miles to our meeting point passed quickly while I settled in and reviewed my mental checklist. In the capacious pockets of my lined First Gear jacket, I had remembered the zip lock bag containing my cell phone with emergency numbers and info. I also included a nice note thanking the good Samaritan for helping me out by using the phone. I had my roadside assistance cards, wallet, a little extra cash, big Gargoyles, and Chap Stick along with a bandana. I had remembered to wire my Gerbing electric gloves and socks with the controller attached to the outside of my jacket within easy reach of my clutch hand. The wires were run between the jacket and the liner and outside my jeans but under the riding suit’s pants. Since I find showing up for a ride needing gas really rude, I had filled up TFox the afternoon before and checked the pressure in her new tires after our final fully loaded test ride.

To ensure maximum warmth till the dawn that was, I was sure, at least 150 miles away, I had worn silk long johns, a sports bra that provided a little extra warmth and support, long sleeved fleece turtle neck and my warmest riding jeans. Over this I had my First Gear jacket with liner and armored riding pants.

I have always felt that I can add enough layers if my jacket is big enough, but the real trick to enjoying cold weather riding is stopping all of the air leaks. To do this I had chosen an armored jacket of heavy fabric that closed tightly at the cuffs and neck with Velcro. It had a substantial double closure over the zipper with an adjustable belt so that the jacket fit snugly around my waist and over my hips when sitting on the bike. I did feel a little silly at the shop where I bought the jacket. I spent half an hour sitting outside on a sport bike with all my gear. But the extra effort was worth it. I also like my winter jacket with huge zip pockets and Velcro closures.

I‘ve always preferred winter riding pants with Velcro closures to seal out the air leaks around my boots. I also like them with side zips and double flaps closed with Velcro. They need to be easy to get into and out of at rest stops and easy going on and off over my boots.

Air leaks around my neck is always one of my weak points so I wore a fleece balaclava under my helmet and a fleece neck gaiter over top of that but under my jacket collar and over my turtleneck. These two items, inexpensive when purchased at a surplus store, need to be carefully layered with my turtle neck. It took some miles of practice to learn to arrange it all and stop the air leaks.

My hands and feet are always the first parts of my body to go cold and when cold can seriously affect my riding skills. I try to find gloves big enough to leave a little air space around my fingers and be completely sealed off from the relentless onslaught of frigid air. Mittens seem a little warmer but always cause me trouble with the front brake. Years ago there was a fleece lined Vetter product called Hippo Hands that fit over the handle bars. I wish I still had them. I also swear by two pairs of socks, with cotton over wool, that leave a little air space in oversize riding boots. For this trip, I bought Gerbing electric gloves and socks and carefully tested TFox’s charging system with them full on...

Such was my riding cocoon when I arrived at our meeting place. The air temperature was up to almost thirty and I was snug and warm on arrival. Not only was I the only female, and TFox the smallest bike almost by half, but my three riding pals all were sporting new electric Gerbing suits and communicators. Several of the guys who had planned on going had cancelled due to the extreme cold weather. I sipped a half cup of coffee and watched while the guys geared up. The danger for was overheating and starting to sweat inside my gear while waiting.

By unanimous vote among themselves, the guys decided that I would lead. When I asked how fast, all I got were three vague answers. So I was off at fifteen over the limit and faster when I felt it was needed to get us around the D.C. Beltway with its terrible road surface and awful 4 A.M. traffic.

On Route 95 near Fredricksburg, with an hour to go before dawn, we collided with really cold air. TFox’s temp gauge suddenly raced lower with each small hill until it bottomed out at 16 degrees. It was not to rise again until well after sunrise.

I soon had to slow to less than 75 as the guys started lagging behind. Two of them rode pretty well and stayed together without the big gaps that always seem to invite the cages in between riders. In spite of my repeated hand signals to close up, our other rider kept lagging back, causing me to lose him among the forest of headlights from the traffic. Luckily I hadn’t overdone my neck wear and could turn my head for a quick look behind when needed. I could see my wingman in my mirrors weaving slightly while fumbling with his communicator trying to talk with our lagging rider. Guys are sometimes such gear heads that they ignore the basic, time proven, hand signals and forget to stay close together on group rides. Maybe I’m behind the times, but I really feel that if you execute well the time proven group riding basics, you don’t need all these gadgets.

To my great relief it was not TFox that went on reserve just south of Richmond at around 140 miles. It was Mr. Hard Ass himself. When I asked if he had left with a full tank he answered with a sheepish grin, “My ride uses a lot of gas when we go this fast.” I couldn’t help smiling.

Another bike had a dead battery from the high current drain of all the electric gear running full blast. I noticed all three of my riding buddies were grumbling about how cumbersome their gear was in the bathroom and how cold the air was.

When we rejoined 95 South, our road for the next eleven hours, just before Petersburg, the sun rose with unusual winter brilliance and lifted the air temperature into the mid twenties along with my spirits. I was nice and warm and starting to have fun.

I smiled to myself and thought “ What a great day for a ride”.

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Story copyright© Tammy Lee Cook, All Rights Reserved









From Tam:
"This is the first in a series of stories titled "Recipes for the Road" that are about my life and a few of the things I've learned along the way. I thought it might be fun to share." Tam spends more time riding than posting, but you can visit some of her favorite forums,
Women Riders International (WRI), Harley-Davidson Women Riders (HDWR) and Women Who Ride.

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