I can remember, six years ago when I bought the Vespa and began riding, scouring the internet for information about it. And there IS a lot of information about riding, but I can’t recall anyone addressing this particular question: when is it too early to bring the bike out of the garage and start riding again? So this post is for anyone who, like I was, is looking for some solid advice about spring riding.
I bought the Vespa in 2013, rode it all that summer and into the fall, and was in an eager thrash to get back on it when April came around again. And — I jumped the gun, and almost paid a heavy price for it. So here is a summary of what I consider to be the three primary hazards of spring riding, in order of importance, at least here in the Northeast — issues I think every rider should consider every year before pushing the bike out of the garage to start another season.
Sand: A fact of life anywhere it snows in the winter. Highway crews spread sand on the road to improve winter traction, and there it sits in March and April until the street sweepers come out to brush it away. And it often gathers in the curves, the last place you want to see it. Sand, while it improves winter traction for four-wheeled vehicles, severely and dangerously degrades the traction that’s holding your two motorbike tires to the road. Physics dictates that, to turn a two-wheeled vehicle, you have to lean it. When you lean it, you reduce the amount of rubber in contact with the road, thus reducing traction even in ideal conditions. If you put slippery sand down on that curve and THEN lean your bike on it, you’re just asking for a crash, which will happen when all of your traction is spent. The solution? Wait to ride until the sand is swept off the road; and if you just can’t wait, WATCH for sand on the road and AVOID it if at all possible! And if it can’t be avoided, slow down and reduce your lean angle as much as possible. Of course, one should never brake in a curve anyway (because braking uses traction, which is already reduced by the lean in the curve), but FOR SURE don’t brake on sand!
Frost Heaves: Ouch! I learned this lesson on the Vespa, whose short wheelbase resulted in a ferocious pounding as the two wheels bounced in rapid succession over the first big frost heave I hit. Really, I thought my back was broken! And that says nothing about the fact that I came this close to completely losing control of the bike as I bounced off the seat. The longer wheelbase of the Suzuki Burgman ameliorates this problem to some degree, but between the risk of injury and the loss of control, frost heaves are trouble no matter what. Solution: either wait until they subside (late April around these parts) or keep an eagle-eye out for them and SLOW DOWN! And keep one eye on your rear-view mirror as you do it, too — you don’t want to surprise the car behind you and get run over from behind!
Cold: Cold, for me, really sucks the fun out of riding. Remember that the ambient air temperature feels about twenty degrees colder on a moving motorbike, so when it’s forty degrees outside, you really have to dress warmly to be comfortable. It is true, there are people (like Steve Williams of “Scooter In The Sticks”) who ride all winter; I personally think that’s crazy, and I won’t go out if it’s below forty degrees because I don’t want to deal with black ice on the road (talk about loss of traction!!). But even at forty it isn’t long before I’m chilled and my hands are frozen to the point where I have to stop and warm them up over the muffler or in front of the headlight. What fun is that? And it doesn’t take long either before too much of my attention is on how cold I am, and not enough of my attention is on the road. Consider too, that the colder it gets, the less “sticky” becomes the rubber in your tires, which means that falling temperatures equals loss of traction.
I am thinking of investing in a heated jacket liner that I can wear in the “shoulder seasons” of riding to extend the comfort range of my gear; and I am already fortunate to have a bike with heated handlebars and seat, which makes a HUGE difference. In fact, I would recommend that anyone who wants to ride in the spring and fall purchase them as aftermarket add-ons — although I will also say that I bought three sets of heated handlebar grips for the Vespa and each lasted only a year before failing. But again, even with that, I highly recommend them.
So that’s it — sand, frost heaves and cold — the three biggest hazards of riding in the early spring. Give them some serious thought every March as the snow begins to melt and the bike begins to call you from its parking place in the garage. When is it safe to start a new season? Only you can decide! But for me, I’m going to wait until the sand is swept away, the frost heaves subside, and the thermometer starts heading toward fifty degrees!