Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Biking in the Heat

Or, more specifically, bicycle commuting in the heat, because that's what I've been doing lately.

So, when I used, a few weeks ago, my perch at Front Porch Republic to praise David Byrne's review/celebration of Jeff Mapes's new book, Pedaling Revolution, I summed it all up by simply writing: "David Bryne tells us to Ride our Bikes". Having done so, an old friend of mine demurred. He lives in Dallas, and he pointed out that Mapes, who lives and bikes to and from work in Portland, and Bryne, who speaks of tooling around New York City on his bike, have to deal with median July temperatures in the 70s and 80s, not the upper 90s which he has to confront. Isn't it likely that their enthusiasm for a bicycling revolution is a function of where they live?

Very likely--it's undeniable that having mild temperatures and well-tended bike paths and well-placed bike racks and local traffic norms which support bicyclists on the road can make all the difference in the world. However, I refuse to concede that such differences necessarily control the option of bike commuting in the first place. Not to blow my own horn, but I will present myself as evidence for the other side: I live in Wichita, which is not a bike-friendly town (though, thanks to people like John Buass, it's getting better), I commute six miles into work (and then home again) along sidewalks and city streets, and lately, I've been doing it while a heat advisory has been in place for central Kansas. And to tell the truth, I kind of like it--it's sweaty, thirst-inducing, and sometimes more than a little uncomfortable (especially when the regular temps go over a hundred, and with the humidity the heat index starts topping 105 or more), but it's my kind of work-out. You're outside, you've got the sunshine and the blue skies, and you're in control of where you're going, rather than just exhaustively testing yourself against a red digital display on the front of your bicycling machine. What's not to like? Does the fact that I can make it work for me mean that anyone, in any work situation, anywhere in the country could do the same? Not at all. But it does mean, maybe, that I might be able to make some suggestions which could prevent people from giving up on the bike commuting option for the summer (or year-around, for that matter) too soon.

First off, let me make this clear: I'm hardly a physical Adonis, and I'm not saying anything here that should be used as the basis for some doctor-approved physical regimen, or as an excuse to get out of such. I'm not a competitive cyclist; I just ride into work and home again, pretty much all the time, because I like it. If you're in the same camp, or at least are open to giving such a try, here are some recommendations:

Pick your battles. Just because you're looking to ride your bike in the summer sun doesn't mean you should necessarily take it on at its worst. If you can commute into work early, before the real heat hits, do so; if you can stay late, and not leave until the heat begins to wear off around 7pm or later, try that also. Pick your routes too. If you can, make use of bike paths, even if they may add some distance to your ride. If paths aren't available, try to avoid main thoroughfares, as they'll always radiate greater heat as the day wheres on. If you have a route which takes you alongside or near bodies of water, or even some sprinklers that you know will be going off, that's worth considering too.

Slow but steady. Unless you just can't manage to pedal your bike at more than 2mph, or happen to live somewhere with 100% humidity and temps over 110 degrees--in either case of which, you almost certainly shouldn't attempt to bike commute at all--then you'll be generating your own breeze as you move along. That breeze will evaporate your sweat, and keep your body cool, fighting off the baking heat. The problem comes when you have to stop, particularly at intersections with heavy traffic; that's when you're really going to feel the sun pressing down. So, following with the above recommendation, try to plot a route with as few stops as possible. Set your bicycle on the lowest gear you can comfortably maintain, and develop a slow and consistent pace. Racing from on stop to the next, or up and down hills, will wear you out, and increase the likelihood of heat exhaustion. If, instead, you can move along steadily, without pushing yourself and with minimal stops along the way, your body will probably be able to maintain a safe temperature throughout the ride.

Check the bike over before you leave. If you're a seriously cyclist, then your probably have check-over routines that you follow by heart, and regularly get your bike tuned up anyway. But if you are, like me, just a commuter and pleasure rider, then sometimes you forget to double-check your tire pressure or gears before you're on the road. This is always a bad idea, but it's doubly bad when the outside heat is in the upper 90s or more, because a flat tire or whatnot is going to require you to stop and squat and patch and pump right there along the street. Maybe you'll be able to find some shade or shelter to do your fix-up routine in, but in any case you will have lost your momentum, and you're going to have to start up again, while the sun burns you up. You're not always going to be able to prevent this, obviously, but extremes of weather, heat or cold, make the pre-ride check-overs all the more important.

Water, water, water. You're probably going to sweat like a pig on the ride, and that's a good thing; that's your body regulating the punishment which your muscles and the sun is putting it through. So make sure you can replenish that perspiration: drink deep before you leave, make sure your water bottle is filled up, and drink often (small drinks, but frequent) as you go. Do not go biking in serious heat without water available to you. The sickest I've ever been from commuting on my bike came a couple of years ago, when I forgot to fill my bottle with water before I hit the road when it was 103 degrees out. By the time I got home, my body was shaking and I had a miserable headache. So don't forget, okay?

There you go: Russell's Advice on Bicycle Commuting During Kansas Summers, hopefully applicable to your own situation, wherever you may be. Now tune that bike up and hit the road, and don't let the heat get you down!


Unknown said...

I've found dousing my shirt in water before taking off also helps immensely, particularly if there's some wind. (Though it may make you look a tad silly/extremely sweaty.)

Eric D. Dixon said...

If ambient temperature is higher than body temperature, then wouldn't a breeze heat you up more rather than cooling you down?

Russell Arben Fox said...

H.C., good idea. I've done that before, though usually in the midst of a ride, rather than before I leave. I have to be careful that I don't use up too much of my drinking water though.

Eric...well, I don't know. Now I'm confused. Just what are the relevant physics governing body temperature? It seems to me that a breeze even in 100-degree-plus weather is still a relief. Maybe the sensation of sweat evaporating off your skin, some kind of condensation effect, is a lower overall temp? Hmm. Time to do some Googling!

Unknown said...

When your body produces sweat, heat is transferred from the skin into the sweat, which then evaporates and carries it away, removing thermal energy from the body. Evaporation is more efficient when the humidity is low, which is why humid days are so much less comfortable than dry days even if the temperature is the same. Now imagine that you are completely motionless in a room with no breeze whatsoever. Your sweat evaporates into the air immediately around your skin, but because that air isn't moving, it becomes humid very quickly, slowing the evaporation of your sweat. Essentially you create a humidity cloud around yourself. A breeze carries the humid air away, which keeps the evaporative process efficient.

Rob Perkins said...

I think the motion of the body through the air also plays a minor role, somewhat like a fan on a heat sink or in a computer case.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if you can do this when you're teaching? Here in inland southern California, temps are between high-80's and low 100's from May to October, and the sun is ALWAYS bright, so riding to campus would leave me soaked and stinking. I can't teach that way, and certainly can't wear classroom clothes on a bike if I'm going to sweat a lot.

Any suggestions?

Russell Arben Fox said...


I'm wondering if you can do this when you're teaching? Here in inland southern California, temps are between high-80's and low 100's from May to October, and the sun is ALWAYS bright, so riding to campus would leave me soaked and stinking. I can't teach that way, and certainly can't wear classroom clothes on a bike if I'm going to sweat a lot.

Hmmm. I do bike when I'm teaching, pretty much year around, though obviously I'm not dealing with your situation--Friends University doesn't have a summer schedule, and so while I do pick up a couple of afternoon workshops in the summer months, I'm basically not in the classroom from the end of April until mid-August. But nonetheless, there are days when I'm going into the classroom somewhat sticky. Perhaps I have lower standards, or my students do (I've never once heard a "Professor Fox, you're gross!" comment). Now the fact that I have my own office, just a little way down from the bathroom, so I can towel down, wash up a bit, and then change my clothes (I leave a complete change of clothes at the office, which I change regularly, taking shirts home and slacks home and trading them a couple of times a week) makes all the difference in the world, obviously. If you don't have a place to change, then I don't know what to recommend. But I'd agree with you that there's no way I'd ride to work wearing the clothes I'd go into the classroom with.

David Watkins said...

Well, this makes me feel pretty silly for not getting around to getting my flat tire fixed here in Seattle.

I can certainly vouch for HC Johns suggestion. It's rarely necessary in Seattle, but a few years ago, when traveling in Cambodia, I made the ambitious choice of touring the temples of Angkor on my own with a bicycle, rather than the more standard practice of hiring of a motorcycle guide. I probably covered 35 miles throughout the day, in 95/95 heat. I doubt I would have survived without dipping my shirt in cold water at just about every opportunity.