Better than air conditioning: Tips for biking through the heat wave
Photo: bitchcakesnyThe heat wave is gearing up for another blast, throwing temperatures over 100 at residents across North America.
For many, the heat is a deterrent for getting on a bike. It doesn’t have to be.
You can bike happily through even the hottest days of the year if you think of bicycling not as an athletic endeavor, but as a leisurely way to get around that includes free, green air conditioning.
I’m in the Pacific Northwest, where our climate is increasingly rainy. But don’t resent me — I’ve weathered some heat waves in my time, and biked through most of them. Here’s what I’ve learned about surviving — and thriving — the hottest days of summer by bike.
First things first
Turn off that air conditioning.
Or at least turn up the thermostat. Here’s why: If you’re always going back and forth between extremes of hot and cold, the heat will feel like an oppressive blast each time you step outside. But if you give your body a chance to actually acclimate — it takes a couple of weeks — you’ll be much more comfortable, outdoors and in. For acclimating to the heat, it helps to be on the fit side, which is another reason to keep on biking.
What to wear
There are two schools of thought on how much of your body to cover. Many people prefer to strip down to as little as possible — (though you probably should avoid taking it too far).
Many who live in hot climates year-round say it’s best to cover as much of your body as possible with lightweight fabric to protect you from the sun.
I’ve written about adjusting your everyday wardrobe for daily summer bike riding elsewhere. The essential rule, though, is that lightweight natural fibers are more comfortable, while lightweight polyester prints won’t show sweat. If you need to look professional at the end of your ride, a spit bath and change of clothes is the ticket.
A cycling cap, the identifying marker of bike messengers, racers, and their imitators, can be a life saver. It’ll keep the sun off your head, keep the sweat off your face, and shade your eyes. Another essential accessory is the bandana or scarf tied around your wrist to mop the sweat from your brow at stop lights.
Oh, and use sunblock. Lots of it. This ain’t your grandmother’s ozone layer.
Before you set off for a long ride in the heat, drink a lot of water. Like a quart. You’ll sweat it all out as you ride. Drink slowly, and stop if it gets uncomfortable — yes, it is possible to drink too much water.
While you ride, and when you get off your bike, keep on drinking. But stick to room temperature tap water. Cold water and ice shock your system and are harder for your body to absorb.
Eating salty foods helps with water absorption. Alcohol, caffeine, soda, and juice, on the other hand, require a lot of water and energy for your body to process, so if you drink this stuff you’ll need to drink even more water along with them.
Another use for water is pouring it on yourself. You can get a similar effect more efficiently by soaking a bandana with cold water and tying it around your head under your helmet. Cooling down your head will help cool your entire body.
Timing is everything.
Leave yourself plenty of time. Heading out 15 minutes early can make the difference between a sweltering hustle that leaves you drenched and drained on the other end and a pleasant ride that generates an almost cooling breeze. The latter puts you in a far better mood than a similar trip by car and gives you a few minutes at the end to wash your face and catch your breath.
The coolest hours of the day fall around 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., while the evening commute tends to be the hottest time of the day. Plan accordingly. It’s a good idea to have a backup plan, like bus fare or a friend or cab you can call if you get partway home and start feeling rough — you don’t want to mess with heat stroke.
The hotter it is, the more aggressively and impatiently people tend to drive. This is another excellent argument for bicycling, but when you do, be extra careful out there at the hottest times of day.
Outfitting your bike for the heat
Now is a good time to make sure your bike is well tuned up so you aren’t working any harder than you have to. Top off your tire pressure every few days (if you don’t have a floor pump, drop by a bike shop and use theirs). Make sure your chain is greased and your gears well adjusted so you can use all of them.
A heat wave is also a good incentive to take that load off your back. Equip your bike with a rear rack and panniers (you can make your own out of buckets for next to nothing) or a front basket to carry your bag in. You’ll sweat less and swear less.
Hot weather biking isn’t for everyone. But if you put some thought into how you dress, take it slow, and always have water and snacks on hand, you can do it — and you’ll probably even love it.
How are you dealing with biking through the heat wave?