The end of May is a time of transition. The cold air that had been clinging to the Mid Atlantic region has finally been forced to leave, hordes of people are starting to make their annual migration to the beaches, and cyclists are stowing warm jackets, tights, arm and leg warmers and shoe covers until winter comes back. Heat and humidity is already making an appearance. I’ve already ridden my first century ride this year, The Six Pillars Century in early May. My body is accustomed to pedaling, but now it has to get accustomed to heat. A recent ride to North Beach on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay was a challenge in hot, humid weather that I had not adapted to.
Recreational cyclists come in all shapes and sizes. They all have a mindset that allows them to enjoy hours at a time in the saddle. Each has a measure of endurance, grace, efficiency, speed and power. My body was built for work, not speed. I am large and heavy by the reckoning of the sport; my riding style is not based on grace and efficiency, but on power and pacing. I am not built for climbing hills, but I feel great pride every time I hear other riders say “you climb well for a big guy”. It takes me a couple of miles to warm up, particularly in cooler weather, but I can ride consistently, at least until fatigue starts to wear me down and my technique falters. As a result, I’m often told that I’m a very good rider to draft behind. This makes sense. I may not have top end speed, but I have power, and my size creates a very useful wind shadow. If I had a dollar for every time I was told that I am good to draft behind, I would be a rich man. Of course, the drawback of size is that I’m susceptible to overheating. I’ve learned that for me, hydration is vital to hot weather ride survival.
Every Memorial Day weekend, my local cycling club has a ride in Southern Maryland called “Train to Chesapeake”. It goes to North Beach on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, south of Annapolis, with distances from 47 to 61 miles. We’ve had a wet spring, but until now the heat hasn’t been oppressive. On this ride, particularly in the early afternoon, the heat and humidity arrived with a vengeance. I knew that the heat was coming. Even in the relative cool of the early miles, I was drinking often. The fist rest stop was 24 miles into the ride, and we got there just as I emptied my second water bottle. With temperatures building into the 90’s, and the humidity soaring, I was concerned about how I would feel by the time I finished the ride. Between various route alterations, I was going to ride more than the short route, but less than the long route. This was partly by plan. My friends had decided to do a little route modification to suit the hot conditions and various schedules. I didn’t really care about the distance. One of the issues with drinking on a long ride that makes summer riding difficult is water temperature. Even insulated bottles can get warm. The warmer the liquid, the less likely it is that you will want to drink it. If you know that you’ll ride in the heat, ice is your friend. Insulated bottles with ice in them are the best way to keep you hydrated. By early afternoon, with the heat and humidity wearing on me, I had to force myself to reach for a drink, because I didn’t have ice. This particular ride is rolling, with a lot of short, punchy climbs. I LOVE rolling rides. I can take advantage of my cycling strengths in rolling terrain. However, the highest place we rode to on that ride is the start/finish, so the final miles are full of short, punchy climbs, and when you’re hot, they can be pure torture. I had been riding well in the morning, and by the time we got to North Beach, I was still strong, but that is the lowest point in the ride, and in the hottest and most humid part of the day, we had to climb back to the ride start. With beer waiting at the end for incentive, I managed the climbs in the last few miles, though by that time I felt like I was melting in the heat and humidity. All of us earned our post-ride refreshments!
When the heat is on, it’s always a good idea to stay aware of your hydration. Drink when you see others drink. Drink even if you’re not thirsty. If you get thirsty and you’re moving, you’re already getting dehydrated. I also like to stop more often when the heat is on. Be reminded that rest stops that last too long will only make matters worse, and 10 minutes should be enough to refill your bottles, get a snack, and be prepared to start again. Many riders want shorter stops than that! When fall arrives and the weather moderates a little, you can take longer stops, but in the heat, long stops don’t help. If you bonk in the heat, the only thing to do is get out of the heat as soon as you can, and hydrate. That is the exception to the rule. One more rule for hot weather riding – never forget your SUNSCREEN!