Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Riding in the Heat

Does it actually get too hot to ride?
I ride year round. That may not sound like a big deal to someone that lives in Southern California, but here in Oklahoma, it can be a challenge. I have ridden in temperatures ranging from 16 degrees to 114 degrees. And I'm here to tell you that it is completely possible to do. In fact, that is probably nothing compared to some of the more hard core riders that I know are out there (looking at you, Mr. Gonzales). In fact, if you have seen the episode of us traveling down Highway 20 through Claremore, it was filmed in the chilly temperature of 16 degrees. Trying to talk to the camera was a whole different problem, but that is another story.

When it turns cold, it seems easier to wear the proper gear to stay warm. First is getting the wind stopped, then make sure you are layered and insulated. Beyond that, there are long lists of affordable gear that are electrically heated. Socks, pants, vests, etc. Not to mention the heated seats and grips that come on some bikes now.

When the temperature goes beyond 98.6 degrees, things start getting a little trickier. As soon as the temperature rises above your body temperature, you can't just rely on the passing wind to cool you down.
This is when we have to field the "Isn't it hot, riding in all that gear?" I have tried explaining to other riders and travelers that - Of course it's hot, but it would be much worse without it.

That last statement requires a two part explanation. The first is that I don't ride without the proper gear. I have used up many helmets, boots, jackets, etc. when asking them to protect me and this is not the article to explain why you should wear gear. It is my choice, my decision and after 40+ years of riding motorcycles, I am alive because of it.
The second part of that explanation takes a little longer to explain. Some people understand it and many don't. Recently, we had a fellow rider, possibly die from the heat on I-40, near Oklahoma City. It was over 100 degrees and the sun was shining. How could this have happened?

Rex's electric yellow mesh jacket.

I find it amazing that the human body can regulate its body temperature within a degree or two in the ranges that we regularly expose it to. Once the temperature rises above your body temperature, it gets harder for your body to cool itself. One main defense against overheating, is sweating. When you sweat, it cools itself through evaporation. Normally, this is very efficient and easy to maintain. Just drink enough water, keep your electrolytes in check and find a breeze for an extra boost. The problem when riding a motorcycle arises from many different sources. When that breeze is above your body temperature, you are receiving convection heat. The next is the radiant heat from both the sun and the road itself. Of course, when you are riding a motorcycle, you are working and generating metabolic heat.
When that breeze you feel, going down the highway at 70mph is 112 degrees, the evaporation rate of bare skin has trouble keeping up with the heating effect from the 112 degree blast of air (convection). Another part of that equation stems from bare skin exposed to the sun (radiant). Normally, protecting yourself from radiant heat is simple, if you get hot out in the sun, you step in the shade. That is why you need to cover your skin. The gear I wear creates it's own shade by covering my skin and blocks the radiant heat from getting to me. Not only the evaporation of water helping to cool your surface (skin), but blood flow coming to the surface of your skin is cooled, taking the cooler blood back in to the vital parts in your core. This is something that you learned as a child. Out in the sun is hot, standing in the shade is cooler.
There are long formulas that take into account humidity, radiant and ambient temperature, along with a mix of other variables can tell you the exact difference it makes, but it's simple. Just get in the shade. If you want to read all the details click here for some OSHA heat stress tech papers.

Excellent Bell Star venting
Once you have taken care of getting out of the direct sun by covering up, you have to regulate your perspiration to let it do it's job and stop the convection heat. This means trying to lessen the hot air blasting across it, but still leave some airflow. By using properly vented gear, it is possible. This means venting from head to toe. Helmet, jacket, pants, gloves and jacket. The latest summer gear will let some air in to help your perspiration evaporate without drying it so quickly it can't do it's job and help with the convection heat.
Of course you have to be moving to make your breeze. I tend to plan my routes around town to avoid any stops when it gets hot. I will go miles out of my way to stay moving on the highway rather than hitting a line of red lights in town.

Most of this is really just common sense, but when you let yourself worry about what you look like over safety, it can get dangerous pretty quick when your body temperature starts climbing. Indigenous people from desert regions have known all of this for thousands of years. They have covered their bodies with white, breathable fabric which does a couple things. It stops the hot wind from drying your sweat too quickly, it shades their skin and finally, it protects them from convection heat.

Think about this the next time you jump on your bike in a short sleeved shirt without a helmet. And stay healthy. This means eating right, keeping your weight in check, drinking plenty of water and among many other health concerns, stop often to cool off and rest. The farther up or down the temps go, the more work it is for your body to do it's job.

1 comment:

john said...

Good article with salient points. Staying hydrated and 'using your head' is indeed imperative. And dont leave that helmet, jacket and gloves at home whatever you do.
I personally have never found it too hot to ride; however, once the mercury drops below 50, it is certainly too cold! :)

It's a Travel Show

Two Wheel Oklahoma is a television travel show featuring the motorcycle rides of Brad Mathison and Rex Brown along the scenic highways and backroads of Oklahoma.

Each episode highlights a stretch of road or historic route and explores unique destinations along the way. Tune in three times a week on the Cox Channel.

We hope you'll come ride along.

Brad and Rex: co-hosts of Two Wheel Oklahoma