In the Spring and Summer bicycles come out of the sheds, get dusted off, and bring smiles to their owners’ faces. But at the peak of Summer, the nice warm Spring temperature can turn hot, and you may be asking yourself: just how hot is too hot to ride your bike?
The optimum temperature to ride a bike is between 60 and 80 °F (about 15 and 25 °C), but with proper preparation and precaution, you can ride a bike even in 105 °F (over 40 °C) or above. You need to find efficient ways to protect your skin and keep hydrated, and you need to reduce your performance when riding in really hot conditions.
Whether you want to bike commute on hot days, you want to go out for a spin or want to organize a bike tour, here are some things you need to be aware of to make it both possible and enjoyable.
Kick it off cool
The cooler your core temperature is when you set out on your ride, the later you start overheating. If you’re a commuter with a short 3-4 mile ride, the difference can be quite dramatic.
A good way to start cool if you can is to take a cool shower before you leave the house. If a shower isn’t possible, at least spend as little time out in the sun as possible before your ride.
This is like stating the obvious, but hydration is your number one priority when riding in the heat of the Sun. When riding in warm conditions, you produce anywhere between 350 and 650 ml of sweat per hour. This may not seem a whole lot, but it affects your muscles and your brain function a great deal.
The best way to hydrate is to drink before your ride and to hydrate in small sips throughout the ride.
When you feel really thirsty, resist the urge of stopping and chugging down a huge amount of water, as it will lead to excessive sweating. Also, if you drink too much at once, you may feel light-headed.
Electrolytes are a great way of keeping hydrated and replacing essential micro-nutrients your body needs when you go on longer rides. They prevent several unwanted negative consequences, such as muscle cramps for example, that result from losing minerals with your sweat.
Riding in the heat usually means riding in the sunshine. Even if the headwind keeps your skin somewhat cool, the Sun still has its effect on your skin. Any skin exposed is going to get sunburnt and needs to be protected.
Your neck, ears, face, hands, and legs may end up burned without you even noticing how it happened.
Use a strong Sun cream to protect yourself.
Use a loose long-sleeve shirt
Using a loose long-sleeve shirt is a good way of protecting your arms against the Sun, and it also helps keep you cool. I know that long-sleeve may sound counter-intuitive at first, but it really works.
When you ride your bike, even if there’s absolutely no wind at all, you generate some headwinds by pedaling. Your shirt catches the wind, and wraps it around your body, all the while protecting you from UV rays.
Linen is the best material for such occasions. Fly fishing shirts are especially practical and seem to be comfortable (as recommended by Path Less Pedaled as well as tested by Shifter). I also find synthetic materials comfortable and practical for such occasions.
Avoid using cotton or other heavy materials, which collect and trap moisture.
Don’t ride with a backpack
The main reason why backpacks make you sweat is that they prevent ventilation to your back. They press your shirt or t-shirt against your skin.
There are some backpacks, such as the Osprey Radial, that offer ventilation for your back, but even they can’t help prevent a sweaty back on a hot day.
If you are a backpack guy, you can use a convertible backpack-pannier, such as the Arkel Bug (I wrote about it here), or you can purchase an AirPannier, which allows you to carry any backpack as a pannier. It’s small enough so it fits in your backpack, and it’s light enough you won’t even notice it’s there.
If you ride a bike that doesn’t come with a rear rack, and it has no mounting points for one either, then check out the Dirza rear rack, which mounts on the saddle post and can be put on almost any bike (as long as it’s not a carbon bike or a full suspension MTB).
Ride in the woods or shaded areas
If you can, plan your route in shaded areas, such as the woods, or if you commute, then among tall buildings. Even if the route is a little longer, you may end up sweating less than on the more direct, but more exposed route.
On my commute, I notice how much difference buildings make as soon as I get to a more exposed area.
The heat doesn’t only come from the Sun, but it’s also reflected off the ground. Since asphalt is dark, it’s particularly good at absorbing and radiating back all the heat.
As soon as you manage to get off-road, you will notice an enormous difference in heat being radiated from below.
Leave early or late
If timing is not of the essence, and you can ride early in the morning, it can make a huge difference, even if the air is warm.
When I commute in the Summer, I notice a big rise in temperature between 7 and 8 am. This means that if I can get to my destination before 7 am, I ride in much more bearable conditions than if I was to leave later.
You can do the same if you bike tour. Divide your day into a morning and an afternoon/evening ride, and find some other activities to do while the Sun is peaking (usually between 11 am and 3 pm).
Find the sweet gear
For each of us, there is an optimum efficient gear ratio, which returns the most speed at the most comfortable effort and cadence. This isn’t the highest gear and it isn’t the lowest gear either, but it’s usually found somewhere in the upper-middle.
Although this is not a hard and fast rule, if you have a 21-speed hybrid bike, for most people, it’s on the middle chainring at the front, and the 5th or 6th smallest sprocket on the rear.
Experiment with different gear ratios, and observe how your body reacts in order to find what works best for you.
My favorite bike commuting products
Here are some of the products I love using for bike commuting. They make riding so much more fun and enjoyable.
Ergon GP5 Bar End Grips: These are super comfortable, ergonomic grips that offer me two extra hand positions on my flat bar bicycle. They also offer a much more comfortable grip that helps distribute my weight on the handlebar better.
Bar end mirrors: If you ride much among cars then a bar end mirror can make riding much safer. You don’t have to turn around every single time to check on the traffic coming from behind.
Bike lights from Cateye. This is essential year-round. I recommend going for a more powerful light than just a to-be-seen light. I like the 800-lumen ones from Cateye because they are affordable, portable, and still, give out plenty of light so I can see where I’m going even in pitch dark. The battery lasts for a long time too, and it’s USB rechargeable.
Bike rack. This bike rack from Dirza is great because I can put it on almost any bicycle regardless of whether they have mounting points for racks or not. I can leave it on my bike for commuting or take it off for weekend rides or whenever I don’t need a rack.
If you want to check out my full list of recommended products, you visit my recommended gear page.