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Riding In The Heat

By Miller Langhorne

One of the cool things about living in Florida is we get to ride year-round. Unfortunately, the summer riding season is anything but cool. With overnight temperatures in the ’70s and humidity that can literally drip, going for a ride to ‘cool off’ is not an option. If you’ve not yet had the chance to experience what a Sunshine State summer ride is like; get about 6 hair-dryers and line them up across your bike’s handlebars facing towards the rider. Plug them in and turn them all on High. Put your face directly in front of the hot air blast. You now know how it feels to ride a motorcycle during the summer in Florida.

Your Body And Heat

The human body is a marvelous machine, far more complicated than any mechanical riding contraption. It even comes with its own natural cooling process by allowing heat to escape through our skin and by evaporating sweat. Overtax the system and you risk succumbing to hyperthermia, which is when your body overheats. Extreme cases can cause damage to the brain or other vital body organs. To prevent this, it’s important you recognize the symptoms and take appropriate action.

Dehydration is caused when more fluid is leaving the body than is being taken in. Some of the symptoms are dry mouth, muscle cramps, nausea, heart palpitations, and feeling lightheaded. Your urine output will decrease, becoming more yellow in color. You may also stop sweating and your eyes may stop making tears. Severe cases can lead to mental confusion and possibly a coma or death. Treating a severe case can require intravenous fluids to replenish the body but most cases can be relieved by drinking small amounts of clear fluids like water or a drink that contains electrolytes. And the fluids don’t have to be cold to provide relief so tossing a bottle or two of water into your bags is a good idea.

Having something cool and wet next to your skin will help and there are several commercially made cooling vests and bandannas on the market. I prefer the old-school method of dousing my denim shirt in cool water and wearing that over my t-shirt. It dries out in about 30 minutes but it does provide some temporary relief. You get additional points for wearing light-colored clothing. We all know the black biker shirts are cool but heatstroke is not. Dark stuff is hot. Find a black helmet and a white helmet that has been sitting in the sun. See how long you can hold a hand to each one. That’s basic science, folks.

Long sleeves, helmets, gloves, and anything else that helps to shield your skin are good. Sunscreen should be applied to any exposed skin.  One type of sunscreen that most bikers don’t think of is a folding umbrella. It’s not for the rain, but it’ll give you a bit of shade if you happen to break down and you don't have a shade tree nearby to stand under while you wait for the tow truck.

Hot Machines & Hot Streets
Heat is heat, whether you’re riding an air or water-cooled machine. Both types of modern engines are very capable when it comes to operating in hot temperatures. While an oil cooler isn’t necessary on every bike – fresh, cool oil is the drink of choice of any hot engine. Of course, both types of engines produce heat which you, as the rider, are going to feel a certain amount of, along with the heat radiating from the pavement. Oh yea, and there’s that big bright Sun up above beating down on you.

Ever notice how your bike just seems to run stronger when the atmosphere is a certain temperature and humidity. Changing those factors will impact your performance. Carburetor jets may need adjustment to ensure the hotter weather isn’t causing the engine to run lean, which can cause it to overheat.

Overheated brake pads and discs are dangerous. Repeated starting and stopping in extremely hot weather, or overusing the brakes, can render them useless. Remember, unlike cars, there’s no emergency brake to pull. 

Windscreens don’t usually add much to the looks of a bike but they have some excellent functional uses. Along with shielding you from the road debris we encounter, a windscreen will reduce the amount of hot wind blowing on your skin which can make you dehydrated. As the warm wind passes over exposed skin, the perspiration is quickly evaporated instead of cooling you as it was intended to do. That’s why you don’t want to ride in shorts and a tank top with all that skin exposed. Reducing the amount of wind hitting your body by using a windscreen will also reduce rider fatigue.

Pull into a popular biker bar during the summer and you may find small squares of plywood in the parking lot. The heat can make the pavement soft and putting one of those under your kickstand can help to keep your bike from tipping. There are many commercially made pads and you’ll find them given away at many bike events. They also work when parking in soft sand. Toss it in the saddlebag or toolkit and you’ll have it when needed. Picking your bike up after it does a side flop is never fun. Crushed cans are a recyclable parking pad just waiting to happen.

Seats get hot too. Carrying a towel to cover the seat is an easy solution for this problem if you can't find parking in the shade.  

Managing The Ride

Unless you’re on a mission from God and you positively have to be somewhere at a certain time, there’s no need to hurry. There’s also no need to join the super-slab crowd with all those hot truck and car exhaust fumes. If you do have a particular destination, leave a little bit earlier and take a more rural route. You’ll find it more relaxing and you’re more likely to find some shaded byways which will be cooler than the exposed interstates. With less traffic around you, you’ll be less likely to be following another vehicle and you and your bike will get better airflow. Simple things like that are the key to enjoying a ride in the heat.  

An exception to this might be if the highway alternative involves an urban route with many stop signs and traffic lights. The stops will cause more engine heating. As a rider, you’ll be moving slower and will feel the heat from the bike and the pavement more so than if you were rolling along at highway speeds. In either case, unexpected traffic jams, accidents, or road construction projects can leave you boiling under the summer sun. (Remember that water in the saddlebag suggestion?) If you’re sitting for more than a few minutes, shut the engine off.

The summer heat also produces some intense thunderstorms, usually in the late afternoon. A cheap rain suit will protect you from the small sprinkles and a good rain suit will keep you dry in most downpours. But when the streets are flooding and the lightning is flashing, it’s time to bail. Find a safe, dry place to wait until things clear up. Even if you feel comfortable riding in the rain, remember there are a lot of inattentive cage drivers with greatly diminished visibility.

One last thing to consider when riding during the Summer is that the majority of people driving other vehicles have all the windows closed tight and their a/c blowers set to MAX. Loud pipes don’t mean a thing. Better to play it safe and make sure the other drivers know you are thereby avoiding their visual blind spots.

Be cool out there.

(Originally published in Go For A Ride Magazine July 2011.)