Biking in the heat and humidity of St. Louis summers

In response to my post about my evening bike adventures last week, reader Rebecca posed some questions about strategies for biking in the heat and humidity:

I am struggling with the incentive to get out on the bike after work now that the heat and humidity have found us. I did bike to church on Sunday (2.2mi each direction), but I’m having trouble imagining that 6+ miles to work is possible in this weather. Do you shower more often when you bike in the summer?

I have been reading [other blog posts] about how to bike in the summer, but Chicago and Boston and Canada just don’t have the same smothering humidity + unbelievable temps that I’ve experienced in St. Louis. Do you have any tips other than patterned and dark clothing [for concealing sweat]? Do you have a threshold temp? When is it “too hot” to bike?

I feel a bit sheepish answering these questions as I sit here, hibernating in my air conditioned apartment, having done nothing more taxing outdoors in the past day-and-a-half than walk my son the half block to and from the sitter’s house.

Sheepish, but qualified.  I’ve put in my time as a regular bike commuter in St. Louis for five summers, one-and-a-half of which involved a six-mile each way commute.  Perhaps my summer hibernation tendencies, my shunning the heat and intense sun, make me more qualified — if I can get out and bike in this, so can you, dear readers!

Clothing
While not usually my thing, the “cycle chic” mentality is all well and good most of the time.  However, St. Louis summers, with humidity regularly well above 70% and temperatures in the 90s (which mean heat indices of 100°F and up) is NOT the time to worry about bike fashion.

If you’re traveling a relatively short distance (say less than 2 or 3 miles), and a summery dress or a sleeveless top and skirt/shorts will work at your destination and while riding the bike, go for it!

But if you’re headed to work, or anywhere else that requires business attire, and you don’t want to be stuck in sweaty clothes all day, plan to bike in some variation of t-shirt and shorts and change when you reach your destination.

This was my strategy for all my work-related bike commuting in the summer (with some exceptions when I lived within a mile of work), and I more or less used it year-round once I reached the six-mile commute.  Sure, I could have ridden that distance in my work clothes, but why put the wear and tear on them, when I was more comfortable riding in a more casual, athletic get-up anyway?

As far as biking to evening events, I try to find a compromise between looking nice and biking in the heat, accepting that I may not look quite as fresh and fashionable as the woman who just stepped out of her air-conditioned car (but don’t worry, if it’s an outdoor event, the heat and humidity are great equalizers, she’ll wilt soon enough).

Hygiene
As I’ve mentioned before, when I was biking to work, I was fortunate enough to have showers in both of my office buildings.  Both were somewhat random.

I first worked in a building that used to be a hospital.  When it was renovated, they left the staff locker rooms in the basement, complete with working showers.  There was also a small satellite fitness facility, which I wanted to use anyway, and my membership included towels, so I didn’t have to bring my own.  I claimed a locker to store my shower stuff.

When I transferred to a different employer, our offices were in a converted textile factory, and one set of restrooms just happened to have working shower stalls, so I was once again blessed with the option of showing after my morning commute.  I didn’t have the luxury of the towel service or lockers, but I did have a private office with room to air dry my towel.

Interestingly enough, had I had the time, gumption, etc. to bike from south St. Louis to Arnold (the location of my most recent job), I could have also availed myself of a shower there.  Perhaps I have some kind of radar for identifying employers with showers?

Anyway, if you have a shower in your building, use it!  Sure, it requires a bit more effort, having a towel, flip-flops (for your feet in the shared shower), and soap with you (and perhaps carrying them back and forth every day, depending on your work space and storage options), but it’s worth it.  Sure, you need to leave a bit earlier to give yourself time to shower, but it’s time you’d be spending at home doing the same thing anyway, and every bit earlier you leave in the morning means cooler temps and less sun.

No shower in your building?  If there is a fitness facility within a block or two of your work place, it may be worth a membership (or perhaps inquiring about a “shower-only” membership) to access their locker rooms and showers.

If that’s not an option, you can still do a good bit with some water (from a sink or even a water bottle) and a washcloth (works best if there are single restrooms where you can lock the door, and have some privacy or if you have a private office).

Whether it’s a shower, sponge bath, or just waiting to cool off a bit and then changing, giving yourself time to finish sweating before putting on your work clothes is always a good idea.

Hydration and sun safety
Hydration is key to summer biking If you don’t have a water bottle cage on your bike, get one, and use it.  For longer rides, plan your route to include a place to refill, or carry more water.

For most standard commute-type rides, plain old water works fine, no need for fancy sports drinks.  For longer excursions, you may need to consider some type of electrolyte replacement, be it liquid or solid.

If you’re biking at peak sun times (10am-4pm), wear sunscreen and/or sun-protective clothing.  I really, really prefer the sun-protective clothing to covering my skin in chemicals.  Unfortunately, my oh-so-stylish big, floppy sun hat doesn’t really work with my bike helmet.

That, and even factoring in the pore-clogging effects of sunscreen (i.e., your body can’t sweat and cool itself as efficiently), sunscreen will still be cooler than covering up with clothing, especially on a bike where you can enjoy the breeze you generate as you ride.

Slow down
Like it or not, you may need to slow your pace a bit when riding in extreme heat, especially at first, when you’re not conditioned to it. This it not the time to set a PR for how fast you can get to work.

Listen to your body (see here for the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion) and give yourself extra time to reach your destination.  Be prepared for your regular ride leave you feeling a bit more sore and tired than usual.

Final thoughts
If you are in relatively good health, dress for the weather, carry water, and adjust your pace, I don’t think there is such a thing as “too hot to bike.”

For the work commute, you can generally have at least one direction be relatively comfortable, most likely the morning commute (unless you regularly work past 7pm, and then the evening commute might not be so bad).  Summer bike commuting is a good time to embrace (or find) your early bird.

Your turn!
I’d love to hear other tips, tricks, or thoughts on biking in heat and humidity.

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7 Responses to Biking in the heat and humidity of St. Louis summers

  1. Matthew says:

    I’ve been working without easy access to showers for a while, and find that a shower in the morning, and a rinse off shower in the evening keep me smelling fresh, even if I do have some sweat on me from my morning commute.

    I’m a great fan of biking without socks in the heat, and I prefer a dedicated cycling shirt that is of a cooler material (linen or seersucker) than a t-shirt.

    For extreme heat and humidity I rely on an old farming/gardening trick. Get wet. I bring extra water and use a little to wet down my hair and my shoulders and the front of my shirt. This allows for some serious evaporative cooling. Last summer when I was biking home in 115 degrees and full sun I wet down three times over the 5 mile commute, and I substituted some board shorts for my normal shorts so I wouldn’t have too much heavy wet fabric on.

    Clearly the get-wet plan works best when arriving home rather than on your way to work or an event, but if you start using it you can also start learning about how long it’s going to take your clothes to dry and make more use of the technique.

  2. This is *exactly* the sort of response I was seeking – thanks! I don’t know that I realized it at the time, but yes, I think you’re right that a change of clothing will be necessary for a 10K commute. I do not have showers at work, though once I’ve had 20 minutes or so to cool off, and especially with a fresh outfit to change into, I don’t really struggle with any lingering body-odor issues (certainly nothing a little time at the sink couldn’t address). Unfortunately, no shower at work, and the gym I used to belong to nearby is terribly expensive (it was lovely, but the stress associated with the monthly payment outpaced the mental- and physical-health benefits gained by working out there).

    I just know the humidity added to our heat plays a crucial role in increasing loss of moisture and electrolytes, and unlike places farther north, we don’t often have the luxury of crisp mornings and temperate evenings between late June and sometimes into September. The comment about the air-conditioned lass wilting in the St. Louis summer was exactly right! I’ve been that lass too often.

    I am planning to try the commute next week, when things are slow and it looks like we’ll have a nice break from the heat (highs of 79-82). If things go well, I think it will give me a great sense of how to make it work when it is warmer.

  3. EcoCatLady says:

    Well, here in Denver we don’t have much humidity to contend with, but riding in 90 degree + heat with LOTS of sunshine is a daily experience. I’ve discovered a few things that help.

    For the sunshine, I always take a PABA supplement – it’s a Vitamin B thing and while PABA in sunscreens has been banned, taking it as a supplement really helps with sunburn and has no adverse effects (that I’m aware of.) But as a redhead, I also have to slather with sunscreen for long rides. Recently I’ve been trying zinc oxide based sunscreens. They are apparently the least toxic out there and they do a much better job than other kinds that I’ve tried, and they’ve discovered some way to make the zinc invisible so you don’t look like a total dork or anything. A bike helmet with a good viser is also a must to keep the sun off of your face as much as possible. I’ve also read about these interesting things called “arm coolers” recently, but haven’t tried them:
    http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2013/06/arm-coolers-for-summer-cycling-look-at.html

    The other thing I’ve found is that while I’m loathe to admit that one has to have special clothing for biking, bike jerseys really do work better than regular shirts. I’ve got a few Pearl Izumi jerseys that I found at the thrift store for about $4 each, and they’re wonderful! They have high collars so the sun stays off of your neck and they’re made from some sort of material that wicks moisture so they don’t show sweat. And they have extra length in the back so you don’t end up with a sunburnt strip across your lower back. Plus they have back pockets so you have someplace to carry stuff. They look nice enough that I wear them when I’m running errands by bike.

    This part might sound counter-intuitive, but I find that I feel the heat much less if I ride faster, because it creates a nice breeze. Not sure if that works the same in high humidity situations, but it works here! Of course, if it means you have to work significantly harder, the tradeoff might not be worth it.

    All that being said, once the thermometer tops 100, I generally stay inside and huddle by the AC!

  4. Jennifer says:

    I haven’t been a bike commuter for a while, and when I was, I was a fair weather bike commuter. But I found it easiest to wear biking shorts and t-shirt for the ride, and bring something easy for work, like a skirt I could just pull on over the biking shorts, or a button down shirt to go over the t-shirt.

  5. Thanks for the tips, folks! EcoCat, I generally agree that, while riding, going faster helps (more breeze), but the problem with humidity is that when you sweat, it doesn’t evaporate very quickly due to the high moisture level in the air. So that extra effort can drastically increase your cool-down time on and off the bike (which can be very dangerous, from a body-temp-reg perspective). I was able to ride last week, when St. Louis had unseasonably-cool weather. I am skipping so far this week, when the weather has been described as “the most oppressive of the summer”. (Highs in the mid-90s and heat index predicted of 105.)

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