Temperature extremes are not good for motorcyclists. It does not even need to be terribly cold for hypothermia to be a problem, for example. Add windchill to a cold day’s ride and there is a distinct possibility that both your control of the bike and the core temperature of your body will suffer. While the windchill formula was developed for a specific purpose – to establish when you’d get frostbite – it still provides a somewhat useful warning. For instance, it says that at 60mph (97km/h) in 40 degrees F (4.5 degrees C), to your exposed face the air will feel as if it is 25 F (-4 C).
Most riders would have at least a general idea of the effect of cold, even if they don’t know the figures, and will beware of falling victim to hypothermia or milder symptoms. But how much do we know about the effect of heat?
A now retired long-distance truckie I know dines out on a motorcyclist-and-heat story to this day, although it happened forty years ago.
He was on a run from Adelaide to Perth across Australia’s Nullarbor Plain, somewhere west of Mundrabilla. The road runs a fair way inland here and it is not unusual for the thermometer to reach 50 C (122 F). On a flat, sandy stretch he suddenly noticed a motorcycle, parked by the side of the road on its sidestand, but no sign of a rider. Being a motorcyclist himself, he stopped and walked back to the bike. The key was in the ignition, and a helmet was lying on the ground.
He could see a trail of footsteps leading off into the scrub at right angles to the road. He followed it and began to find scattered articles of clothing. Eventually he found the rider, by now dressed only in underwear, face down and unconscious in the sand. He got the rider up and more or less conscious and took him back to the truck where he administered water both internally and externally. Eventually, the rider came good enough to talk sensibly, but he was unable to explain what he had been doing.
The bloke had heatstroke, which sets in when your body temperature reaches 104 F (40 C). I have had a variety of it myself, though nowhere near as badly, and I can tell you that it is thoroughly unpleasant. In serious cases, untreated heatstroke can quickly damage your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles and even cause death. Fortunately, my friend the truckie took him to Madura where they knew how to treat him.
To prevent this the Mayo Clinic website recommends, among other things, that during hot weather you:
- Wear loose fitting, lightweight clothing. Wearing excess clothing or clothing that fits tightly won’t allow your body to cool properly.
- Protect against sunburn. Sunburn affects your body’s ability to cool itself, so protect yourself outdoors with a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen…
- Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated will help your body sweat and maintain a normal body temperature.
- Take extra precautions with certain medications. Be on the lookout for heat-related problems if you take medications that can affect your body’s ability to stay hydrated and dissipate heat.
- Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day. If you can’t avoid strenuous activity in hot weather, drink fluids and rest frequently in a cool spot.
Not all fluids are created equal for this purpose. Alcohol is diuretic, and you will lose more fluid than you gain. Coffee and tea are mildly diuretic, as are sweet drinks. Water is best, with a couple of pinches of salt if you are sweating a lot. Opinions are divided on sports drinks. Judge your level of hydration by the colour and odour of your urine. The clearer and less smelly the better.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that you “act quickly if you notice symptoms of overheating.” These symptoms include:
- Cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat.
- Heavy sweating.
- Weak, rapid pulse.
- Low blood pressure upon standing.
- Muscle cramps.
I would add confusion to that list. I get confused enough without my neurons flipping about in the sauna of my brain.
As motorcyclists, we are relatively defenceless against excess heat, so the best way of avoiding problems is to stay off road or track during the hottest part of the day. If you cannot do that, consider wearing one of the commercially available cooling vests or scarves. These are filled with or soaked in water to provide evaporative cooling. You can also just soak a t-shirt in water and wear it under your bike gear, and soak the inside of your helmet. Keep in mind that high humidity will reduce the effectiveness of evaporation both from clothing and sweat.
I have seen air-conditioned helmets and clothing advertised but please, rider. Ordinary bike clothing will mostly have ventilation, as will your helmet. But there is a limit to how much that can help, even apart from the effects of high humidity. Above a certain temperature, which can vary from person to person, the airstream will no longer cool you. At this point you need to close any ventilation in your clothes and your helmet visor. You will know when you reach that point; just don’t ignore it.
Whatever you do, ensure that your neck is not exposed to the sun under the back of your helmet. That was what caused my heatstroke, when the cerebrospinal fluid heated up.
I’ll leave you with the scene at a gas station during a Sydney heatwave. I pull up on the bike, effectively taking a sweat bath inside my leathers, and the driver of the air-conditioned car at the next bowser says: “Hey, it must be great being out on a bike in this heat!” — “Yes,” I say, “great,” hoping he doesn’t notice the steam rising from the neck of my jacket…
(Photos by or of The Bear)