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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Motorcycles and the Summer Heat

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey

It was going to happen, whether I wanted it to or not.  After becoming accustomed to the mild summers in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania for the last seven years, I now find myself in Northern Virginia, where they have REAL summers.

It’s been a pleasant spring.  But today, on the first day of summer, temperatures vaulted from the delightful upper 70’s to near 100 degrees.  With dew points in the 65 to 70 degree range, “sweltering” was the word of the day.

Days like this create something of a moral dilemma for this motorcyclist.  Up north, winters run from mid-October to mid-May, so one is loath to surrender a riding day for any reason.  Here, the warmer climes make a 10-month riding season possible, “warmer” of course being a term of some subjectivity.  But in the same way I had to surrender to mountain winters, here I need to re-think my standards with regards to heat.  I work in a shirt-and-tie environment and arriving for duty sopping and smelly doesn’t sit well with my co-workers.  Thus, the hottest days find me in the air-conditioned comfort of a car with the bike in silent, but reproachful repose in the garage.

Some years ago, I did a trip to the southwest.  Mid-July found me in Phoenix, Arizona, the land of triple-digit summers.  I fully expected dry heat, but unbeknownst to me, July is monsoon season for the desert.  That means the usual bone-dry air mass is replaced by a soupier tropical pattern.  So not only was I faced with 114-degree heat, I also had to deal with Florida-like humidity levels.  I learned a lot that day, not the least of which was the addition of Gatorade to my diet.  That saved the trip, and quite possibly, my life.

Now faced with similar conditions, I thought it might be prudent to dust off some advice on riding in the heat.

The human body’s coolant system consists of skin and sweat.  Glands secrete fluid that coats the skin thus providing a medium that conducts heat from inside to the outside.  The hotter the air, the more we sweat, so it is vitally important that people replace those fluid losses promptly and continuously.  In addition, you lose things called “electrolytes.”  Now, I’m a bit fuzzy on exactly what they are, but my wife, the RN tells me that they’re absolutely necessary for survival.  Water is a great rehydrator, but has no electrolytes, so you should turn to sport drinks like Gatorade, which are chock-full of them. 

On long rides in the summer, I carry a Camelback, a portable backpack reservoir that holds varying amounts of liquid and ice.  A tube snakes from the back over your shoulder where you can take hits as you need.  I use water for temperate days and the sterner stuff for when it’s really hot.  One thing though, sport drinks are loaded with sugars so if you’re diabetic, or like me, borderline, than you should consult your doctor for some alternatives.

I see a lot of folks dressing down for the summer riding season.  It may feel more comfortable, but it’s false comfort.  First and foremost, if you go down, either because of you, a deer, or some cell-phone-gabbing driver, there’s nothing between you and the pavement.  And whether it’s concrete or asphalt, it’s still very hot.  Imagine sliding across a rocky frying pan, if you will.  Once you’ve suffered through the process of getting road rash debrided in the hospital, you become willing to endure a little discomfort for the sake of saving your skin.   Jeans may be uncomfortable standing still, but as you ride, the fabric will catch and hold the sweat, providing a cooling effect.  Riding in shorts means the wind is blasting away at your skin, so the sweat, what you do generate, gets blown off and thus provides no cooling effect.  On a long, hot day, the effects accumulate.  No sweat, no coolant and before you know it, the breeze has fooled you into a good case of dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Think about it.  You get heat blasted from the sun, and from the road surface as the heat is re-radiated upwards.  Plus there’s the heat from the engine as well.  It pays to be a bit more careful.
Jeans will protect you in the first 10 feet of a 200-foot skid down the asphalt, but it’s far better than nothing at all.  Every manufacturer of motorcycle gear sells moto pants that are meshed and vented but still made out of tough abrasion-resistant material and contain armor pads on the vulnerable places.  The same goes with jackets.  And gloves.  I tend to put my leathers away for hot days because they’re just too thick and heavy, and don’t breathe. 

The sun, as most know, is no friend to human skin.  I always apply sunscreen to my exposed surfaces, especially my face.  My skin, at 57 years old, is beginning to show the effects of all the sunburns I thoughtlessly accumulated in my younger years.  I now have to protect what is still undamaged.  If you’re reading this, and 57 seems incredibly ancient to you, please heed this advice.  What carelessness you indulge in now will be more than paid back to you later.

Helmets.  Um.  Yes.  Well…it’s like this.  Two studies released last year proved that not only were helmets instrumental in reducing and in some cases, eliminating head trauma in riders, one study, done by Johns Hopkins, demonstrated conclusively that they actually reduced incidence of spinal neck injury.  I never ride without one because I make my living with my brain and I feel I should respect that lump of gray matter inside my skull.  But I understand and respect the wishes of those who desire to ride unhatted.  This is a decision for you to make.  At least for now.  More and more legislatures are considering reinstating mandatory helmet use due to the perceived increase in motorcycle head trauma.  That they’re using skewed data and badly de-contextualized citations matters not a whit.  We have to face the fact that when we have accidents, they’re ugly, bloody, violent, and very high profile.  That has a sobering effect on the uneducated.

We will all ride this summer.  And if we use a little common sense and caution, we can survive until winter forces our dream machines back into storage.
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