Don’t sweat the heat: 7 tips for pedaling through the warmer months

I write this in early April, at the dawn of the most pleasant of New Orleans seasons – one filled with festivals, halcyon days of extended sunlight ideal for strolling and chatting with neighbors over beers on front porches and crawfish boils. It’s a time when the cool lingering in the air lends itself to throwing open windows to allow in the sweet smells of blooming gardenias and jasmine and the sounds of the second line a few blocks away. And it’s one of the best times of the year for biking.

A group of friends bikes along Bayou St. John in New Orleans.
A group of friends bikes along Bayou St. John in New Orleans.

But I know that just a few weeks from now, when you’re likely to be reading this, the heat and humidity for which my part of the world is almost as infamous as its more alluring cultural assets will have fully descended upon us, the hot, wet air at once a slap and a deep embrace as one exits the confines of the expensive, anti-social, air-conditioned barracks we’ve concocted for ourselves out of sheer desperation to cope with this time of year. This hot blanket of wetness that we associate with summer actually extends well beyond the seasons official bounds to comprise a six-month period that causes all but the hardiest of visitors in my heavily-touristed city to skedaddle.

(Anyone looking for rock-bottom prices on great food and lodging and who happens to be fond of sauna-like conditions and the excitement of a possible hurricane, on the other hand, should make a bee-line for New Orleans during this window running from roughly late May to mid-October.) For those of us who live here, these sub-prime conditions are one of those inescapable realities of life in the subtropics that is a trade-off for winters free of snow, perennial access to well-seasoned cuisine and music, and being surrounded by an effusively warm and welcoming people.

Bike Easy's Bicycle Second Line, held in New Orleans in May. Photo by Eliza Munoz.
Bike Easy’s Bicycle Second Line, held in New Orleans in May. Photo by Eliza Munoz.

The South lags well behind the rest of this country in rates of biking and walking to work, and the sticky, warm weather that plagues the region for so much of the year has been proffered as one explanation for the phenomenon. I’m sure climate does have something to do with southerners disinclination to hop into the bike saddle (after all, few of us would likely name arriving to an over-air conditioned office drenched in sweat as an ideal situation) but I think the sprawling, suburban-style development patterns that characterize much of the South that necessitate the use of a car to get around, along with social and cultural factors probably are stronger disincentives. The promising thing about social and cultural norms and infrastructure, though, is that they can change, often in remarkably little time, as a handful of cities that fall below the Mason Dixon line – including places like New Orleans and Washington, D.C are proving.

These two southern cities, both of which I have called home, are interesting examples. The hot, humid conditions that plague these locales in the summer months (not to mention the buttoned-up work style for which D.C. is known) would arguably make them hellish backdrops for biking in the summer. Yet these cities both have large and growing ranks of people getting around by bike who are showing that there are workarounds to even the most intemperate weather. And as global temperatures continue to rise, providing another great argument for leaving your car keys at home, their examples may (unfortunately) be more and more relevant to everyone.

Bicycles parked outside the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April.
Bicycles parked outside the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April.

To that end, I’ve mined the expertise of several heat-and-humidity-hardened bicyclist friends and combined them with tips of my own in the hopes of helping you keep pedaling through the summer months. Id love to hear your own advice on biking in the heat in the comments section below.

Seven tips for biking to work in the heat and humidity:

  1. Slow it down. Take a bit more time with your ride to keep the sweat to a minimum.
  1. Leave a little earlier. Riding early in the morning can help you avoid the hottest temperatures of the day and give yourself a bit more time and space to cool off before the masses arrive at your office.
  1. Change is probably inevitable. Bring a change of clothes packed into a pannier or leave a few key items of clothing at your workplace in advance so that you’re not hanging around in sweat-logged clothes all day.
  1. Baby wipes aren’t just for changing diapers. Many of us don’t have showers at our workplaces, but if you fall into this category, it doesn’t mean you cant bike to the office. I like to shower before I leave my house and make use upon my arrival of a handy stash of athletic wipes I keep on hand there. I’m personally a fan of Action Wipes (and no, I didn’t get paid to say that), but a package of baby wipes from the grocery store should also work just fine. For those turned off by the waste generated by disposable wipes or who want to save some money, try a light weight camping towel wet with cold water to freshen up post-ride. I know a woman who carries a Ziplock bag filled with ice and a wet cloth doused in lavender essential oils that she swears by as a cleansing, refreshing end to her morning ride. Paper towels and those disposable toilet seat covers found in many commercial restrooms also make great sweat-mopping tools in a pinch.
  1. Women: opt for a low-maintenance hairstyle. (Believe it or not, helmet hair and related concerns about appearance are among the foremost obstacles many women cite as keeping them out of the bike saddle, leading me to believe that this topic should probably be the subject of a blog post unto itself.) My friend
    Chris is a hairstylist and competitive cyclist. He says key to getting your hair work-ready in a pinch is understanding its natural tendencies and running with it, particularly in hot, humid conditions. If you have naturally straight, shiny hair, you’re not likely to require much intervention post-ride, other than drying your hair off to the best of your ability and running a brush through it. But for those with a bit more wave, he suggests stashing a curling iron at work. After your hair is dry, create a few twists with the curling iron and voila! You’ve got an easy style that looks as though it required a lot more effort. Veronica Davis, who helped found the group
    Black Women Bike in Washington, D.C., a while back shared with me one of her favorite hair tips, which she says has proven effective for women of all ethnicities and hair types. Tie a satin scarf over your hair under your helmet, she advises. The scarf helps to keep hair in place while absorbing sweat and oils. Meantime, my friend Christine swears by a French or Dutch braid in the summer, which look great and stand up well to weather and the effects of a helmet.
  1. Drink up and protect your skin. It may be a no-brainer, but be sure to stay hydrated in the warm weather months when you’ll be sweating a good deal more than usual. Also, don’t forget the sunscreen.
  1. Don’t be scared of a little sweat. I think one of the main deterrents to getting around by bike for many Americans is the idea that they’ll look less than professional at the workplace. The reality is that these perceptions are culturally-rooted. Take some pride in being part of shifting those perceptions. “Sweat is our friend,” says my friend Mark Martin, “not some alien foulness to be eradicated at all costs.”
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