Summer means longer, hotter days. However, with right preparation, you can still enjoy plenty of summer riding despite the added challenges of hot weather. Knowing what it takes to beat the heat and stay cool in warm weather is the key to a safe, enjoyable ride during the summer.
Why it’s important to “dress for the weather”
Always determine your riding gear based on the weather conditions of where you will be riding. Not dressing for the weather can result in an exceptionally unenjoyable bike ride and even put you in life-threatening situations that, with proper preparation, can easily be avoided. The World Health Organization reports that heat-related illnesses are a leading cause of weather-related mortality and morbidity worldwide, an indication of how easily one can succumb to the effects of extreme heat without resources.
In hot temperatures, normal body functions, such as maintaining a stable body temperature, heart rate, and hydration levels, become more challenging. The very action of pedaling will feel harder and cause your body to burn calories much faster than in cooler conditions. Refueling with calories is of the utmost importance under these conditions, making nutrition an essential part of planning a ride in the heat.
Riding unprepared in the heat also increases your risk of developing heat-related conditions, such as dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, that can leave long-term effects. Make sure to stay hydrated, take breaks when needed, and listen to your body for necessary adjustments to your ride—even if it means cutting your ride short and calling a friend to pick you up.
Consider the details of where you’ll be riding
Where you ride should also be considered in the preparation. Uncontrollable variables like sun exposure, humidity, terrain, and weather conditions can negatively affect your riding experience and cause heat-related illnesses.
Sun exposure is one detail you should seriously consider when planning the ride. Being ill-prepared for a sunshine-packed ride could result in sunburn and increase your risk of developing skin cancer—a risk that goes up with each sunburn. Protect yourself with skin-shielding gear and accessories, including sunglasses or goggles, summer arm sleeves, and sweat-resistant sunscreen. Consider scheduling your rides during the earlier morning hours or in the late afternoon and evening hours to avoid the sun when it’s at its worst. Opting for trails and bike paths that offer shade is another way to reduce exposure to the sun.
Humidity refers to the amount of moisture in the air. When humidity levels rise, the air can feel hotter and stickier. The extra moisture in the air makes it harder for sweat to evaporate from your skin and makes the air feel “heavy.” “Heavy” air can make breathing harder, which becomes a greater concern for those with preexisting respiratory conditions. Lower humidity levels, however, can make the heat more bearable and allow for easier breathing.
Humidity can make or break your ride, making it a factor that needs consideration when getting ready. Depending on the level of humidity that awaits, changing attire and modifying your original hydration and nutrition plans may be necessary. Lightweight, breathable fabrics that wick away sweat can help make the ride more comfortable in humid conditions.
Inclement weather conditions
No one’s summed up the unpredictable nature of weather as eloquently or humorously as Pericles, a prominent statesman and orator of Athens during its Golden Age: “The only thing you can be sure about in the weather is that it will change.” Before you pedal out, always check the daily weather forecast of the area you’ll be riding. You must stay informed about weather conditions because “perfect” weather can change quickly. Staying up-to-date on anticipated highs, lows, and possible inclement weather means a greater chance of having a safe and enjoyable cycling experience.
Where you ride can affect your riding experience. It's important to consider the road, path or trail's terrain, ride duration, and difficulty level when planning a ride on a hot day, adjusting your pace and hydration when needed. Steep climbs and technical trails become even more physically demanding, leading to increased sweating and a higher risk of heat-related conditions. Instead, opt for smoother, flatter terrain or shaded trails that offer a gentle breeze, as riding on warm days is likely more comfortable. Wearing appropriate clothing, carrying enough water, and taking breaks as needed, also help ensure a safe and enjoyable ride despite the challenges of the terrain and heat.
What to wear
What you wear during your summer bike ride will affect your experience, so choosing the attire that best suits your needs and the kind of riding you’re doing is critical. Wear easy-to-remove layers to make keeping up with temperature changes as simple as possible.
In the event of a crash or simply catching a low-hanging branch, a well-fitting helmet is the only thing that will offer your head any kind of protection. It’s the most important protective riding gear, making it the one item you should never skimp on. When selecting a summer helmet, ventilation for breathability is key because the head is responsible for releasing 10% of body heat. It should feel snug (not tight) and shouldn’t shift when you shake your head. When checking for fit, wear the sunglasses, goggles, or earbuds you would normally wear when riding to ensure compatibility.
Those with a close-cropped hairstyle or who have little or no hair can gain additional protection from sun exposure by wearing a cycling cap, a hat specially designed to provide breathability under a helmet. However, many prefer a cycling bandana or scarf because their tightness is adjustable, they feel cooler, and there’s no visor to deal with.
Hands and feet
Your hands and feet are two of three points of contact between your body and your bike, which means they work hard and deserve special protection. Poorly fitting or ill-equipped gloves and footwear can lead to blisters, chafing, and inflammation which are quickly exacerbated with even a little bit of sweat. That's why it's crucial to wear gloves, socks, and shoes that provide the support, comfort, and breathability needed to keep hands and feet at their best.
For your hands, opt for full-finger padded gloves with ventilation to help reduce vibrations, prevent blisters and calluses, and protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays. Gloves also offer additional grip, making a huge difference in wet weather or when your hands are sweaty. If you find full-finger gloves are too warm, consider investing in a pair with better venting or fingerless gloves. Remember that fingerless gloves may not offer as much protection or grip as full-finger ones.
Avoid sweaty feet, blisters, and other related conditions by wearing cycling-specific socks and shoes designed to provide the functionality, comfort, and durability needed. Socks made of merino wool, polyester, or nylon keep feet dry. Some socks have extra cushioning and built-in compression for added comfort. Shoes with mesh panels or perforations allow for good breathability to help keep feet cool and dry. A secure fit to prevent feet from slipping or moving within the shoe and stiff soles for efficient power transfer and support are also necessary. Don’t forget to check for pedal compatibility because pedals and shoe clips are not universal.
Upper body apparel should be made from breathable fabrics to allow the body to cool off, can be fitted or loose, and are available in long or short sleeves.
Manufacturers design cycling jerseys to meet the unique needs of cyclists. The best jerseys are made from moisture-wicking fabric, have a form-fitting design, typically feature a full-length zipper for temperature regulation, and have rear pockets for storing riding essentials. While a long-sleeve jersey may offer sun protection, opting for a short-sleeve jersey with removable sun sleeves in warmer weather is better. Cycling jerseys are popular, but for those who prefer something a bit more casual, an athletic t-shirt made from wicking fabric or a tank top can also be a good choice.
Cycling jackets designed to protect you during bad weather are available as waterproof, windproof, with or without zip-off sleeves, or any combination of the three. Similar to a vest, a riding gilet is sleeveless with a full-length zip and offers additional warmth and protection on those days when a jacket is too warm. (A jacket with zip-off sleeves is a good alternative). While it might feel counterintuitive to carry a jacket in the summer, if you live in a location with frequent summer downpours or abrupt weather changes, it might be just the thing to get you home in relative comfort. Summer jackets are exceptionally tiny, most roll up to the size of a fist and can easily fit in a jersey pocket.
The saddle is the third point of contact between you and your bike. It’s where you bear the brunt of your weight and where you want to achieve maximum comfort by minimizing friction and wicking away as much moisture as possible.
Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned pro, the key to a comfortable cycling experience is a lightweight, breathable high-quality cycling short or bib with a chamois (pronounced sha-mee) pad. Chamois pads are made of foam with different densities and have a top layer that wicks away moisture and feels gentle against the skin. The special materials and design help reduce pressure on the pelvic area, minimize friction and chafing, and may also have antimicrobial properties that prevent unpleasant odors and bacteria.
When shopping for bike shorts for hot weather, you have the option of tight or loose-fitting ones. Tight-fitting compression-style bottoms are aerodynamic, minimize friction between your skin and the fabric, and help prevent chafing. However, they can restrict movement, causing an issue for some riders. If you prefer loose-fitting shorts, ensure they fall above the knee to avoid trapping heat and restricting movement. A comfortable waistband that doesn't dig into your skin is also important. Additionally, look for shorts with mesh panels or perforations for ventilation, which allow air to flow through and keep you cool and dry during your ride.
Regarding cycling apparel, the differences between men's and women's gear are based on the anatomical distinctions between the genders. Men's chamois support the sit bones and improve blood flow through a central channel, which helps minimize pressure and reduce the risk of numbness while cycling. Conversely, women's chamois have a broader foam placement in the sit bone area and provide continuous support through the central region. You can ensure maximum comfort and support during your rides using gender-specific cycling gear.
Things to consider when choosing cycling apparel
When choosing the right cycling apparel for hot weather rides, there are a few key factors to consider, including construction, fit, functionality, and overall quality. Not all cycling apparel is created equal, so choosing the right gear is imperative. While it may be tempting to go for cheaper options, investing in high-quality gear is crucial for maximum comfort, performance, and durability.
The construction of your gear can make or break your experience and even leave you feeling lousy for days post-ride. It can also affect your comfort, safety, and enjoyment of the sport.
Decent cycling apparel is made from technical fabrics that are lightweight, breathable, and quick-drying to curb chafing and keep you cool. It’s also designed to withstand exposure to the elements and wear-and-tear, with strategically reinforced high-stress spots. Merino wool and polyester fabrics are preferred because they check all the boxes and offer maximum comfort; avoid cotton, as it tends to trap heat and moisture, causing you to feel wet and cold during your ride.
Cycling clothes should feel comfortable and snug with flat seams, ventilation features, and reflective details. Padding should be high-density foam or gel and aimed to provide comfort and support. While the needs of a roadie and mountain biker may be similar, there will still be some differences. For instance, due to the nature of where they ride, mountain biking requires extra durable apparel to withstand snags and rips than casual commuters or road cyclists.
Well-constructed gear will consider functionality. It’s not uncommon for reputable manufacturers to strategically use a number of fabrics to achieve better comfort and protection. For example, manufacturers may use windproof fabrics for panels across the chest and shoulder area and wicking, stretchy materials under the arms and across the back.
Avoid costly errors by referring to the sizing guides provided by the manufacturer. It's worth noting that many of these manufacturers are based in Europe and Asia, and their sizing is often quite different from the North American standard. The standards vary because they design their clothing around different body types, resulting in significantly different sizing. Even if a garment appears to fit due to the high elasticity of the materials, it may not sit correctly on the seams, resulting in discomfort and loss of compressive properties that the fabric is designed to provide. It's essential to refer to the sizing guides to ensure that the clothing fits well and provides the intended benefits.
You get what you pay for
There’s no denying that high-quality gear is expensive. The best cycling jerseys are constructed with more panels and may come with a heftier price tag, but those panels serve a purpose: more panels mean a better overall fit because they follow the curves of your body and allow for an increase in technical performance. Companies that produce cycling apparel indeed earn hefty margins, but they also spend significant amounts on research and development to offer the best experience possible. While it might seem like an unnecessary luxury to invest in high-end riding gear, it’s unlikely that you’ll regret the decision later. High-quality gear also tends to last a lot longer and carry warranties you can fall back onto if something isn’t quite right.
Hot weather essentials
While safe cycling apparel is the most important consideration when suiting up for a ride, some other hot weather essentials need to be a part of your everyday arsenal of cycling stuff—especially in the summer heat.
Exposure to the sun can be one of the biggest health hazards for cyclists, especially during the summer months. Sunburn, skin cancer, and premature aging are all potential risks associated with excessive exposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. However, with proper sun protection, you can enjoy a safe and comfortable ride while reducing your risk of skin damage.
Sunscreen offers skin a barrier of protection and should be used every time you ride, all year long. Always slather some on your ears and the back of your neck. Despite remembering to apply sunscreen to their faces and arms, many cyclists forget to apply it to their legs. Even though legs get less sun exposure, spending significant time in the sun can still cause damage and requires UV protection.
Sun sleeves are made of a super thin fabric designed to block UV rays and provide moisture-wicking and cooling properties. Sleeves are designed similarly to arm and leg warmers and are a great substitute for sunscreen. Their efficiency can be increased even further on sweltering summer days by splashing water on them. They might take some getting used to, but they provide excellent protection, help you stay cool when moving, and are a much better option than going out sans sun protection. If they ever become uncomfortable, they can be easily taken off and stashed into a jersey pocket.
Cycling in hot weather exposes your delicate eyes to the sun’s harmful UV rays, dust, and dirt. Unfortunately, cyclists often overlook the importance of eye protection, increasing the likelihood of developing sun-related eye conditions and injuries. Always wear sunglasses or goggles when riding in the sun to keep your eyes safe and focused on the road.
When choosing appropriate eye protection, only wear sunglasses that offer 100% UVA- and UVB-absorbant protection. Eyewear made specifically for outdoor sports, like cycling, is designed to stay on during movement and sweating. Look for eyewear with silicone grippers on the contact points around your nose and ears to reduce the chances of them falling or slipping.
Another way to ensure your eyes are safe and comfortable during your ride is by staying hydrated. Dehydration can cause eye dryness and irritation and increase your chances of developing eye infections and inflammation. It can also cause eye strain and headaches that have the potential to compromise your vision and focus, ultimately putting you at greater risk of having an accident.
As the temperature of your riding conditions goes up, your body responds by sweating more, which is a loss of fluids and electrolytes and can lead to dehydration and other heat-related health risks if not replenished. Proper hydration includes electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, found in any reputable sports beverage. If you eat well and stay hydrated regularly, just bringing water for shorter distances will likely suffice. For long distances, water and electrolyte consumption are necessary. Replenishing lost fluids and electrolytes should always be a priority when riding—especially during those hot summer rides.
The best way to stay hydrated is by setting yourself up for success early on. Start hydrating at least the day before your ride and ensure to load up on electrolytes at the same time. Consider the duration of your ride and your fluid intake—you do not want to end up in the middle of nowhere with no water. Consider using sweat rate to create a perfect cycling hydration plan. Be sure to test out your bottle setup with the bottles you intend to use, as some bottle combinations aren’t compatible and may not fit in the frame. A hydration pack can either substitute or supplement water bottles. Ensure proper hydration by filling the two water bottles with a sports drink and the hydration pack bladder a little more than halfway with water and freezing the bottles and bladder overnight. Top off with cold water just before pedaling out.
Staying on top of nutrition is right next to hydration on the priority list. Bicycling in the heat requires your body to work harder to operate efficiently, which means it will also burn calories much quicker than in cold weather. Inadequate nutrition can cause a drop in blood sugar levels and lead to dizziness, lightheadedness, and even fainting, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “bonking.”
Refuel during your ride with foods packed with energy and electrolytes. Fruits like bananas and oranges are packed with essential electrolytes that hydrate and energize. Salty snacks help replenish salt that’s lost thoughsweating. Energy bars and gels are a great option for those who want a convenient way to get the nutrients they need without the hassle of dealing with traditional food choices.
It’s easy to get caught up in the joy of a ride and to push ourselves to the limit, but it's important to remember our bodies have limits, too. Being aware of your limits and the beginning signs of heat-induced illnesses can help you determine when it’s time for a break; knowing when to take a break is especially important when riding in warmer temperatures. Enjoying a short rest under the shade of a tree or a refreshing drink at a gas station can help you cool down, re-energize and continue the ride safely. And remember—if break time feels a bit premature, the hot weather likely has something to do with it.
What to do if a heat-related illness is suspected
A cyclist knows the exhilarating feeling of the wind on your face and the satisfaction of conquering a challenging ride. There are times when passion overcomes common sense, and we ride even though it’s too hot outside. When the heat is on, taking precautions is critical to prevent heat-induced illness. If you start to feel unwell:
- The first thing you should do is stop riding immediately.
- Find a cool spot where you can recover. If possible, rest in an air-conditioned building. If that's not an option, look for a shady area and sit down.
- Once you’re in a cooler spot, start replenishing your fluids as soon as possible. Water is essential, but if you have electrolytes, take them to replace any lost salts.
- Try to cool down using a damp towel or shirt to help regulate your body temperature. Removing unnecessary clothing can also help you cool down more quickly.
- If your symptoms worsen or you feel disoriented, seek medical attention immediately. Don't wait until it's too late.
Bicycling in hot weather brings challenges, but it doesn’t have to throw a wrench in your summer riding plans. By wearing the right cycling clothing for the day’s riding conditions, protecting yourself from the sun’s intense heat and damaging rays, and maintaining proper hydration and nutrition, you can reduce the chances of a heat-induced illness or injury interrupting your ride. After all, the point is to enjoy the ride.