Hooray for rain: why bad summers make good riders

After a hot few days here in the UK, Steve considers if dry, dusty, humid conditions are really a good thing for cyclists

It’s been very hot in the UK recently — four sunny days in a row was all it took to make this the hottest June since 1976. It’s all any of us wish for. And you know what? You should be careful what you wish for. Turns out it doesn’t actually make cycling easier at all.

For those of you in countries that have summers every year, note the British heatwave of 1976 is only marginally less-referenced than our World Cup soccer victory in 1966. It’s not that we’re clinging on to past glories, it’s… no wait, it is. Also for those of you in other countries, I’ve just annoyed every Brit alive and many dead by calling it soccer, when its proper name is diving.

I’m the last person to want constant rain — I get the SADs if the sky goes blank for more than, say, six months — but I really think the variety of our weather is a huge boon. It doesn’t feel like it when the clouds reach the floor and the mud reaches your chin, but it is.

Look how happy he is! He’s been in that puddle since 2009
Look how happy he is! He’s been in that puddle since 2009

Just look at the amount of British riders at the top of everything from World Cup downhill — the Athertons, Danny Hart, Manon Carpenter, Brendan Fairclough, Tahnée Seagrave — to motorcycling’s insanely nail-like Hard Enduro. Think Jonny Walker, Graham Jarvis, Paul Bolton and more. All of them acknowledge how riding and training in the UK prepares them for the worst conditions in the techiest terrains.

So kudos then to those who live and ride in consistently hot countries, though only if they’re typically very humid as well

Unpredictable and frequently poor weather also naturally selects the hardiest, most determined riders in the first place. It’s definitely easier to get out there and ride when the sky is soft and the ground is hard, rather than the other way around. UK riders have to be pretty devoted just to be riders.

So what came as a bit of a surprise, during our glorious four-day summer (did I mention it was hotter than 1976?), was that it wasn’t all suddenly much easier. In fact, there just didn’t seem to be as much oxygen, like it had all gone to lie in the shade with a beer pressed to its forehead with everyone else.

Climbing resulted in higher heart rates and harder-to-control breathing, and that strange feeling that something was lacking. Strength? Stamina? Talent? Hard to say, if only because I couldn’t form words that sounded like anything other than a dirty phone call.

Maybe there really wasn’t as much oxygen, which — vitally — would mean it was Not My Fault. Hot air is less dense and combustion engines certainly feel it, making measurably less power the hotter it gets. In fact, the air density in Arizona has been too low for airliners to fly — extreme heat has rendered the Las Vegas and Phoenix runways too short. But is the same really true of humans? We’re a bit more complex than the average engine, though snapped crankshafts tend to be catastrophic for us as well.

Turns out the answer is yes: human performance drops in heat. Sweating doesn’t cool you unless it evaporates, taking heat with it, and the more humid a hot day gets, the harder evaporation gets. Your body then diverts more blood to the skin to boost cooling, leaving less blood for muscles, your heart and the bit of your brain that’s obsessed with Strava.

Medical fact: pasty UK riders can sweat away completely on long rides
Medical fact: pasty UK riders can sweat away completely on long rides

It gets worse. Sweat is actually plasma, so you’re losing not just electrolytes but blood volume, which means the remaining liquid gets thicker; combined with the diversion of blood to the skin, this leaves the heart pumping less volume with each stroke. Consequently its rate increases to compensate. Consequently-consequently it’s a lot easier to have an ice cream than ride hard on a lovely day.

So kudos then to those who live and ride in consistently hot countries, though only if they’re typically very humid as well. I don’t remember suffering so much while riding in super-hot dry climates such as Greece and Spain. No kudos to those guys. Bad countries! Bad lovely climates! Shame on you.

On the other hand, riding in those beautiful countries brings me back to the strange bliss of bad weather — the variety it creates. It’s undoubtedly lovely to go out knowing the hills will throw up the same rocky, gravelly, drifty trails they did yesterday and will tomorrow, but sometimes you want a different challenge.

In the UK (and places like it such as, uh, Seattle, Siberia and I want to say Pluto?) with its varied weather — cloudy and dull, dull and wet, wet and cloudy, windy and dull, fog — you’re forced to embrace a new challenge practically every time you ride a trail.

Think of this picture as the UK’s long-range forecast for August
Think of this picture as the UK’s long-range forecast for August

All of which is to say, variety is the spice of life. The bad times make you appreciate the good. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.

Does my descent into platitudes make it seem I’m in denial and I wouldn’t rather it stayed hot (hotter than 1976!) instead of collapsing back into weeks of chilly rain? Weeks where gale-force clouds pile up against the side of my house like the ghosts of murdered snow banks?

Of course not. How dare you.

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