Thursday, July 30, 2009

Transport: Bicycling in the Heat

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The temperature at Sea-Tac Airport near Seattle, Washington reached 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) today, the highest recorded temperature in the history of the weather station, which became the location of record for Seattle in 1945. When I was growing up in that area, the highest temperature ever recorded was just 99 degrees.

One of the days on which 99 degrees was reached was 23-June-1992, which I remember specifically because it was the day before my family departed on a California vacation. On that day, I chose to say goodbye to some friends, traveling by bicycle. First on my agenda was to talk to the crew of the local freight train that passed through town. Wanting to get an early start, I bicycled ten miles to downtown Renton, Washington and met the train there--which was a good thing, since on that day they didn't come north to my home town. A railroad strike was set to begin the next day, and I wanted to get their take on the situation.

When the train went to switch the Boeing aircraft plant in Renton, I set out on a twelve mile bicycle ride up to Clyde Hill, Washington to check in with a friend. The temperature likely wasn't 99 quite yet, but there were a number of hills on any reasonable route northbound from Renton, and my water bottle was long-since empty, refilled at a public fountain, and empty again by the time I arrived at my destination. By the time I headed home on a final three-and-a-half mile leg, the heat was out in full force and I wonder in retrospect how I made it.

The key to bicycling in the heat, of course, is drinking water along the way. Planning a route with public fountains to refill one's water bottle, and taking as many water bottles as possible are keys to keeping going. Having rags that can be dipped in water and wrapped around one's head can also be of significant value.

In coverage of this week's Seattle heat wave on local public radio station KUOW, it was mentioned to also "spray water on one's head--that's what the vents in your helmet are for." Personally, I always thought the vents were for general ventilation, so this comment was a bit of a surprise to me. On my day of bicycling in the extreme heat, I don't recall splashing water through my helmet--I guess I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was on that day.

After living in Boston, where the streets are substantially more unsafe for bicycles and the weather precludes bicycling for up to three months a year, I abandoned bicycling in favor of walking and public transit. On 35 degree days and warmer, riding in air conditioned transit vehicles, that decision seems pretty sound.

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