Mercury Rising


Two men who’ve ridden under the hottest of midday suns, Wade Wallace and Ben Lieberson reflect on the challenges of cycling in the heat.

*Wade Wallace, Rapha Australia, Melbourne*

In the depths of their winter, riders in the northern hemisphere look south with envy. Suffering through cold days and on wet roads, they dream about how wonderful it would be to get out for a ride in the scorchingly hot weather we enjoy in Australia, how good it would feel to ride with the sun on their skin.

The reality, at least in high summer, is somewhat different. As any pro visiting for January’s Tour Down Under will testify, most have never felt heat like it. The sun bakes any exposed skin almost instantly, while the dry wind scours away perspiration just as quickly, leaving broad salt stains in its wake. Blisteringly hot crosswinds blow the peloton to pieces and on the climbs, the thick, still air offers little respite. In extreme heat, there’s nowhere to hide; it simply sucks the life out of you and any rider that has spent time on these roads gets to know the warning signs that alert you to the fact you’ve pushed it too far, those goosebumps and chills you feel even when the mercury is pushing 40C. Even now, in the cooler months of autumn, the temperatures still pose a challenge: here in Melbourne, highs are currently around 20C but in Darwin it touches 30C, and that’s before you factor in the humidity.

Down Under, tan lines look as though they have been etched on with a laser. After years of riding in these conditions, these markings become part of you. In the off-season they are more subtle but only just. Tan lines are permanent, natural tattoos that confirm the years of dedication, the countless hours in the saddle, and always exposed to the sun.

*Ben Lieberson, Rapha USA, Los Angeles*

Living in southern California we get our fair share of heat. Call it what you like; sweltering, baking, en fuego, scorchio. It’s unavoidable and something you need to acclimatize to. Salt stains, sweat permanently in your eyes and sunburnt lips are part of everyday riding life. The heat goes on and on and the bottom line is it makes life for the cyclist very hard indeed. Some people deal with it better than others.

Early starts (I mean really early) become mandatory and carrying an extra bottle becomes routine. Your favorite lightweight jersey starts to see a lot of use. In Europe, there are fountains in almost every village square for a cyclist to refill a bidon, while a dip of the cap or a soak of the feet can make a huge difference to your body temperature.

We don’t get that luxury here in the US, so needs must. Some riders carry water purifiers so they can draw water from streams on the roadside. Others just top up their bidons regardless, happy to run the risk of giardia.

In California, there is no way to avoid the heat on a bike, only ways to survive it. Traveling at a good clip can mean the wind is your friend but when the humidity is high, even this can prove insufficient.

My solution is altitude, rolling out early and getting up into the mountains gets you to a place that is more survivable but only just. The heat is always waiting and as you descend back to civilization the temperature soars. It feels like someone left the oven door open, like a giant hairdryer is being pointed directly at your face.

The heat is worst of all when you come to a stop. Then it starts to surround you, rising up from the black asphalt; crack an egg on any car bonnet and it will fry. Riding here is not for the faint of heart, but ride we must.

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