I arrived to my brunch destination this morning sweating a bit after 2.5 miles on my bicycle. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Officially it was 89°f and 74% humidity (77° dew point) which seems just beyond the limit for me to stay sweat free. A little lower temp or humidity and I’d usually be OK.
Sweat is good. It’s a key in cooling our body. But it can be somewhat un-welcomed, especially in the U.S. where we have a much lower tolerance for minor sweat than Europe or other places.
The good news is that it is somewhat controllable. And better, it’s not sweat that causes odor but bacteria. So reducing sweat is good but reducing bacteria is crucial and that’s easier.
Sit Fully Upright
Some years ago my wife and I decided that we wanted a couple of bikes that were easier to just hop on and ride to some place for dinner than our ‘normal’ bikes. After a lot of research we ended up with a couple of Dutch city bikes from Workcycles.
There were a lot of pleasant surprises but perhaps the biggest was that we sweated less riding these 40 pound upright bikes than riding the same speed on much lighter hybrids or mountain bikes. That went totally against everything we’d been taught about cycling. I went back and forth between bikes numerous times one summer and the results were consistent. Some research and friendly doctors provided the answers.
Leaning forward is not only uncomfortable but also quite inefficient (unless you are generating enough power to be continuously pulling up or back on the bars). If you are putting weight on your hands then you are wasting energy — a lot of energy it turns out. The geometry of Dutch city bikes and sitting properly upright place our body weight where and how our body was designed for it—our sit bone (ischia) supporting a counter-balanced spine. Leaning forward, even a slight bit, shifts our weight forward of it’s designed center over our sit bone. Our spine is no longer properly counter-balanced so we must now use a significant amount of muscle energy in our back and arms to overcome this.
Sitting upright also allows us to use our body weight more efficiently as natural leverage so we require less muscle energy to generate the same power.
Leaning forward creates heat holding bacteria growth folds in our belly skin and can significantly reduce cooling surface. Sitting upright eliminates the folds of bacteria and provides a lot of critical cooling surface. (The amount of extra drag is inconsequential unless you’re averaging greater than about 22 MPH.)
BTW, this all applies to bikes with proper Dutch geometry. Cruisers, beach bikes, and pseudo Dutch bikes like those from Electra will not usually have these benefits.
Ditch The Gloves, Helmet & Backpack
Our head is the most critical cooling bit we have. Not only does it help cool our body but also keeps our brain functioning. Foam helmets keep it from doing its job. Much better would be a breathable hat or nothing at all.
Is this dangerous? Not that I’ve been able to determine. Dutch, Danes and others don’t wear helmets and they’re not being killed by the predicted bucketload. Actually, the only places you’ll see many people wearing helmets at all is in the U.S., Canada and OZ. But helmets in these countries don’t appear to be reducing head injuries any. The Netherlands has a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) fatality rate (of all bicycle deaths) of 33%, Denmark 32%, New Zealand 41% and the U.S. 37%. If helmets were effective then the U.S. and New Zealand should both have dramatically lower rates of TBI than NL and DK.
Helmet use in New Zealand went from about 40% in 1993 to over 90% in 1994 and years after due to a mandatory helmet law. Head injuries had been in a slow decline which then flattened out. The increased use of helmets did not reduce head injuries in any measurable way. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0001457500000737)
Similar to a helmet on our heads, gloves on our hands keep our body from being able to cool itself naturally. And if we’re riding a proper upright bicycle then we shouldn’t need gloves anyway.
Same for a backpack. Carry stuff in a basket or panniers. My preference is an old wine crate mounted on the rear rack so that I don’t have a basket in front blocking any cooling wind. I’ve no idea if that extra wind actually makes any real difference. It also requires much less energy (energy expended = sweat potential) for your bicycle to carry the load rather than you.
All of these are places where a lot of bacteria and odor will grow. Skin exposed to air doesn’t become a smelly petri dish of bacteria.
Duh. The more weight you have to haul around the more effort and energy it takes and the greater the potential for sweat and bacteria.
Choose A Cooler Route & Time
Earlier in the morning and later in the evening can help. Some routes may also provide better shade at different times of the day or allow you to avoid a hill. A cooling breeze can also help, while riding next to a wall or building not only reflects accumulated heat on to us but can also block a breeze.
Duh III. The harder you ride the more you’ll sweat. This is especially important going uphill where riding really slow with a moderately high cadence in a really low gear can make a huge difference.
It’s usually faster to ride slower than to spend extra time cooling off or cleaning off at your destination.
Xtra Slow At The End
When we’re riding we’ll often have a bit of a self-generated breeze to help keep us cool. When we suddenly stop at our destination we loose this breeze. Our body hasn’t cooled down yet though so we begin sweating profusely. Going a bit extra slow for the last few minutes will help to reduce or eliminate this.
Reduce Stops & Starts
Each time we stop and then start again increases our sweat as well as requires additional energy which also increases sweat. European bikeways, particularly those in northern Europe, try to prioritize bicycle riders and minimize stops and starts for a number of reasons including reducing sweating. The U.S. does not. This is a tough one.
Light or White Loose Breathable Clothes
Loose white linen pants, shorts or dress are probably the best option, particularly on a sunny day, but generally the lighter the color, the more breathable the fabric and the looser fitting the better.
Laundry soap can clog up fabrics so don’t use more soap than your machine can fully rinse out.
Ditch The Anti-Perspirant
Many and perhaps even most people actually sweat and stink more when they use anti-perspirants. The idea is that the aluminum in anti-perspirants will clog things up and keep sweat and therefore bacteria growth from underarms and more important, make a gob of money for sellers of anti-perspirants. Reality, except for the profits, is quite different.
If you will be sitting for a long period with your arms down, like on a plane, anti-perspirant is good but otherwise you may be better off without it.
Shower & Use Natural Soap
Interestingly, the need to shower in the morning is rather debatable, at least among Europeans. One did say that she believes it quite important to shower and to make sure to get everything “as far down as possible, as far up as possible, and possible”. This is likely different for each of us but I think a morning shower is not a bad idea.
Numerous people have said that they sweat much less after switching to natural soap.
An e-bike can do a lot to lessen sweating, particularly if you have hills to climb.