Don’t Sweat It

 

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.

LM1200DSI 1000

We were able to sit outside in the shade and had enough of a breeze to be comfortable. Photo: Author

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.

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Photo: Franz Micheal S. Melbin

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.

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Photo: Franz Micheal S. Melbin

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.

Lose Weight

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.

Get Fit

Duh II.

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Photo: Franz Micheal S. Melbin

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.

Moderate Pace

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.

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Photo: Franz Micheal S. Melbin

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.

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Photo: Franz Micheal S. Melbin

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.

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Photo: Franz Micheal S. Melbin

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.

E-Bike

An e-bike can do a lot to lessen sweating, particularly if you have hills to climb.

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15 Responses to Don’t Sweat It

  1. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller July 2, 2018 at 2:53 pm #

    The near universal response to “I bike to work” is “oh, do you have a shower at the office? Um, I actually don’t know. We might. I’ve never looked.

    When I lived in DC I lived a mile and a half from the office. When I first moved there, I’d actually drive to work most of the time, using allergy season and then heat and humidity as my excuse. Eventually I decided I needed to be much more active and committed to walking. Which meant I was also committed to being fairly sweaty upon arrival at work during the summer. Turned out that was just fine and a got used to it.

    The same applies to biking to work here. I typically do change clothes, unless the weather is right in the sweat spot were biking in work clothes works well, but if it’s hot I slow down and sit up and accept the fact that a little sweat is okay.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell July 2, 2018 at 3:48 pm #

      Yep. I think people are so used to experiencing smelly sweaty bicycle riders in cafés and places that they assume that all bicycling requires riding a faux sport bike in faux racing kit and is a sweaty and smelly affair. Quite different from the rest of the world that know otherwise.

      DC could be tough in the summer. In Alabama you can be drenched just walking from your car across a massive parking lot to the store.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller July 2, 2018 at 10:01 pm #

        I think most people just don’t have any idea riding a bike doesn’t necessarily mean sweaty or that sweaty doesn’t necessarily mean smelly.

        Honestly, you can learn the latter from youth (or adult) sports. You don’t smell while you’re playing. The smell is from the equipment that never gets fully dry/clean.

  2. mplsmatt July 2, 2018 at 3:03 pm #

    I’m a sweaty mess on my bike for the most part so I do a transit assisted ride to St. Paul in the morning. I usually bring a pair of shorts and then will do the complete ride back to Minneapolis in the evening. Until they build the Cathedral Hill Funicular, I can’t imagine not getting pretty sweaty on the way out of downtown St. Paul, but I could probably try taking it a little slower for starters.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell July 2, 2018 at 3:36 pm #

      We need a Trampe up Cathedral Hill.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zipZ5kwhFfs

      There’ve been a few times over the past years that I’ve arrived to St Paul after 10 miles doing well and cool but then couldn’t avoid sweating on the climb up to Nina’s in Cathedral Hill.

      • Mike July 2, 2018 at 9:55 pm #

        For my last job, I commuted up that hill. I would carry my bike up the steps from the hospital to the James J Hill house.

  3. Louis July 2, 2018 at 3:08 pm #

    I got hit by a car door while biking in a bike lane and tumbled off my bike. Helmet and left arm scratched up pretty bad. Face and head still pretty and blood free. I’ll wear that simple and breathable protection every time I’m biking.

  4. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary July 5, 2018 at 11:33 am #

    I’m all for dignified, human-oriented transportation on bicycle, but I disagree on a few points.

    Like Louis’s comment above, I’m a little wary of actively discouraging people from wearing helmets. I think it is fine if people choose not to wear them, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with wearing them either. Although there are some questions, it is generally accepted that it is safer to ride with a helmet — especially for children. I do not find the sweat an issue, especially with a heavily vented helmet intended for road riding. I imagine hairstyle also affects this.

    As for both gloves and the riding position: I think it is worth remember that American cities are much more spread out, and people simply need to ride farther than in Denmark or Netherlands, especially when they live in suburbs and outer neighborhoods. So it seems entirely appropriate that our cycling culture should be somewhat more oriented to speed than a European cycling culture.

    I do not know that your comments about force generated are accurate. You can put quite a lot more force out of your legs when pushing slightly away from your torso, rather than straight down. Sitting upright does indeed take weight out of your hands, but it mostly transfers it to your sit bones, not to your feet.

    And I’m a little biased on that point, because after a spinal injury my sit bones ended up really sensitive. So I had to completely take my upright bike out of rotation, because it is fairly painful. For me, taking some weight off the saddle and into my hands is beneficial. Gloves are a non-negotiable for more than a few miles for that reason.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell July 6, 2018 at 9:20 am #

      Good points.

      Regarding helmets, there is zero evidence that I’ve been able to find that indicates that helmets provide any safety benefit. There is though very considerable evidence that that they provide no real world benefit, primarily that increased helmet use in any population has never led to a decrease in TBI rates. There was one study in Canada that thought it showed a decrease of TBI after helmet use was mandated in one Canadian province but I believe it was later shown inaccurate and even helmet advocates stopped using it.

      In a perfect lab setting a helmet on a steel anvil theoretically provides some benefit but this is limited to an extremely narrow range of impact angles, impact velocities, and impact points on the helmet. In the real world a crash involving someone wearing a helmet that fits perfectly, is worn on the head perfectly and where the impact is within the narrow parameters where it will provide benefit appears nearly impossible which would help to explain the lack of statistical evidence for helmet effectiveness.

      On the flip side…

      Many people do choose to not ride bicycles because they don’t want to wear a helmet. Helmets do very considerably increase sweating both of the head & hair as well as the rest of our bodies and the vast majority of people don’t like that. There is also the issue of people wanting to ride but they can’t find their helmets so they choose not to ride. And finally there’s vanity and that many people simply do not like the helmet clad fashion nor the resulting helmet hair. This latter particularly if someone is riding to meet someone for lunch or dinner or a glass of wine.

      Perhaps more important, even if there was some increased risk, the benefits of physical activity from riding hugely outweigh any risk. Our sedate lifestyle is the number one killer in the U.S.

      Then, besides helmets likely providing no real world safety benefit, they may actually increase risk; 1) people feel safer and so take greater risks, 2) helmets can decrease people’s ability to hear danger and the direction it is coming from, 3) helmets increase the effective size of the head and thus the likelihood of impact, and 4) helmets have proven to cause increased torsional rotation of the spine in certain crash instances and so increase the likelihood of spinal injuries. This last one is why helmet manufacturers have been working on MIPS technology. These increased risks might explain why the U.S. and Australia, two of the most helmeted countries on earth, have such higher rates of TBI than countries with zero helmet wearing.

      All in all, I would much rather see people riding without helmets than sitting on their couch.

      We (Americans) have made bicycling too complicated and that, along with our dangerous roads, is killing bicycling as well as bicycle sales. We need to make bicycling simple and enjoyable, not put up a bunch of roadblocks.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell July 6, 2018 at 9:46 am #

      As for both gloves and the riding position: I think it is worth remember that American cities are much more spread out, and people simply need to ride farther than in Denmark or Netherlands, especially when they live in suburbs and outer neighborhoods. So it seems entirely appropriate that our cycling culture should be somewhat more oriented to speed than a European cycling culture.

      This is like saying that because there is a hill in St Paul then I can’t ride a flat path in Shoreview.

      This is exactly the thought process that I think is killing bicycling in the U.S.

      If someone has a 30 mile each way commute to work and they want to dress up like a racer then that’s fine. But that thought process should not be forced on people who just want to ride 3 miles to a café and then back home or that have only a 5 mile each way commute to work or that want to go for a somewhat leisurely 15 mile recreational ride around their local parks.

      Tens of thousands of people in The Netherlands, Denmark, and elsewhere ride greater than 30 miles each way to work and do so on an upright city bike, wearing normal clothes, with no helmet, gloves, or backpack. I have frequently ridden to Nina’s in Cathedral Hill which is 11 miles each way and several times have added on additional stops so 20-40 mile days on my upright bike wearing normal clothes, no helmet and no gloves are not unusual.

      There was a brief period where hybrids and mountain bikes were popular in The Netherlands but is was short lived and people went back to their upright city bikes that they found more comfortable and more efficient. When you look around the world at people who rely on their bicycles for daily transportation you’ll see that about 99% of these bicycles are upright Dutch geometry city bikes.

      At some point someone decided that bicycle riding in the U.S. would be recreational and complicated and dangerous. And unappealing to the vast majority of people.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell July 6, 2018 at 10:24 am #

      I do not know that your comments about force generated are accurate. You can put quite a lot more force out of your legs when pushing slightly away from your torso, rather than straight down. Sitting upright does indeed take weight out of your hands, but it mostly transfers it to your sit bones, not to your feet.

      This is absolutely correct. But the vast majority of people do not want to nor ever will exert that much force.

      At lower forces, those necessary for up to about 16 mph on a flat, sitting upright is more efficient. As you increase force above this then leaning forward starts to become beneficial. To the extent that you can lean forward without any weight on your hands then you are generating efficient force. The key is weight on your hands. Almost any weight placed on your hands is inefficient (not to mention uncomfortable, damaging to ulner nerves, backache causing, etc.)

      So, if I’m riding 5 flat miles @ 13 MPH (70 watts) to get my morning Latte then I’m more efficient and will sweat less riding fully upright. And this is why people in The Netherlands went back to their uprights after their brief dalliance with our hybrids.

      If I’m riding somewhere on my upright and need to climb a hill (increased force / wattage) then I will lean forward and if I’m in a hurry I’ll put my hands on my bars near the stem (treating my upright bars similar to drop bars) and pull back which allows me to generate even more force.

      If I’m doing a 40 mile fitness ride @ 22 MPH (200 watts) then I’m well in to leaning forward range and will ride a road bike (and lycra and a helmet if required).

      Yes, when you are sitting upright most of your weight is on your sit bone which is the point – you are not having to exert effort to support this weight with your hands, arms, shoulders and back. When you need a bit of extra power then you naturally push up and your body weight becomes leverage. If you need even more power then you begin to lean forward.

      BTW, this is one of the problems people have found with pseudo Dutch bikes like the Electra Amsterdam. The seat is too far back so riders have to use a lot of energy to pull their body forward.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell July 6, 2018 at 10:31 am #

      And I’m a little biased on that point, because after a spinal injury my sit bones ended up really sensitive. So I had to completely take my upright bike out of rotation, because it is fairly painful. For me, taking some weight off the saddle and into my hands is beneficial. Gloves are a non-negotiable for more than a few miles for that reason.

      Yes. This is also the case with some elderly folks and at least one popular Dutch footballer who had a back injury.

      From one of the orthopedists who I’ve talked with about this:

      “As we age our lumbar spine degenerates and forms bone spurs where the spinal nerves exit (foramen) causing spinal stenosis. A forward flexed position such as riding a hybrid is then more comfortable and alleviates pressure on the nerve root and therefore the radicular or radiating pain in the leg. However, by the time we develop spinal stenosis we also no longer have the back, core or upper extremity strength to comfortably ride a hybrid design. The most important thing here though is that riding a bicycle, preferably upright, somewhat frequently (3 to 4 five mile trips per week) staves off spinal stenosis and many other ailments.”

  5. Northman July 6, 2018 at 10:22 am #

    I’d by lying if I said that my propensity to sweat didn’t have a very large impact on my desire to take up biking as a more expansive mode of transit. I am in quite good shape, but I work up a sweat walking down the street to visit a neighbor if it is 80 degrees outside. So the idea of me biking miles to work, where there is no gym to shower up after arrival, in the summer heat is not something that I would be comfortable with.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell July 6, 2018 at 10:39 am #

      You are not alone in this. What’s interesting is that quite often we can sweat less riding a bicycle at a moderately leisurely pace than walking thanks to the cooling breeze that we get from riding.

      I remember once in Groningen on a rather hot day when we were going to go to some place nearby for lunch that when I thought we’d walk my Dutch hosts said that we’d ride our bicycles because it’d be cooler and more comfortable.

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