Every so often you end up riding in unbelievable heat. I’m just back from a 9 day European motorbike tour in Austria where we sweltered in 35C degrees, unusual for June. But nothing like the hottest day that Kevin and I have ridden in. It was during the Fastest Circumnavigation of the World by Motorcycle record attempt back in 2002. We’d ridden through Turkey to get to Iran. I’d always imagined Turkey to be really hot, I had an image in my head of beaches and people sunbathing, but where we rode – through the middle and in the mountainous regions – it was actually really cold. There was snow on the sides of the roads through some of the mountain sections.
As we entered Iran, we were still in mountainous territory and it wasn’t warm at all. I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for how quickly the temperature was going to change. We rode through Iran in just three days, so we went from cold mountain passes to the desert in one day. Towards the end of our first day, we could feel the temperature starting to climb, but with it already nudging 30 degrees at 6 o’clock the next morning, I knew the day wasn’t going to be good.Part of the problem for me was how I had to dress. Iran is predominantly Shia Islam, so I had to cover up more than normal. I had my standard bike gear on – and we’re talking 13 years-ago here, there wasn’t the specialist vented kit we’re all used to now, we were wearing just general purpose jackets and trousers – on top of that I had a long black manteau and under my helmet a scarf, so that whenever I took my helmet off, my hair would still be covered.
I remember sitting behind Kevin as we rode along, feeling the temperature rise. Kevin was acting as a windbreak and a pocket of still, warm air was building up between the two of us. I shuffled back in my seat to dry and get a bit of air circulating. I knew we had to drink water, and lots of it, but one of my first problems was peeing. I’m not averse to jumping off and using the side of the road, but we were in the middle of the desert in Iran. There literally was no shelter whatsoever and plenty of big freight trucks pounding along the same road. For that reason we were going further than we really should’ve been between stops.We got to mid-morning and the temperature was still climbing. I had my visor down, but I started to feel like I was suffocating so I lifted it up. Within two minutes the heat on my face was unbearable, like someone blowing a hair-dryer in my face… It got to the point where I couldn’t drink any more water without finding somewhere to go to the loo, but there just wasn’t anywhere or anything we could pull in to. It just continued on and on. Eventually we came to some rocks that were casting a little bit of shadow across the road. Within 30 seconds of me hopping off to pee, traffic started to stop to come and see what was going on – a big bike with foreign plates on usually does that.
Because I’d not been drinking enough water, I was suffering from dehydration and heat stroke. I remember coming back round the rock to sit by the bike in the shade, drinking water to try and re-hydrate and feeling completely drained and dizzy. There were now a few people around us, so I had to stay covered up. Some were wanting photos taken with Kevin and the bike, others were wanting to talk to us. It wasn’t what I needed at that point…We pressed on and by mid-afternoon the temperature was hitting 46C degrees. I remember dropping into dips in the road as we rode along. The air just sits in there stagnant, and it’s 5-10 degrees warmer. With your visor open it was just like opening the oven door: a blast of hot air in your face. We were also of course on an air-cooled bike – an older GS – so we had to contend with the heat coming off the engine at us too.
It would’ve been uncomfortable in modern day airflow suits, but back then there were no mesh jackets, no venting systems and no Gore-Tex. I can remember being tempted to just take off my riding jacket, but what you learn pretty quickly that keeping covered up is better. If you ride in bear flesh, you dehydrate much quicker, and you’re at risk of some pretty nasty sunburn too of course.
We were relatively green in terms of overlanding then and as a consequence, we were learning the hard way. We tried all sorts of things to keep cool: we poured water over our heads and into our helmets, we’d pour it onto our Air-hawk seats, and soak our T-shirts. It can all help, but isn’t really a substitute for proper kit and preparation . . .
Feeling hot under the collar? Here’s Kevin and Julia’s top tips for keeping your cool:
- The obvious thing is to drink plenty of water, and to make sure you don’t start when you’re already dehydrated. Always start drinking water in the morning, first thing, before you start the ride.
- On hot days, leave early. The earlier the better to take advantage of the cooler morning air.
- Don’t stand in the sun packing your luggage or getting your kit on; do it in shade or in the air con of your hotel. At the last moment, get on the bike and ride off.
- Make sure you have access to water on route. Are there places to stop and buy water or do you need to carry it all with you? Is what you’re liable to find on-route safe to drink?
- Fill your water container / hydrapak, a third to a half and freeze overnight, then top up in the morning so you have a cold drink. Filling up completely with ice will have the same refreshing effect.
- Take along sports drinks and things with minerals and salts etc. in, your body needs these too, and they taste a bit more exciting than water.
- Make sure all your vents are open properly: jacket, trousers and helmet. Know where they are so you can operate on the move, if you need to.
- Ensure your base layer is light and wick away materials, helping to evaporate the sweat and protect your from the sun.
- Wet your base layer – the evaporation will help cool you. Or invest in a “cool vest”, which can absorb and store water, and then releases it over time through the naturally cooling evaporative process.
- When the body gets hot, it tries to protect your brain and core organs, so the more you can keep those areas cool the better. We’ve put water into our helmets to cool our heads.
- Don’t be tempted to ride in just a T-shirt. If you ride in bear flesh, you dehydrate much quicker and you’re at risk of sunburn too.
- Always try and park in the shade when you stop and make a point of taking your helmet and jacket off, even when stopping for fuel. If you can take a break at a cafe with aircon, then do it!
- Protect your black plastic seat, with a cleaning rag, so you’re not getting on a bike and having your ass roasted.
- Make sure you’ve put sun cream on the back of your neck, face and wrists, where there can be that annoying gap between your gloves and jacket sleeve.
- Have a good set of sunglasses and / or helmet with a shaded inner visor.