Yesterday, someone that I have known for some time and a long-time biker, died while riding on a long, empty road in extremely hot weather. While the details of what happened are still sketchy - and open to interpretation, it is possible that he may have died from one of the more preventable causes of motorcycle deaths (and one we seldom fully discuss) - dehydration.
We often believe - incorrectly, that dehydration only affects those that are engaged in strenuous activity - and that as motorcyclists riding in the breeze, it can't affect us. But it does, and it is surprising how few bikers recognise or are aware of the symptoms and what measures are necessary to combat this silent killer. Older bikers tend to ignore the symptoms or confuse them with a particularly fun 'night before', while the 'newbies' don't recognise what is happening - often until it is too late.
Dehydration happens whenever the body loses more fluid that it consumes, and as anyone that has ridden in extreme heat conditions will attest, the breeze that you get on a bike often seems like you are riding into an oven. This heat - directed from the road and absorbed through your dark leathers or kit in the form of UV, causes our body to sweat and loose valuable fluids. While the breeze sometimes helps dry our clothes - making us feel less sweaty and wet, it simply masks the fact that we need to hydrate ourselves as often as we can while riding. And don't kid yourself, being dressed like a power ranger isn't a guarantee that you won't sweat and dehydrate - in fact, quite the contrary could be true.
South Africa has long and fascinating rides, but we also have some extreme weather conditions - especially in the summer months, where our temperatures can exceed the mid-forties. And while the challenge of a ride of 800 kilometers seems fun, in these conditions, we tend to overlook the need for regular stops and the intake of fluids. This leads to a range of problems that include dizziness; disorientation; fatigue; headaches; lack of the need to urinate and other more subtle clues - each of which is a warning sign that we tend to ignore - or misread, until it is too late. We have a destination in mind, and simply forget to consider that we are pushing ourselves beyond our limits!
On a recent ride, I didn't click-on that my in-built Target Recognition System - usually in place to avoid hazards and danger, had become a Target Acquisition System as I struck potholes and other road hazards, missed important roadside markers and even started making irrational navigation errors. These were the signs of dehydration in their simplest form, and yet, I continued to ride until it dawned on me that there was something seriously wrong. I started thinking back to when I last had something to drink and the amount of time I had been on the hot road, and hey-presto- past the safe limit and definitely time for a stop! Now I am by no means a seasoned rider, but you will not believe how many times I have ridden in this state unknowingly - sometimes even with experienced riders that fail to see the problem. How many of us ignore the 'two hour' rest recommendations issued by traffic authorities, in favour of riding from one fuel stop to the next? We have all done it, and this poses the real danger to each of us.
By not recognising the early signs of dehydration - and failing to take a break and replenishing fluids, the more serious side of this killer starts to manifest. Severe dehydration – an emergency condition that needs immediate hospital treatment – can have these additional symptoms:
Feeling unusually tired or confused, especially when you think you’re dehydrated
Dizziness when you stand up that doesn’t go away after a few seconds
Not passing urine for eight hours
A weak pulse
A rapid pulse
A low level of consciousness
So how do you deal with dehydration? Well, drinking plenty of water regularly during your ride is the best way to avoid the problem, and whether you use a camel bag or simply carry water in your kit, ensure that you have enough for the weather conditions. If you can, consume one of the sport drinks that are available as these contain electrolytes and help avoid cramps, but natural fruit juices and smoothies are also good. Avoid alcohol, caffeine-based and fizzy drinks if you can because these simply increase the levels at which you shed fluids.
Another way is to avoid riding in the heat of the day where possible. Take note of the weather conditions and plan your ride accordingly. Remember that the heat coming off the road is a major factor for riders, and ensure that your upper body is protected against the UV rays by wearing proper gear (even when the urge is to strip-down to your T-). Take water with you and take regular breaks to refresh, use the toilet and just get out of the sun. In really hot weather, soak your t-shirt or top and wear it under your protective gear as this helps restore some fluids in the body as your skin absorbs the fluid. Above-all, listen to your body and stop believing that it won't happen to you. It can and will.
We have probably all lost a friend or riding buddy at some time or other, and the loss of that person will be felt for a long time - particularly when it seems so unnecessary. But if my friend's death can serve to warn others of the silent killer in biking, then perhaps it wasn't in vain.