If your bike helmet comes off your head without unloosening the strap, you may be riding when it's a little too hot.
If you remove your sunglasses and the inside of the frames look like the rim of a margarita glass, you just might be getting dehydrated.
If you've been riding for hours and you're not the slightest bit concerned about where you'll find the next porta-pottie, you could be heading for a heat-related medical emergency.
Riding my bike across Iowa in late July, I quickly realized that there was no real way to beat the heat.
Sure, I carried two full water bottles at all times, but neither would stay cold as I pedaled into the blazing sun on unshaded rural roads. Past experience has taught me the value of adding an electrolyte mix to every other bottle I drink, but it's still tough to down lukewarm flavored water.
Periodic stops to sip real fruit smoothies in the shade of a quiet farmhouse seemed to be the most enjoyable alternative. The fruit provided electrolytes and the ice provided hydration, but four bucks a pop was an expensive solution for only a couple hundred calories. With four to five hours of riding each day, a smoothie per hour was a poor choice for both electrolytes and energy.
As each day wore on and the sun beat down upon me and 20,000 of my closest friends riding RAGBRAI, sweat flowed from every pore. My sweat-proof sunscreen proved to be the leading candidate for the most misleading advertising claim of all time. An alternating breeze and the wind created by my moderate pace distracted me from the dangerous heat. But each time I stopped, I felt it.
You don't have to ride more than ten miles to find food or drink on the RAGBRAI route. Usually you don't have to pedal more than a couple miles before coming across some opportunist selling bottled water, Gatorade, bananas, and granola bars from the bed of a pickup truck. When you arrive in a town - any size town - every civic group and church has something that will perk you up and get you back out on the road. Choosing the right something is the trick to surviving a long day in the saddle.
I can't stomach sweetened sports drinks. Diluting one with water to make it more digestible also dilutes the effectiveness of the electrolytes, so what's the point? With few options left to drink, I needed to eat some electrolytes.
Then I saw the sign. I was certain that God himself had put it there. Or maybe it was a very clever ad man. With nothing more than four simple words scrolled in black magic marker, the piece of corrugated cardboard tacked to a wooden stake clearly conveyed the message "you've tried the rest, now try the best".
Pickle on a stick.
I had first heard of this electrolyte superfood from my good friend Harlan of Harlan's Bike and Tour in Sioux Falls South Dakota while riding Tour de Kota together several years earlier. While I may toss a few pickle slices on a sandwich from time to time, I never find myself gobbling a gherkin for a mid-day snack. At this point, I was ready to give anything a try. I pedaled intently to the pickle stand and plunked down my two dollars.
I settled myself under the shade of a small tree with my Iowa popsicle. It was thick, cold, crunchy, sour, and loaded with salt. I was careful not to drip any juice on my bike jersey or shorts. After a day of drink mixes, smoothies, and homemade pies, it was exactly what my taste buds needed to awaken from a sugar-induced coma. In no time at all, I felt completely rejuvenated and re-energized. (Check out this Vanderbilt University site on the effects of pickle juice if you doubt me)
I can't tell you how good that one pickle made me feel on the final ten miles of my ride. The very next day, with nearly seventeen miles to go, I was near the point of passing out and in search of another pickle. The final town we entered was ill-prepared for the onslaught of electrolyte enlightened riders. They ran out of pickles mere moments before I arrived.
Desperate, I begged a woman to pour the juice from the empty pickle jar into a plastic cup for me. I downed eight ounces and readied myself for a 10% grade climb that forced 80% of the other riders to dismount and walk their bikes up the hill. Apparently, I wasn't the only one asking for the juice. Within ten minutes, they were selling cups of pickle juice for a buck a piece.
I would gladly have paid double that.