Summer is typically the high point in every bike rider’s year when we do most of our mileage. Unfortunately, summer is also the time when thunderstorms appear, pour down a gazillion litres on our heads in ten minutes and leave us once again under the scorching sun. Thunder and lightning are definitely not a thing to be taken lightly, especially when you’re on the open road, surrounded by flatland.
To make sure you stay safe, we prepared several tips on what you should do if a thunderstorm hits you while riding in the countryside.
Understanding lighting is crucial
Bolts of lightning are a naturally occurring discharge of static electricity. They are a stream of extremely fast-flowing electrons. Since they are a lazy bunch and are looking for the shortest possible way to get to the positively charged ground, they are somewhat predictable. However, this is precisely what makes them so dangerous. Like it or not, we are one of the best electric conductors out there. So, being in a thunderstorm outside is definitely not among the top 10 things you should do.
Am I protected on my bike in a lightning storm?
If, by any chance, you are not dressed in a 13th-century knight’s armour when biking, then no – you are not. A common myth is that bike tires isolate you from the ground so you do not attract lightning. Firstly, the bolt travels several thousand feet through the toughest isolator in nature – air. A few inches of rubber certainly won’t make a difference. Secondly, even if this was so (and we must be adamant that it is NOT), your tires would be wet from the rain so, again, they would be a conductor. The only reason why you are safe in a car is not the tires but because you are surrounded by metal, which is a better conductor than you are, hence the charge goes through the metal service, and not the empty space within. Thus, the abovementioned knight’s armour would actually be a safe place, although very uncomfortable to ride in.
What would happen if I got struck by lightning?
It goes without saying that it won’t be the highlight of your day but you actually have around a 90% chance of survival. That doesn’t mean that thunderstorms should be taken lightly. Lightning strikes do a massive amount of damage to your body and may cause permanent deformities and disabilities. If a bolt hits you, it short-circuits the small electrical signals that operate your vital organs and nervous system. This may cause your heart to stop, fry your brain, cause seizures, amnesia or damage your spinal cord. A lightning bolt will cause severe burns, especially if you wear metal accessories, watches or rings. Since you will be wet, the heat of the lightning will cause all the water on your skin (sweat and rainwater) to evaporate instantly, causing a genuine explosion that will quite literally knock your socks off, along with the rest of your clothes.
How to protect yourself?
The best way to protect yourself is by checking the weather ahead of your ride and restrain from going out if there is a chance of a thunderstorm. However, thunderstorms are hard to predict and their path often changes unexpectedly. So we prepared several life-saving tips you need to follow if you ever get caught in a thunderstorm on your bike.
The obvious thing to do is looking at the sky and constantly checking for thunderstorms. However, the dangerous weather may come unexpectedly and surprise you. So, be vigilant for other signs like a sudden cold gust of wind or a rapid change of the cloud’s movement direction. Also, on a windy day, a sudden stop of the wind might be a bad sign as well. Don’t trust the wind direction down on the ground since up in the sky, the currents might be different. However, sudden changes in the wind are always related to storm activities, so it’s better not to disregard them.
Trust your nose. We all know how rain smells and it’s due to the moisture in the air. When there is a storm coming, the air before the downpour is filled with moisture and you can smell it with ease. Most importantly, keep in mind that storms are usually faster than you and may shorten the distance very quickly.
In Europe, there is rarely a stretch of land where you will be further than 5 to 10 km from a village. So, seeking shelter in the next settlement down the road is your safest bet. You may hide in a store, restaurant or a train station. You can also seek shelter in a barn if there is no other option but it should be a large one with some kind of lightning protection. Otherwise, if it gets hit, it might get on fire. Underpasses are a good place to hide. However, storms usually come with a lot of rain which may flood the underpass.
If you are in the mountains and the storm surprises you, you should immediately lower your elevation, especially if you are above the tree line. Even if you need to go back several miles, it’s better than getting hit by enough electricity for your phone to stay charged for the next three months. Hopefully, you will get to a lower point fast.
Hiding in a cave is an option only if you know the region you are riding in. If you are unfamiliar with the local wildlife, it’s best to avoid it. Caves may provide good shelter and be the better option than rushing downhill under roaring thunders, however, in many places in Europe, there are bears, boars and other dangerous animals that use the caves as lairs.
When everything else fails
If there is no chance of finding a shelter and you are already in the eye of the storm, you should take immediate action in reducing your chances of getting hit. Firstly, you should avoid stand-alone trees, poles or other tall objects since they are most likely to be hit. Keep in mind that once lightning strikes the ground, the electricity continues to spread on the surface for up to 30 meters. This means that even if you are not the one that got struck, you are far from being safe. The best thing to do is to look for a naturally lower plane that’s not filled with water and crouch there.
Keep a distance from your bike of at least 30 m and leave everything made of metal with it. This means belts, accessories, backpacks with metal rims and anything else. While squatting, try to stay on your toes and touch your heels. This way a current travelling through the ground will most likely choose to continue through the soil as an easier path. Even if it hits you, it will enter through your foot and, in the best-case scenario, will go through your touching heels and leave through the other foot. It will hurt but it will minimize the damage. Keep your head low and your eyes closed. Lightning may burn out your retinas and damage your vision.
Beware of the tingling sensation
This is the worst feeling you may experience during a thunderstorm. If you feel your hair getting raised on its own or your neck hairs getting tingle-ish, it means you are emitting positively charged protons that seek to connect with the electrons coming down from the storm clouds. The tingling means that in just a few seconds, you will be hit by a bolt. You have no time to hesitate or panic. Throw away your bike and everything metal on yourself as far away as possible, and if there is a ditch next to the road, throw yourself right in. Squat down low and curl up into a ball. Hopefully, the negatively charged electrons from the sky will pick up positive charges emitted from something else.
The best way to avoid Zeus’ wrath is by being vigilant and prepared. Check the local weather forecast and map your road accordingly. Be not more than 5-10 km away from a village and know the places you may hide. If storms are coming, it’s best to avoid mountain biking as a whole, the same as high mountain roads. Stay observant of the weather changes, act on time so you won’t need to crouch somewhere, and as usual – enjoy your ride.