If you are an adventurous cyclist, being outdoors is something you probably crave. But when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a thunderstorm hits, you may run the risk of getting struck by lightning if you continue to ride out the storm.
So, do cyclists really get struck by lightning? Yes, cyclists, along with anyone outdoors during a thunderstorm, can – and do – get struck by lightning.
Most lightning deaths and injuries in the United States occur during the summer months when outdoor activities and thunderstorms reach their peak. Cyclists have a greater risk of getting struck by lightning, mainly because they are outside more often, riding trails at higher elevations, sitting on top of bicycles that may attract lightning, and choose not to take appropriate actions.
Keep in mind that any time you are out enjoying a ride and a storm rolls in, you should know and understand some simple guidelines to keep you safe.
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Staying Safe When Lightning Strikes
If you are on a long bike tour, or even if you are enjoying a leisurely weekend ride, there is always a chance that you may be struck by lightning if you are stuck outdoors during a storm. Remembering some basic tips could help minimize your chances of getting hit.
Know Before You Go
The most obvious way to avoid getting hit by lightning is knowing what the weather forecast is before you go out. Sometimes thunderstorms form and intensify quickly, however. They also move quickly, so it is not uncommon to be far from home with a storm bearing down on you.
If you have a cell phone with a weather app on it, stop and check it. See where the storm is relative to your position, what direction it is going, and how fast it is moving. If it is a small, isolated storm you may be able to reroute to go around it or stay out of its path until it passes.
When lightning strikes, the best idea is to seek shelter. Even before you see lightning, look for safe shelter as soon as you hear the boom of thunder.
Another tip is that when you know you’re going to ride into a storm, or you can’t outrun one approaching from behind, seek shelter while you are still dry. This is because you won’t know how long you might be stuck where you are, and you’ll stay warmer if you aren’t waiting out the storm in soaked clothing.
Places to seek shelter include:
- A sturdy building – large barn, store, railway station.
- Underpass – as long as it’s not flooding.
- House – don’t be afraid to ask for shelter if someone’s home is the only shelter around.
- Vehicle – cars and trucks are safer (and drier) than a bike in a storm, flag down someone driving or ask if you can sit inside if they are pulled over, as well.
Avoid Danger Spots
Do not take shelter in small buildings, such as sheds and never stop next to fences or poles. Smaller buildings won’t protect you and metal objects increase your chances of getting struck.
Definitely do not seek shelter under tall trees. Lightning has a tendency to strike trees and strong wind can knock them down. When lightning strikes a tree (or tall pole), 30,000 amps travel into the ground. Called the “step potential,” the voltage can travel up to one leg, pass through your heart and flow out the other leg.
If you are cycling with a friend, stay several yards apart from one another and your bicycle. That way, if lightning strikes both people won’t be hurt. The distance should stop the lightning from traveling between both of you.
Also, if you have anything combustible, like a fuel canister for a portable stove, make sure that it is separated from you during a storm.
Lower Your Elevation
If you are on a hill with exposure to the sky, head downhill or seek out an overhanging bluff, a valley or a ravine – anywhere to lower your exposure. Remember, if you are on a mountain top, cycling above the tree line is a bad place to be in a thunderstorm – you are now the tallest thing around. The safest thing to do in this situation is to get off your bike and crouch (not lay down) in the lowest area you can find.
Tingling is Bad
If your hair stands on end and the back of your neck begins to tingle, it’s a bad sign. Get off your bike quickly if this happens, squat down, get on the balls of your feet, and place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible, and minimize your contact with the ground.
When the negatively charged bottom end of the storm sends out an invisible charge to the ground, this negative charge is attracted by all the positively charged objects, and it develops an electrical transfer. If you feel tingling, it is a bad sign that positive charges are rising through you, reaching toward the negatively charged part of the storm.
Facts About Lightning
According to the National Weather Service, the United States averages 49 lightning-related deaths a year, with hundreds of injuries – some of them cycling related. Injuries range from severe burns and permanent brain damage to memory loss and personality change. Lightning is nothing to be messed with!
The Odds of Getting Struck
The odds of becoming a lightning victim in any one year is one in 700,000. The odds of being struck in your lifetime is one in 3,000. Most people don’t realize that they can be struck by lightning even if the center of a thunderstorm is 10 miles (16 kilometers) away and there are blue skies overhead.
How Lightning Travels
On the outside, lightning can travel down or along tall metal poles, fences, or the outer shell of a building. It can also follow metal gutters and downspouts to the ground. Inside a structure, lightning can follow conductors like electrical wiring, plumbing, and telephone lines to the ground.
Unless specifically designed to be lightning safe, small structures do little, if anything, to protect occupants from lightning. Many small open shelters on athletic fields, golf courses, in parks, at roadside picnic areas, and elsewhere are designed for rain and sun protection – but not from lightning.
Where Lightning Strikes
While many of us still use the “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi” trick to count the seconds between lightning and thunder to determine its distance, the National Weather Service does not recommend it.
In fact, any time you can hear thunder you are close enough to get hit by lightning. If you hear thunder, you are within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of a storm – leaving you very vulnerable to a lightning strike.
Some people use the 30-30 rule when visibility is good and there is nothing obstructing your view of the storm. This is when you see lightning and then count the time until you hear thunder.
If it is 30 seconds or less, the storm is less than 6 miles (10 kilometers) away. Don’t do this! First of all, if you can see the lightning, you are at risk. Secondly, if the storm is less than 6 miles away, you are way too dangerously close to being struck.
Get Help When Lightning Strikes
If you or someone else with you is struck by lightning, medical care may be needed immediately to save your (or their) life. Cardiac arrest, burns and nerve damage are common with lightning strikes. With proper treatment, including CPR, most victims survive a strike. However, there may be long-term effects that can be devastating.
Note: In addition to the visible flash that travels through the air, the current associated with the lightning discharge travels along the ground. Some victims are struck directly by lightning, but many are struck by the current that moves in and along the ground.
Rubber Won’t Protect You
It’s a myth – rubber shoes and rubber tires won’t protect you from a lightning strike. While rubber is a good electrical insulator, there isn’t enough rubber in bike tires to keep you protected.
The National Weather Service points out that, “the average lightning bolt carries about 30,000 amps of charge, has 100 million volts of electric potential, and is about 50,000°F.” That much energy will burn through hardier insulators than your relatively small tires.
Even when it comes to automobiles, it’s not the rubber tires that offer protection from lightning. Instead, the big metal cage of the car’s body and frame may direct the energy around the passenger compartment, electrocuting the car instead of you.
Riding Through the Storm
Although lightning is the most serious life-threatening issue while cycling through a storm, sometimes it isn’t the only problem. Torrential rain, flooded roads, and trails, high winds or hail can make your bike trip miserable.
Here are a few suggestions for riding out the storm (when there’s no lightning, of course):
- Don’t try to ride through swift floodwaters. Also, if you can’t see the bottom of still water, it’s best to walk through it or avoid it altogether. You have no idea if you’re going to ride into a rock, a huge pothole or just water that is a lot deeper than anticipated.
- Pack extra clothing. Even if you have something as simple as a cycling rain hood – which will keep the rain off your glasses – in your possession, it will make a difference. Leg and arm warmers help, as well as an all-weather shell that you can keep rolled up in a case or back pocket. (We love this one)
- Be aware of hypothermia. Cycling in the rain, especially if it is on colder temperatures, can lead to hypothermia. Prolonged shivering, mental fogginess and numb or burning sensations in your extremities are all signs that your core temperature is dropping. If you have any or all of these symptoms, you need to focus on getting warm and dry as quickly as possible.
- Keep an eye on the road. Roads are at their most treacherous the first hour after a rainfall begins. Exhaust and oil will sit on top of the road, turning it slick during a rainstorm. While cycling, the road beneath can feel like ice. Taking it slow is best, but if you do suffer a wipe-out, make sure to address any road rash as soon as you get off your bike.
The bottom line while cycling through a storm – keep vigilant, keep an eye on the sky, and keep safe when lightning strikes.