Lightning season is fast approaching in Colorado, even if I am writing this while heavy spring snow is falling in Colorado Springs. Although Colorado is not the most lightning-prone state (Tennesee takes that honor), more people die from lightning strikes in Colorado than in any other state. With some major endurance events coming up in the next few months (Haute Route Rockies, Dirty Kanza 200, Ride the Rockies, Leadville 100, the Breck Epic, the Colorado Classic, and Ironman Boulder to name a few), here’s a refresher on facts, myths, and recommendations around lightning.
Myth: Rubber tires will protect you
While rubber is a good electrical insulator, there isn’t enough rubber in bike tires to protect you from lightning. The National Weather Service points out: “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 cars, it’s not the rubber tires that might offer protection from lightning. Rather the big metal cage of the car’s body and frame may direct the energy around the passenger compartment, frying the car instead of you.
What to do before the storm
The most obvious way to avoid being hit by lightning is checking the weather before you go out. But thunderstorms form and intensify quickly, and they often move quickly, so it is not uncommon to be far from home with a thunderstorm bearing down on you. If you have a cell phone with a weather app, stop and check to see where it is relative to your position, what direction it’s going, and how fast it’s moving. If it’s a small, isolated storm (common in the west) you can sometimes reroute to go around it or stay out of its path until it passes by.
In some parts of the South, Midwest, and East Coast, fronts form a long line of storms and you can’t reroute to get around it. When you know you’re going to ride into a storm front or that you can’t outrun one approaching from behind you, the safest thing to do is seek shelter – while you’re still dry! Why dry? Because you don’t know how long you’re going to be there and you’ll stay warmer if you’re not waiting around in soaked clothing.
What to do when the storm hits
There are number of options for what to do when you get stuck outdoors on a bike in a thunderstorm, each with their risks and benefits. The gold standard recommendation is to seek shelter in a sturdy building. Sheltering under a bridge also works, assuming flooding isn’t a risk. Under trees is not recommended because lightning strikes trees and wind knocks down big branches.
Update: An electrical safety professional provided some updated information on why sheltering under trees or around other tall objects (light poles) isn’t recommended. “When lighting strikes a tree, that 30,000 amps travels into the ground, which in turn, causes a voltage gradient to radiate in the ground from the tree. This could cause a large enough voltage difference between your feet to induce a current to flow up one leg through your heart and down the other leg. The phenomenon is called ‘step potential’.”
From a practical standpoint, however, shelter isn’t always available. Some of the most desirable areas for road cycling, gravel riding, and mountain biking are far from homes and towns. In the mountain passes of Colorado, the vast grasslands of Kansas, and expansive deserts of the southwest, you may be miles from the nearest sturdy structure (if you even know where to find one).
When shelter isn’t available, you have to assess your options and the associated risks, and make a choice:
Is there car traffic? Throw out your thumb and hitchhike. A car or truck is a safer place to be than out in the storm on your own, and the vehicle can carry you out of the storm faster than you could get out on your own.
Are you high on a mountain pass? In the mountains, descending to a lower elevation isn’t a guarantee you won’t get hit by lightning, but it does reduce the risk. If there’s already a thunderstorm pounding the top of the mountain, don’t ascend into it. For those athletes participating in high-altitude events out west, above tree line in a thunderstorm is a bad place to be. You are now the tallest thing around. However, when a rainstorm turns into a thunderstorm on top of you or comes up the mountain behind you, you need to assess is whether you are close enough to the summit that getting up and over the pass will actually minimize the time you’re in the storm, compared to descending back down the way you came. It’s a judgment call, and may be influenced by the proximity to shelter, the intensity of the storm, the direction it is moving, and how big the storm is.
Can you ride out of the storm? This is another judgment call. The safest thing to do if there’s no shelter available is get off the bike and crouch (not lay down) in the lowest area you can find. You’re still exposed, however, and now you’re not moving so you’re wet and losing body heat, and all you can do is wait until the storm passes. Granted, wet and cold is preferable to suddenly very hot, but from a practical standpoint you have to assess which increases your risk more: staying on the bike and spending less time in the storm, or getting into a safer position but lengthening your exposure to the storm. Again, the storm’s intensity, direction, speed, and size may all play roles in your decision.
Can you even ride? Sometimes lightning isn’t the only problem. Torrential rain, flooded roads/trails/washes, high winds, and/or hail can make it safer to stop than continue. Find a low place to crouch, but try to avoid places that could put you in the path of a flash flood. Don’t try to ride or walk through swift floodwaters. And remember, if you can’t see the bottom of still water, it’s best to walk through it. You have no idea if you’re going to ride into a rock, a huge pothole, or just water that’s a lot deeper than you anticipated.
In my 40+ years as a cyclist I have utilized every option mentioned above at some time or another. Earlier this year I was riding south along the California coast when the wind picked up dramatically. I normally feel very confident in my bike handling skills in windy conditions, but powerful gusts of wind threatened to take me over a guardrail and down a sheer cliff to the ocean. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and I ended up crossing the road to ride slowly in the opposite shoulder – against traffic – for a short time until I could again ride safely in the appropriate lane.
Sometimes the only options you have are bad ones, and you have to make the best decision you can with the information you have. We all have stories, like my experience in the wind. What’s yours?
CEO/Head Coach of CTS