Does Cycling Make Me Sick?

Published in the January/February 2010 issue of Momentum: the magazine for self-propelled people.

Life on the edge (of traffic) has its pros and cons

Last spring I shared My Dirty Little Secret that sometimes I hate riding a bike. This winter I wonder if cycling hates me.

I’ve been bike commuting all my life and for many of those years, I’ve had a chronic cough. It’s a deep, seal-like bark that starts with a tickle in my throat and erupts into chest-wracking spasms. Minutes after stepping inside after a ride, the hacking starts and my friends wonder how I’ve managed to hide a two-pack-a-day habit.

The thing is: I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked, and the only vice I’m guilty of is my addiction to tasty beer and tearing through town on a bike. I ride my bike to my chiropractor, who lauds my healthy lifestyle as she adjusts my spinal subluxation; and I ride my bike to my massage therapist, who pinches my seized trapezius muscles into submission.

“Do you ever see those photos of road racers at the podium?” asked Francois one time as he squeezed a rock-like cord of muscle in my neck. “They stand up there and they’re all round-shouldered from years of bending over their handlebars—like you!”

"Do you ever see those photos of road racers at the podium? They're all round-shouldered — like you!"

I also ride to my family doctor who always seems a little surprised to see me as if—being a cyclist—I should be the picture of health. I visited her recently, and we discussed a three-pronged approach to diagnosing my decade-old “smoker’s cough.”

“You still have that?” Dr. Barton asked as she scanned my charts. I nodded and popped a throat-soothing Tic Tac into my mouth.

Dr. Barton explained that my cough could be caused by any number of things, so I’d need to try a few different tests. First, along with some diet adjustments, she suggested over-the-counter tablets to reduce acid reflux. It could be that excess digestive gases from chipotle tacos were rising from my stomach and irritating the base of my throat. I gave it a try and kept riding my bike.

Next, she sent me for pulmonary testing. I repeatedly emptied my lungs into a machine that measured the strength and volume of my exhalations. I was fascinated to learn that I could hold four liters of air (I imagined four green bottles of Sprite), and that I had “exercise-induced asthma.”

Apparently cycling is a common trigger of asthma attacks, and entering a warm room after a cool ride can swell the airways and bring on one symptom of mild asthma: a dry, wheezy cough. I filled a prescription for blue and orange inhalers and tossed them in my pannier.

Finally, I rode my bike to our third prong, an allergist. He asked about the things that surround me in day-to-day life—pets, bedding, food, plants, air—then pressed skin-piercing allergens into my forearm.

“So, you’re allergic to dogs and cats…” He peered at a series of raised dots on my arm, “…and mold and dust…” He peered again, “…and feathers.”

“What about cycling?” I asked, half-joking, “Am I allergic to cars?” I figured that—though I don’t inhale cigarette smoke—I do breathe daily doses of carbon monoxide when I’m behind idling cars at intersections. The allergist looked at me as if he didn’t get the joke, then handed me a brochure called “Tips on Mold Avoidance.”

Grist.org readers have asked Umbra Fisk similar questions, but when the columnist did a little research on the subject, she found that cyclists actually encounter fewer pollutants than car passengers.

“Chemicals and particulate matter flow from car and bus and taxi engines and into the mini-weather system of the traffic zone…” wrote Fisk. “The nasties are densest at the middle of the traffic zone, and less intense on the edges.”

“…Basically, studies show you get the biggest hit of the nasties when you’re inside a car. Sure, a personal Mobile Emissions Source appears hermetic, but it’s an illusion: MES occupants are very close to sucking on the tailpipe of the MES just ahead of them.”

Does cycling make me sick? It curves my back, rounds my shoulders, fills my lungs with cold air and mold spores and increases my exposure to car exhaust, burritos and liver-soaking ales. But sometimes a girl needs to live life on the edge.

“You gotta quit those cigarettes!” joked my friend Colin recently when I joined him, hacking, in a chipotle-scented corner of our favorite taco bar.

“Yeah,” I said, pulling off my helmet and blowing into my handkerchief, “And that’ll happen as soon as we finish that delicious pitcher of IPA.”

Does cycling make you sick? Submit a comment. Ulrike Rodrigues lives, rides and writes in Vancouver, Canada and can cough on demand. Read other Adventures of Mitey Miss columns.