Racing in Polluted Air

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I’ve had the “pleasure” to race in pretty polluted air a few times.  I thought of this after reading Phil Gaimon’s interview about him supporting the shortening of stage 2 of the Tour of China a couple days ago.

Like I said above, I’d done it.  I’d say the worse air I’ve ever raced in was in China also.  It was about 6 years ago when I went over and did a stage race in Shanghai.   The air was horrible.  I think they burn coal to cook, even in the major cities.  Whatever the reason, the air was off the charts horrible.  After the first stage, which probably was less than 100 miles, I was hurt so badly that I curled up in a ball and coughed for a couple hours.  And that is not that long ago.  It doesn’t look that it has improved too much.

Back in the 80’s the air in LA, and sometimes on the east coast too, was pretty horrible.  One race around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the air was bad.  I got lucky and got a bee in my skinsuit and had to peel it off, during the race.  I then quit.  The guys that finished looked like raccoons, the only white on their faces was their eyes.  And they were coughing and coughing.

Same with Somerville, New Jersey  a couple times.  I’ve found that when you’re racing, it isn’t that bad.  I think it is because, in cycling, we tend to take a bunch of shallow breaths, we don’t feel the effects of the pollution until we try to breathe normally after the race.

Anyway, the air in LA and Somerville has improved dramatically over the years.  The air in the US is much better since the early 80’s.  It probably has a lot to do with using unleaded gasoline and the better emissions on automobiles.

We should all feel privileged that we live in a country where, in general, we tend to have pretty pollution free air.  At least compared to the past.  And we have people addressing the situation.  That isn’t the case in many places around the world.  China for one.  (They make mandatory vacation day for workers to try to lessen the pollution.)  

We shouldn’t take it for granted, because it isn’t.



When I rode for Wheaties/Schwinn, the German guys that raced 6 days in the winter, said the air in the velodromes was horrible, with all the spectators smoking.

When I rode for Wheaties/Schwinn, the German guys that raced 6 days in the winter, said the air in the velodromes was horrible, with all the spectators smoking.

The classic, smoking while racing photo.

The classic, smoking while racing photo.

6 thoughts on “Racing in Polluted Air

  1. Sal Ruibal

    I covered the 2007 Women’s Soccer World Cup in China. The tournament went to several cities in China. The worst by far was Tianjin, which smelled like airplane glue and dry-cleaning fluid. Turns out it was a big electronics manufacturing center for U.S. high-tech companies. We can point the finger at China but U.S. companies are also complicit in the pollution. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing were fairly clean because the government shut down factories so the global TV feed would just see nice clean air. It was so nice, the local Trek store organized a mountain bike day for some of us media riders in the mountains around Beijing. It was beautiful!

  2. tclaynm

    I have some fond memories of racing the Tour of Redlands in some pretty brown air a few times. I also have pictures of me after that Sunset Loop RR where I looked like a racoon. I would cough and feel miserable for a few weeks after that race. I raced Somerville with the bad air only once, and it was suffocating. Matter of fact, all east coast races in the summer felt bad…even Fitchburg, which wasn’t even all that close to a metropolitan area seemed to wracked with pollution.

    But, you’re right. You just don’t see that level of pollution around anymore. The USA has definitely tightened the clamp on EPA standards, which has seen most of our “dirty” industries shipped overseas. I think the last real “dirty” industry left in the USA is electrical power production in the form of coal-burning power plants. Those are getting to be problematic for the shareholders because of the requirements to clean up the emissions — very expensive. There are a couple of them near the Four Corners region, and you can still a brown haze over Navajo country outside of Farmington, NM that many environmental groups point to when trying to get those plants to clean up their act or shut down altogether. It is kind of an ugly reminder.

    Back in the ’90s, the USCF would put me on those little Central- and South-American stage race teams to race in garden spots like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Venezuela; probably because I grew up close to Mexico and had spent tons of time there and didn’t get sick like other “Nortenos.” Anyway, I was still susceptible to the effects of bad pollution. I would get severe headaches after big stages near the polluted cities. I sort of remember the worst of them all was Quito, Ecuador, probably because it is at such high altitude. It’s a beautiful place, but they still used a lot of two-stroke engines with leaded gasoline. Ugh, I would have some BAD headaches after racing there. Some other notoriously bad air could be found in Guatemala City, San Salvador, Managua, Caracas, and of course, Mexico City. I have fond memories of headaches in all of these places after hard races.

    Dang, sorry for the long comment. I should start my own blog, I guess. I just remember this subject being a big deal for me during all those big racing years. I have SO many pictures of post-stage “pollution face” at those stage races.

  3. channel_zero

    Also remember Beijing’s geography, like Los Angeles, means that the pollution gets trapped.

    My recollection is Beijing had the rain they needed to wash the pollution out of the air just in time. But, I could be wrong.

    American trade policy is directly responsible for the pollution in China. In exchange for high quality, very low priced goods we manufacture China’s global-scale pollution. A corollary effect is increasing unemployment in the U.S. while maintaining the appearance of a healthy consumer-driven economy.

    Of course, China’s role in keeping the YMB artificially low is a factor, but the U.S., like other countries, is not required to accept the valuation as-is.

    It’s ridiculously easy to pound out opinions like mine though. There are many, many moving parts to trade policy and there’s no right answer.

  4. The Cyclist

    Ok, not sure what the dolphins think of all this but I’ve heard they’re not so fond of the radioactive fish from Fukushima.

  5. Aki

    “we don’t feel the effects of the pollution until we try to breathe normally after the race.”

    I’m pretty sure this is due to the normal adrenaline that your body emits/uses during exercise, related to evolution’s “running away from a tiger” weeding out cycle/s. When you finish exercising your body stops emitting as much of the adrenaline stuff, leading to coughing and other congestion type things.

    If you think about it you’re probably breathing more deeply and more forcefully when you’re exercising. If the body didn’t have a natural system to help you breathe while exercising you’d be coughing during the exercise, not after it.

    I don’t know biology so “adrenaline” may not be the right word. It’s whatever makes your heart race, your blood vessels dilate, and your breathing clear up.


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