Sun Smart

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Growing up in Canada there wasn’t a huge deal made about sun protection. We’re fully covered for 8 months of the year and the UV index rarely rose to 12. However, the sun is different here in Australia and even at cooler temperatures it can sizzle the skin. With the weather starting to stabilise and summer on our doorstep, Toby Shingleton reminds us that as cyclists we are extremely vulnerable to Melanoma and it’s an issue close to his heart.

The catalyst for Lance Armstrong’s comeback was said, to “raise cancer awareness”… But now many are asking “what he was really seeking to achieve?” The man has been shown to be a sporting fraud, but something important remains. Melanoma is a danger to those who spend time outdoors but as cyclists we can take precaution.

There are some things in life you can change. Choices can be made, different directions taken, other roads found to ride down. Most Australians can decide what they do and when they do it, but at some point they will inevitably make some bad choices. Every day when we wake up and step out the front door we put ourselves, to some degree, at risk of injury or even death as a result of our decisions.

If we aimed to avoid injury or limit the risk of hurting ourselves, we’d spend the day in the house with the lights off and the curtains drawn, desperately hoping Mormons didn’t come knocking. We would never see daylight, but would this allow us to live any longer? Probably not. Science and common sense tell us that leading an active and stimulating life can help increase our lifespan. If you don’t eat junk food and ride your bike every day, you may live to be 100. We hope. But what price do we pay for this activity?

As bike riders, are we exposing ourselves to more risk than others? Reading some columns in the daily newspapers or hearing the opinions of talkback callers on radio networks around the land, you might believe you’re lucky to be alive. By choosing to ride bicycles we risk exposing ourselves to known dangers. We are aware and take precautions. And we hope that the motorists who vent their frustrations through aggression learn a little bit about the notion of sharing the road.

This is about a different kind of cycling safety. Just being outside presents a threat. The sun is the problem. And that bright spark of hydrogen and helium about 146 million kilometres away is much harder to control than even the most misinformed driver. You can attempt to negotiate with a motorist but the sun couldn’t care less what you do. It’s going to keep on burning no matter what, and therein lies the problem. Cyclists beware: you’re vulnerable.

Those of us who ride regularly have a head start on many in the population when it comes to life expectancy. Our choice of exercise tends to keep us active for longer than the 30 minutes of “modest physical activity” that the Australian Government specifies in its latest campaign to try and make people healthier. Many of us pedal for at least twice as long as the recommended time most days. Throw in a longer session on the weekend and we should expect our ticker to be relatively healthy.

The Grim Reaper will eventually come knocking but we can at least steer him away from our door for a while.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer which is often described as the most deadly. It is one of the few cancers known that is virtually impossible to cure once it gets into your body. It’s something Australians learn about at a very early age. We see the ads insisting that we “Slip, slop, slap…” and, in the latest campaigns, we see graphic clips of cancer ravaging what appears to be a healthy body. However, do we change our behaviour and take these messages on board? Not always. Sometimes never.

Tan lines may appear over the years but that doesn’t mean they are cool. In fact, they should be avoided. Skin cancer is a topic of importance for many Australians.

For me, it’s not that I’ve lost a loved one to skin cancer or suffered from it myself, but largely because of my wife Julia. As a specialist oncology pharmacist she fights cancer every day. Through her experiences with patients, I have a new respect for the people who struggle against this illness. I have also come to understand how the decisions of the population affect those who are victim to it, as these can influence what resources go into fighting this terrible disease.I now realise how random and indiscriminate cancer can be.

I remember vividly when I asked my wife, “What’s the worst, most horrible form of cancer?” Without a moment’s pause, she told me. “Melanoma.” This is what strikes down the young, middle-aged and old; the hardworking, the fit and the healthy. It comes to those who are active and those who believe they’re doing the right thing looking after themselves. It comes to those who spend time in the sun. It could be categorised as a preventable disease.

Don’t fear the sun though. Just be smart about the time you spend exposed to it. Treat it like you would the risks in traffic: be aware and take precautions. It’s been estimated that 90 per cent of melanoma is preventable through reduced exposure. Research indicates that skin cancer rates soared by 86% between 1997 and 2010, and are set to increase by a further 22% between 2010 and 2015. By the age of 14, it is predicted, 70 per cent of Australians will have damage to their skin caused by the sun. This includes areas that you may think are not getting as much exposure as other parts of your body. Recent studies show that UV exposure for a cyclist’s ankles, inner thighs and calves can be up to 70 per cent of that in places like the top of the head. So how can we affect these statistics and not become another victim? We consider our antics. We listen to the urges to be aware.

We act with commonsense because of what science has told us and we cover up against UV rays. Let’s at least be savvy to the dangers. We rug up to avoid the cold. When it rains we wear wet weather gear. When the sun is shining, then we should just as instinctively apply lashings of sunscreen. If you’re going for a long ride, pack a tube of protection in with your puncture kit. The facts exist to show us we are vulnerable. So we should be prepared to change our habits.

Our fashion sensibilities as cyclists are driven by European trends and tastes. Despite the fact that we ride in an environment which subjects us to UV levels far beyond those in the northern hemisphere, we choose to mimic clothing style choices. It’s rare to see a weekend cyclist with zinc cream on their face or sun sleeves to protect their arms, and even rarer to see someone wearing a cap with protection at the back. Many cyclists wear tan lines like a badge of honour. For the professionals it’s hard to avoid.

If you ride 40,000km in a year, it can’t all be done in perfectly safe conditions: controlled roads to guard against motorists or covered head to toe in Lycra to avoid the burn of the dreaded UV. Even in the best conditions, you could crash. Or you could attract the sting of the sun and not even feel the damage being done to your skin. At this time of year a cyclist in Australia gets UV exposure that can be as much as three times that in Europe. So consider all you can do to really reduce your risks. It’s time for attitudes to change. And not just those at the top level.

An edited version of this text originally appeared as a Back Page in RIDE Cycling Review Issue 43. There will be a new issue of RIDE Cycling Review on-sale in Australia and via digital download around the world on December 7th. For more information visit