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The Tooth of the Matter

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

While at university in the nineties, I used my bike to get pretty-much everywhere. It was a prehistoric version of today’s mountain bike and must have weighed 40 lbs, but I loved it anyway. I vividly remember one spring day a few of us hopped on our bikes and headed off campus for a trip to Benny’s Bagels – a popular hub for study breaks and tuna melts.

Not long after passing through the University Gates, we were ripping down a hill with our noses in the wind and butts in the air, racing to catch all the green lights. Just when we reached peak velocity, we all rode over a crack in the pavement. My friend’s handlebars shot up to her chin, smacking her teeth together and cracking one of them in two! The trip to Benny’s was cancelled and I learned right there that teeth are not invincible.

For some reason, that episode came to mind during a recent ride and it got me thinking about teeth in general and all the ways we could damage them while on a bike. I happened to be riding with a dentist and he confirmed that endurance athletes are exposed to a lot of issues that they wouldn’t even know about. So I took to the internet when I got home to find out more.

Opening a stubborn spout on a water bottle with your teeth is one way to chip a tooth. I also learned it’s fairly common for athletes to grind their teeth under heavy exertion. What surprised me was how big the risk is for tooth decay.

The culprits for tooth decay are sports drinks, gels, chews and bars. The tooth-related danger in sports drinks comes from the acid that they contain. In gels and bars, it’s the sugar and carbohydrate that can cause trouble because that’s what the oral bacteria in your mouth use to produce acid.

Acid on your teeth is not usually all that harmful because our saliva contains proteins and minerals that neutralize the acidic environment and protect tooth enamel. Normally, we would consume food and drink in one sitting and then our saliva would take over to re-mineralize the enamel. But when you’re riding with your mouth open and taking sips and bites over long periods of time, the saliva can’t do its job.

Acid on your teeth can wear away at the enamel over time and because enamel cannot be regrown after it is damaged, the effects are irreparable. Eventually, it can weaken your teeth, leaving them more vulnerable to chipping and cracking.

So, should we be riding with our mouth closed and packing a toothbrush in our saddle bag?

Obviously, breathing with your mouth closed would make it hard to get the oxygen we need while riding and it turns out brushing can actually do more harm than good! Brushing right away will actually make things worse by spreading the acid around the teeth.

After exploring this rabbit hole on the internet for a while, I have resolved to the following:

  • If I’m riding for two hours or less, I will drink only water. If I’m doing a longer ride, I will fill one bottle with sports drink and another one with water.
  • When drinking sports drink, I’ll reduce contact with the teeth by swallowing it immediately rather than sloshing it around in my mouth.
  • After swigging back sports drink or eating gels or bars or chews, I’ll rinse with water.
  • I’m also going to add an extra visit to the dentist each year for a cleaning and a dose of fluoride.

And I will continue to keep my chin away from the handlebars!


Lindsay Carswell
Founder, Bicycle Sportive Tours International

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