This eye-opening revelation came to me when I was having a tiny piece of metal literally drilled out of my cornea. Had I simply tossed on a pair of sunglasses before I went riding on that windy day, I could have avoided the whole mess.
That experience, and the subsequent lecture from my optometrist, really taught me the importance of eyewear when riding. Sure, I always wore safety goggles when using my array of power tools (well, almost always), and I did wear glasses when mountain biking sometimes (which is good considering the mud that I've scraped off of them, or the scratches from tree branches that are on them). But even then, it still wasn't exactly a "habit."
I have since learned that wearing sunglasses any time you ride is a smart way to protect your eyes from lots of different things including dirt, branches, tiny pieces of metal and the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
The sunglasses market is pretty big, with eyewear available just about everywhere, ranging from $3 to $200 per pair, and in about a million different styles. But when choosing sunglasses, you have to consider many factors besides what brand your favorite athlete wears or which one promises "thermonuclear protection."
Dominic D'Angelo, M.D., a doctor of optometry in Saugus, Mass., suggests using wraparound-frame design.
"That will help to protect your eyes from the sides and keep particles from getting past the lenses," D'Angelo says.
As I mentioned, when mountain biking, you run the risk of getting branches and leaves, mud and puddle splatters and other small pieces of dirt in your eyes. But on the road, your eyes are also susceptible to getting stuff in them -- including tiny pieces of metal, which seemingly come from nowhere. The wraparound design also helps prevent wind from drying your eyes out.
"The lenses should be made of polycarbonate," D'Angelo adds.
Polycarbonate is impact-resistant, which means they are less likely to shatter, but they are not shatterproof. Polycarbonate is the type of plastic similar to the Plexiglas that protects bank tellers. Another important feature of the polycarbonate lenses concerns UV radiation.
"They inherently absorb 100 percent UV radiation, even if the lenses are clear," D' Angelo says.
The sun's UV radiation can cause cataracts and other forms of eye damage. Various conditions can affect the amount of UV radiation that you are exposed to, but even on cloudy or overcast days, the harmful UV rays need to be blocked.
"Cheaper sunglasses that do not have the UV protection are actually harmful to the eyes, especially if the lens is dark," D'Angelo says. The darker lens will cause your pupil to dilate, which will allow more of the UV rays in.
Also look for scratch-resistant lenses. I think I've trashed more glasses by having them bounce around in my gear bag than from actual rocks and branches. Unfortunately, the polycarbonate lenses do scratch easier because they are softer, but a good scratch-resistant coating can help. Several eyewear companies have free or discounted lens replacement programs, so consider that when selecting a pair of glasses.
Many companies sell glasses with interchangeable lenses, usually with a pair of neutral gray lenses, a pair of amber or orange lenses and a pair of clear ones. The amber or orange lenses help improve visibility on hazy or cloudy days by blocking the blue waves from the color spectrum. The blue waves get scattered the most in conditions like this, so by limiting them, your visual clarity improves.
However, I can't tell you how many times I've been out riding with my orange lenses when I've been struck with an incredible view, only to be disappointed at how dismal it looks when I take the glasses off. I've even tried taking pictures through the lenses of my glasses, but I'm weird.
Finally, you want to make sure they fit comfortably (with your helmet on, too). Lightweight frames are pretty common, as are slip-resistant nosepieces and earpieces.
I have made more of an effort to protect my eyes since this incident. Living for a few days with a patch over one eye was pretty brutal. Driving was a pain, and riding was out of the question. A prominent European road racer is probably going to have his career cut short due to blindness in one eye (a result of a crash), but more important than racing, I couldn't imagine living with impaired vision like that.
I got lucky -- all I ended up with was a rusty scar on my cornea and a fun story about a drill.