LOURDES, France (VN) — As the July sun beat down on this historic pilgrimage destination, which hosted the start of Friday’s stage 19 of the Tour de France, riders tucked chilled water bottles into their jerseys and draped ice-filled pantyhose around their necks. Muggy, damp air hung in the Pyrenean valley and temperatures soared into the mid-80s just before the noon start.
Thus far the 2018 Tour de France has featured unusually hot, sticky conditions, with zero days of rain and only a few moments of cloudy skies. Even the traditionally cooler stages along France’s northern coast were hot.
“Every day has been hard this year because there have been many days over 30 degrees [86 degrees Fahrenheit],” said Danish rider Soren Kragh Andersen, an important domestique on Tom Dumoulin’s Sunweb team. “I would like it to be a little less warm because my performances are never good above 25 degrees [77 Fahrenheit].”
By contrast, the 2016 Tour de France saw several days of chilly temperatures and intense rain. Stage 9 to Andorra Arcalis featured torrential rain and even hail; stage 20 into Morzine was also held in rain and featured a battle on the slippery descent of the Col de Joux Plane.
The warm temperatures this year are due to a high pressure system that has parked itself over the European continent for the last two months, steering tropical air from the Gulf Stream into the UK, France, and across Germany. European cities and towns have set new temperature marks throughout the summer; the Belgium city of Gent reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit this week, far above its average July temperature of approximately 70 degrees.
A recent report by the World Weather Attribution network, a group that studies the impact of climate change, said that man-made climate change was likely to blame for the warmth.
The soaring temperatures and dry conditions have impacted the way riders prepare for each stage of the Tour. At the chaotic start villages, riders have sought out shady spots under awnings and trees, and donned vests with pockets for ice packs while warming up on turbo trainers. Team helpers have set up fans and even water-misting nebulizers to shower the riders with moisture prior to stages.
Riders have spent more effort monitoring their hydration before, during, and after the races as well.
“You end up drinking a lot more,” said Swiss rider Michael Schar (BMC). “You hydrate in the race and also overnight because it’s important to keep drinking overnight.”
The hot temperatures have also changed the way team directors and doctors plan for each stage. Dr. Max Testa of Team BMC asks his riders to monitor the color of their urine throughout afternoon and evening after each stage. Testa even distributes a color chart that tells the riders whether their urine shows signs of dehydration.
“The goal is to start the stage very hydrated, which means the pee is very clear,” Testa said. “Yeah, sometimes there is laughter going on talking about [urine] but overall cyclists are already very educated on this from years of racing so they are prepared for it. We just need to reinforce it, because sometimes when you are stressed, you forget to check [urine].”
Most of the top WorldTour teams employ similar plans for hydration and recovery. Testa said he analyzes the riders throughout the season to determine their individual sweat rates and then crafts a hydration strategy based off of this information. On hot, mountain stages like Friday’s stage 19, riders try to consume at least one liter of fluid every hour during the race.
The riders drink cold water, as well as electrolyte mix, and on occasion, cans of Coca-Cola.
After each stage, riders then weigh themselves to determine how much fluid they lost during the ride. Each rider’s post-race hydration amount is based on his approximate weight loss. Testa asks his riders to rehydrate as much as possible prior to dinner.
“We have a sequence of drinks they consume starting the moment they come to the bus,” he said. “I want to get them to drink 150 percent of the weight they lose before dinner because you don’t want them to dilute the digestive enzymes.”
Riders could see a cool-down for the final two stages. Saturday’s individual time trial in Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle calls for 77-degree weather and possible thundershowers. Sunday’s final stage in Paris, however, calls for another hot one: 85 degrees and sunny.
All of the heat and sunshine does have its advantages, of course.
“Some people struggle in the heat but everybody struggles on slippery roads,” said Jack Bauer (Mitchelton-Scott.
Of the sunshine, he added jokingly, “The tans have been better as a result.”