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Groundbreaking study uses worlds cyclists for heat research

A team of doctors and researchers are working with the riders as part of a study into competing in the heat.

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DOHA, Qatar (VN) — Notice something funny hanging around Tom Dumoulin’s neck after time trial races Wednesday? It certainly wasn’t a medal — he was 11th — it was a thermometer.

Even more interesting was what was inside. Before the start of the race, Dumoulin swallowed a small pill with a sensor that would allow doctors to accurately measure his core body temperature after the intense time trial effort in desert heat.

“It measures my body temperature,” Dumoulin explained. “They are monitoring, taking data and share it with us, and making research. It is interesting for the future.”

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Riders at the 2016 UCI Road World Championships are serving as guinea pigs in a groundbreaking study to help doctors and officials understand the effects of extreme heat on cyclists.

Dumoulin was among more than a dozen top riders Wednesday who participated by ingesting the pea-sized pill with the heat sensor inside. It would later be passed — ahem — harmlessly out of their systems. The data collected via the thermometers will help doctors and officials understand how a cyclist performs and recovers in extreme heat, and the information will be used to help formulate protocol for safe racing conditions in warm-weather climes.

With daytime temperatures nearing 100 degrees, the Qatar world championships is the perfect laboratory.

“The information we are gathering now will help us create protocol specifically for cycling in the future,” said Dr. Olaf Schumacher, part of the medical team at the Doha-based Aspetar clinic. “We know a lot about football (soccer), tennis, and athletics; we don’t know a lot about cycling.”

With heat and extreme temperatures possibly forcing the reduction of Sunday’s men’s road race by about 150 kilometers, UCI officials are taking the question seriously.

Schumacher is one of five doctors and supporting medical staff in Doha ready to handle any health issues that might arise from racing in the high desert temperatures of Qatar. Qatari officials set up a mobile, state-of-the-art heat treatment clinic near the finish line, replete with full medical facilities and two cold-water dipping pools to treat extreme cases of heat stroke.

So far through competition, doctors said they have only treated one relatively mild case of heat exposure. Following a check-up and treatment, the patient (a Belgian junior rider) was released after 15 minutes.

‘Heat should not be an issue’

Schumacher and the other doctors are also part of the UCI’s independent medical panel that will decide if heat conditions are considered too extreme to safely race the full distance of the men’s road race Sunday. So far, Schumacher said it is highly unlikely the race will be shortened.

“The heat in this championships should not be an issue,” Schumacher said. “We are monitoring the temperatures, and so far, we have not reached an excessive level.”

Forecasters are calling for high temperatures of around 96 degrees on Sunday, but Schumacher said calculating a possible “stop threshold” is more detailed than just looking at the thermometer.

Other factors such as humidity, wind, and sun radiation come into play. Wind cools the body temperature, and a moving cyclist even more so, with a strong wind knocking up to 40 degrees off what the thermometer might reveal. Humidity also changes throughout the day in Qatar, with higher levels in the morning and lower levels as the sun cooks off any moisture in the afternoon. To have a complete picture, the medical staff is using three different locations along the race course to accurately measure temperature, humidity, wind speed, and radiation levels.

So far, despite the relatively high temperatures, Schumacher said race conditions have not come near an upper threshold that would force Sunday’s race to be shortened.

“We have not come close so far,” Schumacher said. “We are well below of what would be considered a risk, and we are using the most cautious guidelines.”

That is good news to riders like Dumoulin, who want to see the men race the full 250km distance Sunday.

“They say it is cooling down,” Dumoulin said. “Even in this heat, it is still possible to race. I have done well in the heat before. When I won at the Vuelta [Cumbre del Sol], it was hotter than this. I think we can race.”