A scorching heat wave that’s rocketing temperatures above 110F is pushing racers to the limit in the opening days of the 80th Volta a Portugal.
Friday’s stage 2 ran 203km from Beja to Portalegre across central Portugal where temperatures reached crisis levels. One TV camera caught images of a thermometer at 47.5C — 117F — at one point of Friday’s stage.
“This stage should have never happened,” two-time winner Gustavo Veloso told the Portuguese daily O Jogo. “It was like cycling in a sauna.”
National health authorities recommended that the public not venture into the heat if possible, yet the race pushed on with plenty of controversy.
Portuguese media reported that race organizers resisted calls from riders and teams Friday to reduce the 200km distance. Local fire departments rallied around the riders and sprayed water over the passing peloton in about a dozen communities along the route.
Riders reported that they went through 30 bidons on average, about 15 liters of water, during the stage. But that wasn’t enough for some.
Louis Bendixen (Team Coop) abandoned the race after completing the stage but was so dehydrated it took him three hours to produce a required post-stage anti-doping control. The Danish rider posted a message on social media underscoring the extremity of the situation.
“Sad to leave Portugal,” Bendixen wrote on Twitter. “Dehydrated, I was stuck at the anti-doping control for three hours with no food but water. After just being able to hand in my pee sample, my body completely shut down and collapsed. Spent the night in the hospital suffering from a heat stroke and kidney failure.”
Portuguese rider Joaquim Silva (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) was also forced to abandon due to symptoms of heat stroke. “[He] has been forced to leave as a result of a heat stroke due to high temperatures,” Caja-Rural-RGA reported.
Many are wondering why the UCI’s “extreme weather protocol” was not implemented. Earlier this year, a circuit stage at the Santos Tour Down Under was reduced by one lap or 26km when temperatures pushed above 100F.
The weather protocol, however, only applies to WorldTour and HC-categorized races. The Volta a Portugal is ranked as a 2.1-level race, meaning officially it is not under the protocol process.
That doesn’t mean that organizers are not under pressure to do something. Tiago Machado, a Portuguese pro on Katusha-Alpecin, posted a message on Twitter saying, “[Organizers should] follow the example of the Tour Down Under and in these extreme conditions, reduce the kilometers.”
The North American riders association (ANAPRC) and the international riders association (CPA) both posted messages on social media urging race officials to reduce or cancel stages due to the Sahara-like heat wave.
To matters even worse, riders complained Friday of a dangerous finale at the end of the 200km sauna-like stage that produced crashes.
“Another 200km with a lot of heat, and then in the final, an arrival that was very dangerous,” said former WorldTour-pro Sergio Paulinho. “Was that necessary?”
It’s not clear what race organizers will do Saturday for the 175km third stage from Serta to Oliveira do Hospital across central Portugal.
Temperatures are forecasted for 105-110F, but Portugal’s president was scheduled to attend the race at the finish line as the route passes through a region devastated by wildfires last summer. More than 65 people died in wildfires in 2017, and authorities have put the fire alert at the maximum under scorching temperatures.
Forecasters are calling for temperatures to remain in the low 40s (Celcius) for the next three days before a dip into the high 20s by Tuesday. The 12-stage Portugal tour started Wednesday and ends August 12 with a 17km individual time trial in Fafe.