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To prepare for Doha, U.S. riders hit the sauna

USA Cycling VP Jim Miller says the Americans took some unusual measures to prepare for the Doha heat in what should be a grueling worlds.

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How hot it is in Qatar for this week’s 2016 UCI world road cycling championships? Hotter than Texas.

USA Cycling’s Jim Miller, vice president of athletics, said the potentially extreme heat will mark these Doha worlds.

“It’s like riding in a sauna,” Miller told VeloNews in a telephone interview. “It’s unbelievable. When you’re in that kind of heat, it just sucks your energy.”

The opening two days of competition at the 2016 worlds have seen riders struggle with heat and hydration as temperatures push 100 degrees. With humidity itching above 50 percent, coupled with potentially blasting desert winds, it’s hotter than racing in west Texas in the middle of summer.

“This is like the Tour of Texas,” Miller said, only half-joking as the U23 men prepared for the time trial races Monday. “This place was buzzing in the morning, but because it’s so hot, this afternoon it is just flat.”

The potential for extreme heat is the main talking point this week as the world’s best road racers converge on Qatar for the first world championships to be held in the Middle East. Despite pushing the date of the races deep into mid-October, it appears temperatures could still reach nearly 100 degrees all week long.

Hydration and withstanding the Sahara-like temperatures will be key to top performances all week. After a wildly successful Olympics, Miller brings a well-balanced team of veterans mixed with ambitious up-and-comers, anchored by Taylor Phinney on the men’s side and Megan Guarnier on the women’s.

Hitting the sauna

In order to prepare for Qatar, Miller said his riders underwent some rather interesting training techniques in the weeks leading up to Doha so the brunt of the desert heat wouldn’t be so intense. To try to mimic the sauna-like conditions of Qatar, they literally hit the sauna.

“We had a heat acclimation plan starting in late September,” Miller explained. “It’s fairly intense. We had them train in long sleeves and leg warmers, with a sauna protocol.”

Sauna protocol? What’s that? Miller said the team didn’t quite ride their bikes inside of a sauna — though that is not unheard of — but they did push their bodies to the extreme in order to prepare for Doha. After intense, warm-weather training rides dressed as if it were autumn, riders would go directly into dry saunas, and sweat it out for 30 minutes. The idea was to prepare the body for the excesses of racing for four to six hours in extreme heat.

“After doing a normal aerobic ride, they’d go immediately into a sauna for 30 minutes,” he said, adding the riders were closely monitored. “And for an hour after the sauna they don’t drink any water. The idea is create plasma expansion, and helps you hold electrolytes, rather than sweating them out like you normally do. You just bake, as if you’re under the sun.”

Miller says USA Cycling comes to the Doha worlds with realistic expectations. He said he doesn’t expect the team to blow the doors off anyone, but Monday’s opening day of competition showed encouraging signs, with Skylar Schneider and Hannah Arensman finishing fourth and fifth respectively, in the junior women’s time trial. Neilson Powless and Geoffrey Curran stopped the clock for sixth and seventh, respectively, in the U23 men’s time trial.

After a season peak at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games — where the U.S. cycling team was the fourth-ranked sports federation in terms of medal haul behind swimming, track and field, and gymnastics — coupled with the honor of racing on home roads in last year’s worlds at Richmond, many of the top U.S. men and women took a pass on Qatar.

Post-Rio hangover

Three-time Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong and Rio star Mara Abbott both passed on Doha, as did such top men riders as Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, Brent Bookwalter, Alex Howes, Tyler Farrar, and Lawson Craddock. Of course, the flat parcours, desert heat and late dates didn’t help engender much enthusiasm among the ranks.

“This year was hard to get people excited about racing here,” Miller admitted. “Over the past six or seven years, we’ve seen riders get upset for not being selected to the worlds. This year, I sent out an email early in the season and said, ‘Who wants to go?’

“The Olympics were the pinnacle of the season for the elite riders,” he continued. “It’s a long season; everyone is tired. It’s mid-October. There were a lot of guys who said they didn’t want to train so hard to be fit in mid-October. I wasn’t upset. I get it. I understand, and I appreciate their honesty.”

Looking ahead to the road races, Miller said heat and hydration will be the decisive factors.

“I don’t know how you can get enough water to these guys,” Miller said. “It’s a minimum of two bottles per rider per lap (on the Pearl-Doha circuit) at 15km per rider, all day long. … Neilson [Powless] just finished the time trial. At 52 minutes, that is the maximum anyone can go. He is just smashed. Even if you go in a breakaway, you cannot do four hours in a breakaway in this heat. You just cannot do it.”

There’s talk of trimming the distance of the men’s road race on Sunday — whacking 150km out to make it little more than 100km — but Miller said with the suffocating heat, it probably wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

“In the men’s race, I think it will be a sprint because it’s just so damn hot. For the women, the potential to race out of groups is huge,” he said. “The men will just ride forever, and just race the last two or three laps at the maximum. Shorten it, you gonna get the same result.”