October 06, 2016

"The heat is a mountain" Thibaut Pinot

Since its inception Le Tour has been a race of extremes, shaped and designed to sell newspapers to an eager public. Extreme distances, extreme climbs and extreme weather. In more recent times we've seen weather protocols finally being introduced to protect riders, with stages of this year’s Paris-Nice and previous Milan San-Remo editions being varied to avoid snow and freezing cold conditions.

But the heat, 'La fournaise', is another matter. It hasn’t yet stopped a stage although who knows what the future holds. What's for certain is that it's shaped the race and the racers themselves who take it on.

In 1950, 81kms into stage 15, half of the peloton came to halt, got off their bikes and ran into the Mediterranean at Saint-Maxime (just 100kms west of Nice). These were men made of hardy stuff - heavy bikes, big gears and a resistance to taking on too many liquids given it was a sign of weakness. But it was hot. So hot, they couldn’t handle it anymore and the lure of the sea on the long coastal stage was irresistible.

The race director, Jacques Goddet, was furious. Unable to find any relevant regulation for such an event in his rule book all he could do is shout and point the riders back on their bikes and up the road.

The previous day extreme heat had brought drama of a different kind with the famous incident of Abdel-Kader Zaaf, riding for the North African section of the French team. Zaaf had established a surprisingly big breakaway with his fellow North African Marcel Molinès as the temperature soared.

But as they neared the last 20kms Zaaf became visibly unsteady on his bike. Officials tried to intervene but he ignored their attempts and rode on until the inevitable collapse. So the story goes, he fell asleep only to waken with a start a couple of minutes later, realize he was in the Tour de France and jump on his bike. Unfortunatley, he rode in the wrong direction and within a kilometer was persuaded to abandon before being taken away in an ambulance.

One of the most famous Tour photos of all shows Zaaf slumped against a tree, semi-conscious and totally drained by the heat.

The myth remains that he’d taken a bottle from a spectator at the side of the road that contained wine, and as a muslim, this had an exaggerated effect and left him punch drunk in the sun. (More sober accounts state that locals threw whatever liquid came to hand when the Zaaf collapsed in front of them, including wine, the smell of which sparked the rumour).

Zaaf ultimately profited from the incident and became a celebrity on the post-Tour criterium circuit, cashing in on his misfortune. In itself, this is maybe an indication of the culture of celebrating the plight of the riders at the Tour to make newsworthy stories and therefore money. Warning signs were not heeded.

But a turning point maybe came at the 1967 Tour following the tragic death of Tom Simpson. When asked in 1967 about his fading powers before the infamous stage in the 1867 Tour, Tom Simpson staged “It’s not the heat, it’s the Tour”. In the aftermath of that day, the coroner reported that Simpson’s death on the Ventoux was largely caused by heat prostration which had led to a fatal heart attack. Of course the mix of amphetamines and alcohol (with their diuretic effect) had contributed but 45 degree temperatures on the bald mountain was a huge factor.

In more recent times we’ve seen a return to 'La Fournaise' at Le Tour. 2010 set the record when the mercury reportedly hit 63 degrees (surely that must have been taken from the tarmac rather than the air…). It was a reason sighted by Mr Wiggins when he couldn't hold the wheels on the climb to Avoriaz. Last year, they came close again with 61 degrees.

This means the riders have to cope whatever way they can. Drinking is a good start (not a pot belge) but water and electrolytes to keep hydrated. Last year, Geraint Thomas of Sky stated at one stage he was going through 3 bidons (1.5l every hour).

Clothing is the other part, and evaporated cooling is the target. High surface areas for sweat to be wicked away are the key, which is why mesh (so heavily used on our Micheline jersey) is employed. It has the added benefit of increasing airflow, which works provided you are not at climbing pace with a tailwind….

But the heat will never go away. It's a part of Tour. It has to be coped with. In the same way as any of the other mountains on the route.

Reprinted with thanks to our friends at Cafe du Cycliste.

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