ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (CT) – Extreme weather has again been in the cycling headlines over the past few days with the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour raced in temperatures well over 40°C. Stage 1 was particularly brutal with riders starting the stage in the desert north of Abu Dhabi and enduring temperatures of more than 45°C.
That stage was cut short due to the heat and also because the slow race speeds created an issue with TV scheduling. Even with the shortened distance the riders still rolled in roughly 15 minutes later than the predicted finishing time.
High temperatures are part and parcel of early-season racing for riders that attend the Tour Down Under in Australia, the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, the Dubai Tour, the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Qatar. And with the introduction of the Abu Dhabi Tour this year, we now seemingly have a calendar that is bookended by races in sky-high temperatures.
So how did the people involved in the Abu Dhabi Tour — from riders to mechanics to photographers — deal with such extreme conditions? What precautions and preparations, if any, were put in place to keep body temperatures at a normal functioning level? We spoke to a few people at the race to find out.
Stage 1 winner Andrea Guardini is known for riding well in hot and humid conditions. As of this season, he now has 18 stage wins at the Tour de Langkawi to his name; a race that, held in early March, is almost always raced in hot conditions. Indeed, organisers at the Malaysian race have fire crews at the finish spraying the riders with water as they cross the line.
“I like the heat and maybe I suffer less than the other riders,” Guardini told CyclingTips. “I think it’s a physical trait (that I cope well in the heat). It’s one by one, each person is different. Some love the cold and some love the heat, like me.”
Another rider that seems to cope well with the heat is Rafaâ Chtioui of the Sky Dive Dubai team. The Tunisian road race and time trial champion spent a lot of time off the front during the Abu Dhabi Tour, getting clear solo on both of the first two stages and then in a two-man break on stage 3. His preparation has been different to most who have travelled from Europe to take on the race.
“I was here a week before the race and I knew how it was going to be here in the Emirates,” Chtioui said. “I have been with Skydive Dubai for two years now and we do many races in the heat, so I know how it works. You have to be prepared in the mind.
“All the way through the race I used water on the legs and face. I was listening to how my body felt. I wanted to use a smaller gear but with the heat it’s hard and I felt that my legs worked better in a bigger gear. It seems to keep the heartrate lower.”
Long time professional photographer Graham Watson has the view that attending a race such as the Abu Dhabi Tour is certainly a challenge but one that you need to deal with on your own. For a photographer it seems the challenge is as much about the mind as it is the body.
“You cope because you have to cope, or you have to get out of the business”, Watson told CyclingTips. “Some days it rains, other days it’s 45 degree heat. There is no question about not coping. [Stage 1] was extreme but more so because they couldn’t race. [As a photographer] you’re already getting de-motivated after the first 10km with them not racing. If it’s rain, sleet, the snow or heat it doesn’t matter as long as they are racing.
“You are there for a reason, which is to take pictures of them racing. So if they’re not racing and they spend the whole day collecting water bottles, drinking and not even stopping for a pee as there is nothing to pee, then there’s nothing to do.”
Watson explained that his usual strategy for escaping the heat and killing time didn’t work in Abu Dhabi.
“To cope with the heat most of the time in Europe and even Dubai or Oman there are a lots more petrol stations. You stop you get a cold drink or even a cup of coffee — it just breaks up the day. In this country there was only three (petrol stations) between the start and the finish and two of them didn’t sell much apart from petrol.
“So when there’s nothing to eat or drink it’s challenging but you just look after yourself. It wasn’t the heat but the lack of activity that troubled me [on stage 1].”
Former world champion Philippe Gilbert explained what sort of impact extreme heat has on a rider’s body.
“I don’t use a heartrate (monitor) on my SRM but I know some guys did and we were riding at like 34km/h average, so really slow. But heart rates were still at 180-185 so it’s crazy,” Gilbert said. “It’s like you’re going to do a time trial full effort with the same heart rates. People think we may be going slow but we can’t go faster than that — it’s just too hard to.”
At the end of stage 1 Matt Goss of MTN-Qhubeka came across the line with his jersey covered in salt and sand from the day’s action. He spoke to CyclingTips about what the riders do to cool themselves down.
“You have to keep your body as cool as possible — ice down the back, water down the body. And ultimately drink as much as you can,” Goss said. “It’s tough to do but when its 47 (degrees) and our bodies run at 37 … It’s just important to have some ice cold drinks, ice down your shirt and to squirt some water over you whenever you can.”
It’s not just the riders that need to be particularly mindful of the impact the warm weather can have. MTN-Qhubeka mechanic Ken Farrar, like all mechanics, has to make sure that the bikes are in a condition that can take the heat.
“One big worry with this heat is that the glue on the tyres melts. You have to check the tyres all the time,” Farrar told CyclingTips. “Yesterday it wasn’t a problem as it was a straight road so they weren’t going to roll off on a sharp corner.”
Bora-Argon 18 mechanics Gerd Kodanik and Risto Usin explained that further precautions are needed on hot days if the riders have been on the rollers before the stage.
“If it’s a really hot day and if the guys have used rollers to warm up on then we will cool the tyres down with ice,” Kodanik said. “As soon as the guys are off the rollers we will rotate the wheel holding an ice pack over it. It just hardens up the glue again a little bit.”
While Orica-GreenEdge sports director Matt White had the luxury of an air-conditioned car throughout the race, he seemed concerned for his riders when he spoke to CyclingTips after the blisteringly hot first stage.
“I couldn’t tell you how many bidons we went through but I’ve never seen a day like that before,” White said. “We will get back to the hotel and there’ll be ice baths all round. Some guys like the air-con and really live with it, other guys don’t like it so much and will turn it off before they sleep.
“But to recover it’s maybe a quick swim [in the hotel pool], and ice baths to cool the bodies as quick as possible.”
It’s clear that the heat at the Abu Dhabi Tour posed considerable challenges for riders, team staff and journalists alike but all had little choice but to get on with the job at hand and deal with the conditions as best as possible. For riders that meant many more bidons than usual and the use of ice packs, and a slowing of the pace to ensure heartrates didn’t go into the red. The decision to shorten the race on stage 1 was well received by seemingly all involved and will only help in attempts to get the big teams back to the race in future.
It’s worth remembering too that in 2016 the Road World Championships will be held in Doha, Qatar. Even though the race will be held two weeks later than normal, and even though the sea breeze from the Persian Gulf might provide a slight cooling effect, the riders are almost certainly in for a very hot day on the bike. And when you consider that the race will be nearly twice as long as the longest stage at this year’s Abu Dhabi Tour, it’s clear it will take a special rider to be crowned world champion in 2016.