MAIRENA DEL ALCOR, Spain (VN) — After a European summer without high temperatures, the peloton is wilting under a scorching sun during the opening stages of the Vuelta a España.
Most of the 2014 racing season has been punctuated by cool, mild weather. Even the Tour de France barely saw summer-like temperatures until the final week of racing. The first week of the Vuelta across sunny Andalusia is certainly making up for lost time in Europe’s mild summer.
“I am from Texas, but this is still hot for everyone,” Chad Haga (Giant-Shimano) told VeloNews before the start of stage 4. “Everyone is just doing what they can to stay hydrated.”
Temperatures are soaring into the mid- to high-90s in the first few stages. Evenings and mornings are delightful in Spain’s tourist-packed south, but the mid-day afternoon sun, just when the meat of the Vuelta stages are held, make for some extreme conditions.
The sun blazed down on the peloton during Monday’s stage to Arcos de la Frontera, forcing them to ride at a snail’s pace until the final hour of racing. Monday’s stage finished nearly 90 minutes later than expected, with an average speed of 36kph, well below the typical that hovers around 40kph. Tuesday’s stage, under even warmer temperatures, was equally slow going in the middle part of the stage.
Air temperatures are pushing 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s even hotter with the sun beating off the asphalt.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) posted to Twitter on Monday that he lost 4.5kg (10 pounds) during the stage. That is mostly water weight, quickly recovered when riders refill the tank in the evening, but it revealed just how extreme conditions are during the race.
“It certainly makes the racing more demanding,” Trek’s Haimar Zubeldia told VeloNews. “The heat is part of racing, especially down here in the south. It affects everyone a little different. Personally, I don’t mind it. The key is to stay hydrated.”
Teams were taking extra care to make sure their riders had plenty of water and drinks during the stage. Tinkoff-Saxo said it went through 200 bottles in Monday’s stage. Europcar went even further Tuesday, filling 250 water bottles for the demanding stage to Córdoba, where it was even hotter.
“That’s about 12 bottles per rider,” Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Philippe Mauduit told VeloNews. “Of course, they don’t drink all of that. Some of it is for pouring over their heads.”
Tinkoff-Saxo is utilizing the water bottle vests that it introduced during the Tour de France. Instead of trying to stick as many water bottles into their jersey as possible, riders can slip on the vest, which holds seven water bottles, plus the two on their bike, and quickly regain contact with the peloton.
“With the vests, it’s a lot easier for the riders. It takes maybe 20 seconds at the team car, and they can quickly regain contact,” Mauduit explained. “It’s also less dangerous. There’s no danger of dropping a water bottle.”
Teams are also taking care to keep their riders not only hydrated, but also cool. Riders were spotted Tuesday starting the stage with ice packs on their backs, in an effort to at least control body temperatures.
Despite the heat, teams are watching details with an eye toward efficiency. Specialized’s riders, for example, used its aero road helmet, the Evade, which is estimated to have saved Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) 210Kj during Monday’s stage.
Forecasters are calling for increasing heat across southern Spain. And temperatures tend to increase in Spain’s interior, with cities like Córdoba, Granada and Albacete much warmer than the coastal cities.
The peloton likely won’t get a reprieve until stage 9 that climbs into some higher terrain with the uphill finale at Valdelinares.
The irony is that local residents during the opening days in Jerez de la Frontera were commenting how mild the summer heat has been in August. It can be even hotter. Government officials issue temperature warnings for extreme conditions. Tuesday’s stage was held under a “yellow” condition. It must hit the 40Cs to warrant a “red” warning, when it’s recommended to avoid hard physical efforts during the hottest part of the day.
For the riders in the Vuelta peloton, they don’t have that choice.