The heat is on for The Tour de France – how will it adapt to the new climate normal?

The heat is on for The Tour de France – how will it adapt to the new climate normal?

The 106th tour de France finished on Sunday night in Paris with eight laps of the Champs-Élysées. Riders celebrated their herculean achievement, riding hands free and drinking Champaign as the sun set over Paris. While the weather yesterday was favorable, the same could not be said for the rest of this year’s Tour. Riders endured a range of what would once be described as ‘freak’ weather conditions including extreme heat, downpours, hail, and mudslides, the latter of which led to shortened routes and stage cancellations.

The Tour de France is arguably the most grueling and competitive physical sporting event in the world. The race route alternates between clockwise and anti-clockwise circuits of France, passing through mountainous terrain, hilly-villages, cobblestone roads, and flat country side. In the 2019 tour, cyclists covered 2,200 miles (3,500 km) and climbed altitudes as high as 9087 feet (2770 meters), over the course of 23-days.

In the final week of this years’ race, a heat wave swept through Europe, bringing ambient air temperature up to 40˚C (104˚F) and 60˚C (140˚F) on the road. During the 16th stage of the race through the town of Nimes, cyclists cooled down by placing ice cubes in their helmet, wearing vests and sleeves made of ice, and drinking double the normal volume of liquid.

Surface temperatures from the Sentinel-3 satellite Source: Copernicus EMS Twitter

Slovakian pro-cyclist, and eventual Green Jersey winner, Peter Sagan called on the CPA, the professional riding association, to take action over the heat ‘I think the CPA should do something. I don’t know why we pay them if they don’t protect us’. As Sagan pointed out, the riding terrain was flat, however if cyclists were passing through the strenuous passes of the Alps where temperatures were only slightly lower, the strain combined with the heat could be dangerous.

In 2016, the CPA released the Extreme Weather Protocol to respond to unforeseen extreme weather events including freezing rain and hail, snow accumulation on roads, poor visibility, strong winds and extreme temperature. The Protocol enables the CPA to modify the time and schedule of the route and cancel stages in the event that they posed a risk to the riders. Indeed, the CPA enacted the protocol on Saturday, shortening the stage, when a mudslide passed over the road making it impassible.

However, unlike a mudslide, hail storm, or downpour, ‘heat’ does not provide a physical barrier to the riders’ progress, therefore the call of when it is ‘too hot’ is difficult to make. British Cyclist Alex Dowsett told VeloNews that he couldn’t image a stage being shortened or cancelled due to heat, because of the money involved, and the towns that spend thousands of euros for the right to host the event. George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s former Domestique and 17-time Tour De France cyclist, said “In 19 years of racing I was never in a bike race that they shortened or cancelled because of the heat”.

While heat-wave emergency management must certainty be improved in future editions of the Tour, extreme heat must also be taken into account during the planning of the event itself. Climate change projections show that heat waves are going to become increasingly common and therefore planning for them, rather than having to make a difficult emergency management decision, is important to ensure riders safety while minimising any impacts to the event itself.  There are several measures that Tour organisers should consider in the years to come:

  • Rides generally take place during peak heat hours, 12 pm to 17:00 pm. Moving rides to earlier hours, for example from 7:00 am to 12:00 pm, could help avoid the hours associated with the highest heat exposure.
  • Planning stages in regions where there is good vegetation and shade cover surrounding the roads. Roads are significantly hotter than ambient air temperature.
  • Planning the route so that the final stages – coinciding with the end of July – are in the northern part of France, instead of the hotter southern regions.
  • Moving the Tour earlier in the year – a move that will get a trial run (though not for climate reasons) next year when the Tour will take place at the end of June (rather than July 6 in 2019) so it does not overlap with the summer Olympics.

The Tour de France remains a very important cultural event and has been for over a century. Climate adaptation measures will have to be balanced with cultural considerations. It is an opportune time to explore potential heat-related adaptation options that will help ensure cyclist-safety and uninterrupted stages for years to come.

Cover photo by Tom Sam on Unsplash.

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