future heatwaves could make it untenable to hold the race in July

As the men’s Tour de France draws to a close and the women’s tournament begins, the European heat wave rages on. If you look closely, the heat can be seen in photos from the event: cooling towels around racers’ necks, water splashing over red faces, ice packs sticking out from under race jerseys.

The temperature is further enhanced by the heat island effect created by roads that absorb and radiate heat. On the hottest days of the men’s race, with temperatures around 40℃, the organizers even sprayed some roads to lower the surface temperature. And while this works, it also contributes to humidity – it solves one problem, but contributes to another. It also doesn’t account for the environmental impact of using so much water to spray down a road.

The heat wave comes as no surprise to those who follow cycling. Mudslides, extreme heat, hail and a surprising amount of snow have interrupted stages of the Tour in recent years.

In 2019, for example, a heavy mudslide covered the entire way on stage 19 of the race, forcing the race to stop. With no idea what awaited them, athletes spent several hours on the track that day until the race director stopped the race and called for bulldozers to clear the debris.

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has an extreme weather protocol to guide race organizers in their response to such weather conditions. The policy requires that a meeting be convened between the race doctor, head of security, riders and team representatives and representatives of the UCI when extreme weather conditions are expected prior to the start of a stage. There is no policy for inclement weather that occurs when a race is already in motion.

Conspicuously absent from the policy is any consideration of whether the policy can be triggered by specific wet-bulb temperature thresholds – a measure that includes temperature, humidity and wind speed, and which is taken in direct sunlight and so closely aligned with how warm it is actually feels for the cyclists. It is left to the named stakeholders to determine what “extreme weather” is and the lines on this are blurred.

Cyclists in the sun
On the hottest days, the air is hotter than body temperature and cyclists struggle to keep cool.
Peter Goding / Alamy

The policy is also limited in the actions it allows to combat bad conditions. Among which:

  1. take no action

  2. change the location or time of the start or finish

  3. change the course or neutralize part of the stage/race

  4. strengthen safety features for the course and organization

  5. any other corrective action or action taken by the interested parties in accordance with the UCI Regulations

  6. cancel the stage/race.

Historically, the UCI has acted under its extreme weather protocol to handle snow or extreme cold, not heat. For example, in the 2016 Tour De Suisse, the final stage was shortened to just 57.3km due to snow conditions.

But as the peloton raced across the finish line on the Champs-Elysées on Sunday, temperatures hovered around 30°C, five degrees warmer than the average Parisian temperatures in July, providing one last glimpse of the race under increasingly strenuous conditions.

Heat wave hotspot

France sits at the center of a western European region that has emerged as a heatwave hotspot, with heatwave rates increasing about three to four times faster over the past four decades compared to the rest of the northern mid-latitudes. The heat causes health problems in athletes. This year Alexis Vuillermoz collapsed at the finish of the ninth stage, was taken to hospital to treat heat illness and later withdrew from the Tour.

The heat also brings a range of indirect effects, such as drought and wildfires along the route. This summer, France experienced some of the worst wildfires in its history, burning more than 41,000 hectares and evacuating more than 36,000 people. It is a stroke of luck that the Tour escaped the flames.

Although riders came within 100km of the blaze as they passed through an affected region, the Gironde, the route did not pass through a town that had been evacuated and no changes were needed. But timing is everything: Villandraut, which was on the 2021 route, was evacuated during this year’s race.

Ironically, this year’s race was only disrupted by climate protesters who chained themselves to block the roads in two stages. But if climate trends continue rapidly, it is only a matter of time before major structural changes are needed to safely host this event. Specifically, the Tour may no longer be tenable in July, which does not bode well for other summer events in France, namely the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

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