The hot topic during the opening weekend of the UCI World Championships in Doha was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the fierce heat in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. But are people making too much of a fuss about it?
When the World Cup visits Qatar in 2022 the action will take place in the build-up to Christmas after an unprecedented shift by FIFA in a bid to avoid the fierce heat of summer. The UCI has not had that luxury.
It was both a decent and wise gesture to put back the World Championships in Doha by two weeks. But in the grand scheme of things, a drop of a few degrees when you’re already in the high 30s hardly amounts to an appreciable difference in temperature.
And so it proved when the eight-day Worlds got under way on Saturday with the women’s team time trial – which took place in soaring heat and humidity.
With temperatures nearing 40C, Chloe Dygert (Twenty16-Ridebiker) was apparently reduced to vomiting on the home straight. Although Dygert, the triple world champion and Olympic silver medallist made light of her home-straight illness by blaming it on something she’d eaten. Others simply crashed out with apparent heat stroke and total disorientation.
Amazingly, the Dutchwoman in the above video – Anouska Koster – did eventually untangle her leg, regain her senses, remount and finish, whereby ensuring her Rabo Liv team could at least post the eighth and slowest time following the earlier dropping out of two other riders.
Koster’s team-mate Roxane Knetemann did not mince her frustrations while comparing the “unacceptable” heat to that of a “sauna”.
“The heat in Qatar is extreme – I cannot explain how excruciating it feels to be riding 40 kilometres through the desert,” Knetemann told the Dutch media. “You’d expect organisers and the UCI to have some knowledge about cycling. If you send out people for a team time trial in this heat, make sure there are at least ten ambulances ready to look after the riders. The UCI didn’t think this through. It makes no sense.”
Olympic time trial gold medallist Anna van der Breggen was also highly critical: “I’ve never ridden in such heat. A very dry heat. You go to the limit and what happens with your body, you do not know.”
Referring to her team-mate Koster’s crash, van der Breggen said: “This is a combination of fatigue and the heat. When you see how Anouska looks like, then we should be glad that she came across the finish line.”
However, it’s important to note that Koster herself made no reference to the heat when discussing her incident.
And here’s the thing. It’s not as if the heat in Qatar this week has proved something of a revelatory phenomenon, nor have the riders taking to the start in the time trials and road races been hoodwinked into a furnace.
Knetemann spoke of conditions that resembled a sauna more than a bike race. Well, hitting the sauna was the exactly the kind of heat-acclimation plan undertaken by the USA cycling team: a 30-minute dry sauna after intense warm-weather training, followed by an hour in which no liquids are taken on board. It’s hardly rocket science.
The Australian team went further by actually riding in heat chambers, swimming in hot pools and even eating spicy foods in preparation for what they will inevitably face this week.
For that’s the nub: the heat is no surprise deluge of the kind we saw during the men’s road race in Florence three years ago. The heat is just as much a part of the profile as a mountain or sharp climb is – and in a year where the highest peak comes at 16 metres above sea level then you could say that the heat, along with the potential crosswinds during the road race, are making up what the route lacks in other departments.
Next year we’ll see a hilly, perhaps chilly, road race course in Bergen and an uphill finish in the time trial; the year after, Innsbruck is supposedly devising the most mountainous road race route in Worlds history. Why can’t we just accept that this year’s venue is both flat and hot. That’s it’s thing. Deal with it.
Besides, we’ve seen the mercury hit the high 30s in both the Tour and Vuelta before – albeit perhaps without such intense humidity.
Incidentally, victory in the women’s TTT went to the Boels-Dolmans team of formerly under-fire British rider Lizzie Deignan – the reigning women’s world champion. On Sunday’s men’s TTT, Etixx-QuickStep ended BMC’s two-year reign with a 12-second win – making light of the heat by coming home with an average speed of over 56km/h.
There were understandably jubilant scenes for Tony Martin and his band of merry men at the finish line after Etixx won their third Worlds TTT gold since the discipline was reinstated in 2012.
With Martin – who was fitted with a special Camelbak-style water carrier – also admitting that the heat made things “complicated” for the riders, there’s no doubt that the topic will rumble on right through to next Sunday’s showpiece finale: the men’s road race.
The UCI has confirmed that a four-man group of experts will convene before every event to discuss the implications of the heat – with the road races already tipped to be reduced in length because of the problem (there’s talk of the men’s road race being cut to 100km or 150km).
Riders will also have access to a pamphlet entitled Beat the Heat with tips on how to combat dehydration.
The action continued on Monday with the junior women and U23 men’s individual time trial taking place in equally hot conditions – hardly conducive to being dressed up in a furry bunny outfit, that’s for sure.
At least it looked at one point like the organisers had heeded some of Knetemann’s advice with riders given their own ambulance convoy – albeit one which seemed to do its utmost best to take them out on tight roundabouts during crazy overtaking manoeuvres involving an equally clueless police escort…
And yet there are always two sides to most stories – and it was quickly confirmed by the officials that the ambulance in question was not actually involved in the race. Instead, it was a local ambulance that had been forced onto the route in order to get a patient to hospital.
Not that Germany’s Marco Mattis was complaining too much: despite the near-miss at the roundabout, he probably gained a few seconds earlier on in drafting – enough to help him to the U23 ITT gold ahead of compatriot Max Schachmann and Australia’s Miles Scotson.
But it’s not only heat and apparently dodgy driving that is an obstacle for those involved in the Worlds – with the road furniture also proving particularly troublesome for the TV motorbike crews following the riders on the course… (please, do watch with sound for maximum effect).
Spare a thought for the commentators, too, who had to deal with this almighty mouthful…
Meanwhile, with the action continuing on Tuesday with the men’s junior time trial, even the official UCI Doha 2016 Twitter feed felt comfortable enough to make a few puns about the hot topic.
Perhaps everyone’s finally calmed down and simply accepted that Qatar is a hot place, even in mid-October. In fact, forget the heat: shouldn’t the most alarming thing in the above photo be the fact there appears to be just one French flag-flying fan at the finish. Now that’s something worth getting all hot and bothered about…