Ways to beat the heat

Cycling Tour de France

To prepare his team for the sweltering heat at the Tour de France, the exercise physiologist Allen Lim heads to the women's lingerie section of a local drugstore. On the top of his shopping list: dozens of pairs of women's knee-high nylon stockings.

“If a man like me buys just a few, then they might think I'm buying them to wear them,” said Lim, who works for the Garmin-Slipstream team. “But if you buy so many that you couldn't possibly be buying them to wear them, they realise you're buying them for some sort of project. So when I go, I often buy a whole lot.”

Lim's project — filling those stockings with ice cubes — has to do with keeping his riders cool when the temperature reaches the high 80s and low 90s, as it did during the Stage 3 of the Tour.

Throughout the race, the Garmin riders grabbed the stockings from the team car and slipped them down their backs. It was one way they got through the race without overheating. “For the human engine, the ability to dissipate heat is what keeps that engine going, and it's what keeps the riders from slowing down, even in hot, hot weather,” Lim said. “If you don't do that, you could literally cook yourself. You would be well done. So if you think about it, the stocking idea we came up with is pretty high-tech.”

Every team had its tricks to keep its riders from overheating during the ride. During the peloton's third consecutive day of heavy air and searing sun, all the cyclists drank water, with some drinking 10 bottles or more. Some dumped the water on their heads. Mark Cavendish, a 24-year-old rider from Team Columbia-HTC, has equalled the British record of stage wins on this tour. Before the over-heated stages, his team's doctor made sure he was ready for the long ride. Every morning before a stage, the doctor, Helge Riepenhof, measures the riders' urine density to determine their level of hydration. He then figures out how much water each rider must drink to get through the stage and perform his best. “If you're not hydrated on a day like this, it could be dangerous to exercise for so long in such heat, but these riders are used to it,” Riepenhof said. “But we still have to watch them closely. If they don't have enough fluids, their performance could really drop.”

Riders who are not hydrated may get a headache, lose clarity of their vision or even feel dizzy, he said. Those are extremes, however, because the riders on the tour are monitored so closely. To help feel cooler, Team Columbia riders sometimes put gels in their helmets. Other times, they wear ice packs on their wrists or arms, which Riepenhof said was among the most effective ways to signal to the body that it was cool.
Nearing the finish Monday, the air was particularly salty and humid amid the marshes. “We usually see this kind of heat in the last week of the tour, not in the first week, because the race usually starts in the north,” said Frankie Andreu, a former tour rider who is a reporter for Versus. “So the riders aren't used to this, for sure. The heat can be a big factor in the race.”

For Stage 4, a team time trial in Montpellier, cyclists must ride in yet another day of heat in the south of France. But Garmin was ready much before the stage to prepare its riders.

Lim weighed each one when the previous stage ended to determine if any had lost weight. That, he said, is an indication of a rider's hydration. Some can lose more than six pounds in a stage like that. Before time trials, Lim also has them wear ice vests before they compete, to cool their core, or he has them stick their hands in ice. Other teams, like the Belgian-based Silence-Lotto squad, favor an old-fashioned method of cooling down once the stage ends. “They can take a cold shower afterwards,” said Hendrik Redant, a team leader for Silence-Lotto. “Other than that, there's not much else you could do.”

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