Britain is recovering from a heatwave and that’s great if you’ve been paddling in the sea but not so hot if you’re heading out for a four-hour cycle over rolling terrain. We all know this will be a brief break from cooler climes but the riders who’ll do battle with the Tour de France, which this year starts in Germany on 1 July, will face extreme temperatures for a significant chunk of the 3,540km tromp to Paris. Cycling performance plummets once dehydration levels reach over 2%. This is multiplied in a race comprising 21 stages. It’s why every team will have their own hydration strategies, designed to keep Froome, Contador and Quintana pedalling at their optimum…
Focus on Electrolytes
Riders have been known to sweat over 11 litres during a long, mountainous stage. Fail to hydrate properly and the riders’ blood thickens, heart rate rises and speed drops. That’s not only a huge amount of fluid but also of vital electrolytes like sodium. Sodium’s essential for the body to retain water, and is why teams will plop an electrolyte tablet into their bottles come a hot day and tweak their protocol. For instance, instead of adding 40g energy-giving carbohydrate into the normal two bottles, they’ll dilute carbs to 20g over an hourly four bottles and add electrolytes. Not only will the rider enjoy the same carbohydrate levels, they’ll replenish sodium stores. This sounds simple but strategies like this will be practised beforehand and in the labs to ensure the rider’s stomachs can cope.
Willing Water Carrier
These practices are meticulous. Bottles are kept in fridges that nestle in the boots of the directeur sportifs’ (DS) cars. One of the domestiques will call back to the DS on his radio that the team of nine riders need more fluid. The team car will accelerate past the other team cars – sidenote: you can’t mistake Team Sunweb’s cars as they drive Mini Clubmans! – while the domestique will drop back. The mechanic in the back of the team car will collect nine bottles from the fridge, comprising either carbohydrate, water or electrolytes. He’ll pass to the DS, who’s driving, who’ll deliver them out the window to the sacrificial domestique, who’ll stuff them in his rear pocket and down his back; in fact, the hod carrier (domestique) often resembles a camel when returning the bottles to his teammates.
You’ll note that some of these bottles contain water only. Obviously these are drunk but they’re also used as a rudimentary cooling technique – aka poured over heads. And that’s not the only rudimentary cooling idea. Within those team-car fridges are more tights than a Parisian catwalk, each packed with ice and scrunched up into a bun. Those willing domestiques will pick up these fashionable items of ice, which the riders then place on their necks. It’s a proven method of cooling, both perceptively and empirically, with studies showing that the ice cools the blood flowing to the brain. Wristbands sprayed with cooling fluid are also used, while the occasional rider will even wear a pair of gloves for the same idea.
All About the Wee
In the morning and after each stage, team doctors will measure their riders’ hydration levels. Urine charts are common, though these can be misleading. Anyone acquainted with a joyous hangover is aware that dehydration manifests itself in particularly dark wee. But in the world of professional, this can also be a sign of vitamin-B ingestion and even beetroot, which is popular in many a team’s morning smoothies because of the nitrate content’s purported ability to make exercise feel easier. That’s why teams like Sky would use a urine-gravity device that not only accurately measures hydration levels, but also flags up pH levels of the blood, which can be a gauge of impeding illness.
Come the Tour’s time-trials on stage one (1st July in Dusseldorf) and stage 20 (22nd July in Marseille), there’s a good chance you’ll find teams warming up against the backdrop of Slush Puppie machines. Studies have shown that consuming a Slush Puppie lowers the rider’s core temperature, meaning they can work harder for longer. It’s a tactic oft-used by Sunweb, whose leader, Tom Dumoulin, won the Giro d’Italia in May.
The Tour de France is the greatest race in cycling and the place where teams roll out their latest, most cutting-edge hydration protocols. It’s something to keep an eye on when you’re watching Boulting and Boardman narrate events while you sit down with a nice dehydrating, albeit cooling, beer…
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