Tom Boonen played the role of ‘patron' on the penultimate stage of the Vuelta a San Juan, as the peloton enacted a go-slow protest and the Belgian visited the commissaire's car to complain of the searing heat, with the ultimate outcome being the shortening of the stage by 17.6 kilometres.
The mercury hit 42 degrees in Pocito, the start and finish town, with even higher temperatures reported out in the exposed countryside, and the decision was taken to cut the finishing lap shortly before the half way mark through the 185.7km stage.
The UCI's Extreme Weather Protocol, introduced last year, doesn't apply to Category-1 races, and as such there was no formal platform for discussions between riders and the organisation, though the head of the commissaire's panel here, Thomas Nee, claimed stakeholders had been discussing contingency plans for the heat as early as two weeks ago.
It was Boonen who paid a visit to Nee's car on stage 6 shortly after it became apparent the peloton was riding slow in protest. Boonen's teammate Max Richeze was in the breakaway and went on to win the stage, his Quick-Step team having already called for the stage to be shortened at the start of the day.
"I talked to every single team before the race started. I was allowing longer feeding than normal and I wanted to tell them personally. Only one team told me they thought the stage should be shortened and that was Quick-Step. No other team said anything," Nee told Cyclingnews.
With only a fraction of the overall peloton unhappy, the race set out as planned, but after just before the first KOM point, after 71.5km, Nee claims the riders knocked off the pace considerably.
"I saw the rider protest out there – they slowed down to 28km/h, and that only happens for one reason. I've been around long enough, I know what's going on – it's a rider protest," he said.
"After the sprint Boonen comes back to me saying, ‘It's 44 degrees – this is not right'. I was already in the process of talking with the race organisers that there's a rider protest and I'm sure they're not happy about the heat.
"I then talked to the technical director and the team liaison and I asked the team director to go back to QuickStep to talk to them, and they went back to Boonen to tell him we were thinking about shortening the stage. In the space of 10km we got an agreement with the whole organisation to shorten the stage, which was our plan B to begin with."
The shortening of the stage was presumably a help as opposed to a hindrance as far as Max Richeze was concerned, giving his breakaway a greater chance of staying away, though the go-slow would indicate the peloton as a whole felt the stage should be shortened.
"I can't say the rationale why what happened happened. All I can say is 44 degrees is enough reason to shorten the stage," added Nee.
Race leader Bauke Mollema certainly felt the right decision was made. "Riding in the hot sun all day with 40-45 degrees – it's not really healthy for your body, so I think it was a good decision today from the organisation and the UCI to shorten the stage today," said the Dutchman.
For his part, Boonen didn't mention the go-slow after the stage, but said there was a good compromise between riders and the organisers.
"I went one time to ask what the plan was, and like always everyone was like this [shrugging shoulders]," he told Cyclingnews. "168km and185km; it's not a huge difference, but I think we showed our good will by riding and they showed their good will by cutting off 25 minutes of racing."
Temperatures of above 40 degrees are predicted again for tomorrow's final stage, which starts and finishes slightly earlier in the afternoon than today's stage. The stage is only 138.2km long but there is a contingency plan in place to shorten the race by 15.9km if the riders are uncomfortable once again.
"Tomorrow it's already pre-planned that we could shorten the course by one lap," said Nee. "We'll have to check the weather in the morning."
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