No less than 14 riders were forced to quit on stage 14 at the Vuelta a Espana in the teeth of atrocious weather conditions as temperatures plummeted and sleet, snow and heavy rain saw several cases of hypothermia.
The gaunt, frozen features of riders as they crossed the line on the Collada de la Gallina summit finish was testament to a hugely difficult day on the bike. And although temperatures did not reach zero, the change in the temperature was what made it so hard to handle.
As Spain's Juan Manuel Garate (Belkin) told Spanish television, "up to today it's been very hot, suddenly it's dropped by 30 degrees. It's ok when it's cold, but you need time to adapt." And time, after two weeks of riding in heat varying from warm to baking, was what the riders did not have in the 2013 Vuelta.
The worst of the day's conditions, by far, was on the Envalira, at 2,410 metres above sea level the ‘ceiling' of the entire Vuelta. Temperatures were four degrees at the summit and freezing rain, sleet and even snow lashed the riders on the 20 kilometre ascent. Alejandro Valverde recalled Luis Leon Sanchez (Belkin) being forced to quit because he was so cold he could not control his bike, and Spanish television said another rider in the break, Steve Chainel (Ag2R) had to stop and get in a team car to get a massage to avoid hypothermia.
Officially race doctors recognised Sanchez and Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) as having to quit because of the start of hypothermia, but with no riders reported injured by the Vuelta, it is likely that they were far from the only ones. And there can be no doubt that everybody suffered, with more than 100 riders finishing more than 20 minutes down and riders like Valverde all but fainting from the cold.
Ivan Basso (Cannondale) was perhaps the ‘highest profile' casualty who actually abandoned. Lying seventh overall Basso was forced to climb off his bike on the descent of the Envalira. Others who quit included three riders from Lotto-Belisol, New Zealand's Greg Henderson, Jurgen Van De Walle and Jelle Vanendert, Saxo-Tinkoff's Roman Kreuziger and two Garmin-Sharp riders, Nick Nuyens and Michel Kreder, reducing the American's Vuelta squad to just five, whilst Lotto are down to four. A further two riders, Orica-GreenEdge Sam Bewley and an injured Simon Gerrans, did not start.
"It was the coldest day I've had on a bike," Garate, now 37 and a pro since 2000, said, "I saw Luis Leon go away in an ambulance, completely frozen. People think we've got some sorts of clothes that mean you don't get wet and cold: they're wrong." Valverde described the conditions more simply: "inhuman."
Despite initial rumours to the contrary, Sunday's stage 15 is due to go ahead as planned despite the sudden drop in temperatures and the predictions of rainfall for the entire 224 kilometre stage. Heavy rain and thunderstorms are expected for the last part of the race, with temperatures dropping to 9 degrees at worst over the Bonaigua, the second of the four first category climbs. Stage 16, thankfully, will see the weather improving again.