UCI Road World Championships: Conditions remain a heated question in Doha

Ashleigh Moolman before she dropped her bidon the in the TT

Ashleigh Moolman before she dropped her bidon the in the TT (Image credit: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

The mercury has nudged inexorably upwards as the week has progressed at the UCI Road World Championships in Qatar, where temperatures touched a searing 39 degrees Celsius on the third day of racing.

It remains to be seen whether conditions will be such that the extreme weather protocol forces the reduction of Sunday's elite men's road race to a 105-kilometre criterium, but it is already abundantly clear that the heat in Doha is having a severe impact on racing at these championships.

There were certainly grounds for concern on the opening day, when Anouska Koster crashed seemingly as a result of heatstroke during Rabo-Liv's team time trial effort and Chloe Dygert (Twenty16-Ridebiker) vomited in the finale, scenes that moved Roxane Knetemann to denounce the UCI for hosting its flagship event in conditions she likened to a sauna. "The UCI has not really thought this through," she said.

On Tuesday morning, Belgian junior rider Jasper Philipsen, who had crashed early on, was taken to hospital to be treated for heatstroke after finishing his time trial in a troubled state. Later in the day, at least on first glance, the sight of a dehydrated Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (South Africa) lying cruciform on the road after completing the women's time trial in 18th place seemed an indictment of the folly of hosting bike races in heat of the Gulf at this time of the year.

Moolman-Pasio's distress was such that her soigneur and volunteers from the race organisation had to remove her shoes and socks, raise her legs above her head, and douse her in ice and water in a bid to cool her core temperatures. After composing herself on a chair for a short time afterwards, however, Moolman-Pasio was even able to take to her bike as she made her way towards the South African hotel. She explained to Cyclingnews that her travails had been caused by dropping her bidon during her time trial effort rather by than the temperatures per se.

"Unfortunately, it's very hot and when I took out my bottle to drink, I lost it, so I had no liquid on the route and I think that really cost me towards the end," said Moolman-Pasio, who had already competed in Sunday's team time trial for Cervélo-Bigla. "I think it's just the heat takes its toll day after day, and then not having any liquids took its toll on me today. It's just a shame that I dropped my bottle."

Moolman-Pasio does not subscribe to the view, however, that the conditions in Qatar this week have placed competitors at undue risk, noting instead that adjusting to the sweltering heat was simply part of the particular challenge posed by the first World Championships in the Gulf.

"It is what it is. That's part of the game, being able to adapt and handle the conditions. Cycling is that kind of sport," Moolman-Pasio said. "I think it's important to come here and acclimatise to the heat, and take all measures possible to be able to adapt. People who can adapt better are going to have an advantage. Of course it's important to take precautionary measures, but we can't just be wussies and pull out of everything because it's too cold, or too hot, or too wet.

"Obviously it's important to have the correct medical people here to treat those who take strain, and I think it's also about knowing yourself, or for management to be able to recognise when riders are going too far and stop them before any real danger happens. But I'm not particularly against having the World Championships here at this time of the year. I think that's part of the challenge."

Road race

Despite the problems posed by the temperature thus far, Eddy Merckx, ambassador for these Worlds and part of the organisation on all 15 editions of the Tour of Qatar, is adamant that the road races will not be shortened in any way as a result of the heat. "We're not talking about impossible conditions," he told Gazzetta dello Sport at the start of the week. "They've raced at 40 degrees in the Tour of California and the Vuelta a España."

The most recent weather forecasts suggest that temperatures will drop slightly by the weekend, though perhaps as pertinently, road racing offers opportunities for riders to hydrate and stay cool that are simply not afforded by the time trial discipline. Italy's Filippo Ganna and women's time trial champion Amber Neben (USA), for instance, were among those to point out the difficulty of staving off the worst of the heat while dressed in a skin suit and aero helmet.

"A road race is completely different: you can feed, you can keep getting water and ice to pour over yourself. In a time trial, you're in these aggressive positions and not getting as much air through the helmets, you've got long sleeves and you don't have as easy access to your bottle either. And then if you drop it like I did, it's a big problem," said Moolman-Pasio, who does not envisage that the women's road race would require any alterations even if conditions were to alter by the weekend.

"I'm not sure if the women's race would need to be shortened extensively, but the men have almost 260 kilometres, or double what we have to do. So if it got hotter than this, it's possible that the conditions combined with the length might be too much for them."

Acclimatisation time

Another time trial participant, Audrey Cordon (France) touched on another factor that could have an important bearing on the weekend's races. While some elite national teams, including Italy and Great Britain, arrived en masse on Monday and Tuesday, others will only pass through immigration at Hamad Airport closer to the weekend. Too close to acclimatise fully, perhaps.

"I was completely blocked today, but I'm glad I've already put in an effort like this in these conditions ahead of the road race, because I think it's going to be really difficult for those who only arrive on Wednesday," Cordon said after placing 22nd in the time trial. "You need time to acclimatise and I understood why some nations arrived here well in advance."

Later, Cordon was succinct in highlighting the other, glaring feature of this most curious of World Championships: the complete indifference of the local population and absence of travelling supporters.

"I find it sad to finish such a long season with just ten people applauding at the finish," she told Directvelo.com. "If they wanted heat [for the Worlds], they could have gone to Africa, for example. There would have been real interest there." 

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