Too cold to race?

Friday, 3 February 2012

Yesterday saw the Etoile de Bessèges race disrupted by cold weather. Snow, albeit light, and freezing temperatures were enough to worry riders and organisers alike and the second stage was shortened to 58km and once underway it was semi-neutralised by a bunch keen to get the task over and done with. Marcel Kittel won in the end.

So what to do, should riders race or is it sensible to cut short the stage or neutralise the event? My twitter timeline got a few messages from fans complaining and later in the day the view from a handful of pro riders was more mixed, some saying riders could not agree on what to do others saying they’ll train in colder conditions.

There’s no section UCI rulebook to quote this time, you cannot have a rule about temperatures and snowflakes, the decision to ride in weather conditions is about judgement. There are broader references such as “the organiser shall ensure that the race course or the competition grounds include no places or situations that could constitute a particular safety risk to anyone” and riders shall act with utmost caution. They shall be held responsible for any accidents that they cause“. The health and safety component of the rulebook is more concerned with longer term monitoring and the appointment of team doctors, not meteorologists. So when it’s cold and icy, few are thinking of the rulebook, most are worried about slipping and crashing.

This is the difference between fans and pro riders. Many fans will think “I ride in these conditions” and indeed it is possible to ride in freezing temperatures, many you have to do this for months in a row during the winter. But how many people work in these conditions? This is the distinction, the 130 riders in Bessèges are doing a professional task, they are no longer riding for pleasure or on a solo training ride, instead a race is something else. If your workplace is a heated factory or an airconditioned office then it gets tricky saying people you conduct their job on ice.

Yesterday’s confusion was made worse because nobody seemed to know what was happening. Some riders wanted to race, others were riding to the commissaires care and asking to stop. When the race was halted some heckled the commissaires as they explained the race would skip the narrow backcountry roads and restart on the main roads and finishing circuit of the day. Then when the race was stop things got more confused. At first riders were due to ride on neutralised but then they were allowed to get in the team cars… only there was not enough in the vehicles for all the riders and their bikes.

This happens several times a year. Last year I think we saw a stage of Paris-Nice cut short because of snow and tomorrow’s GP degli Etruschi, the season-opener for Italians, has been redesigned to keep the race away from snow. You might remember the Tour of California last year too. From now until April snow is a possibility in many races across Europe and this continues almost all year with mountain stages where altitude and microclimates can bring blizzards in mid-summer.

Summary
I sense a split between fans hungry for sport and riders reluctant to work in tough conditions. Safety first is a common refrain for many workplaces but deciding where to draw the line is difficult. These things happen in the early season every year and there’s no easy answer. Except an invitation to the Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman.

Thijs February 3, 2012 at 11:38 am

You can bike with this weather, for sure… if you have the right clothes (enough layers, windstopper, bottom layer transports transpiration to upper layers to keep the body dry and warm, etc)
But if the teams doesn’t have the right gear with them, then it’s may-be not save to ride
So the problem is may be not the weather, but the teams who are not prepared for the weather… If you prepare for -10 you are ready for -10!

Ilaria February 3, 2012 at 11:44 am

As far as GP Costa degli Etruschi is concerned there is also a logistic problem. Authorities are telling don`t drive, railway system is now in a mess. Football games have been canceled. In my opinion to go on in some way could make sense in a tour not in a one day race. And still: riders can ride in the snow, they did and cycling history tells some epic tales. I think it`s wise to leave the decision to the agreement of parts. Then you must make the thing work decently thought: dont´s say: – You can go by cars – if cars are too few. I am not sure they will race in Donoratico: more snow is expected tomorrow just there…
http://allezandy.blogspot.com/2012/02/gp-costa-degli-etruschi-all-you-need-to.html

Privateer February 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Thijs- the issue is not the cold per se, but the risk of ice. If it’s dry I happily ride in temperatures well below freezing. If there’s been rain, or snow that’s melted due to road salting and then refrozen, then the risk of slipping on ice is simply not worth it. I seriously doubt that the teams are not prepared and that the riders are complaining because they’re uncomfortable. I think it’s more that they’re not happy about the possibility of ending their season before it even begins by crashing hard on black ice and seriously injuring themselves.

Doug February 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Yes, amateurs and bicycle commuters ride in this weather all the time. Probably not so many of them are riding 50+kmh in a group of 100 riders with 20cm between their wheels.

Owen February 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm

That the race is a job is a valid point, both for and against.
The riders are being paid, so get on with it.
The fact they’re being paid places liability on others. As Inrng says, if you, or any pro, rides or trains in snow and ice, that’s their decision, when they’re told to do so, things change.
The chance of a season or career ending injury is greatly increased. In addition, the fact the body won’t work as well reduces the point of racing. I’d ride in it, but not race.

I don’t know the answer though!

Larry T. February 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I don’t know how you make any hard-and-fast rules for this, especially in these early season races that in the good ol’ daze were used for training more than scoring any points towards ranking systems. Don’t forget stages of even the biggest tours have been cancelled, shortened or rerouted based on conditions and situations not always weather-related. I think you have to leave this to the collective will of the riders in the race, they’re the ones out there on the bicycles. I remember feeling a bit ripped off when the stage of LeTour back in 1996 was shortened after we stood up on one of the climbs for hours, freezing our b__s off only to watch the race pass by with riders inside the cars with bikes on the roof. But it wasn’t ME out there on the bike risking life and limb, so I think you have to defer to the riders first, followed by the organizers, who (should) have more information on the weather and road conditions. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the race in Tuscany is cancelled entirely.

daniel alpin February 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm

i’i wouldn’t expect them to race if its icy and dangerous, do people want to see pro’s seriously injure themselves, there are plenty of races throughout the year to watch for fans ‘hungry for sport’

lwr February 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm

is this any more dangerous than a wet roubaix or flanders? no one would dream of shortening those races out of safety concerns. bike racing is dangerous.

Rigo Zimmerman February 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Apparently riders take viagra when it is really cold, as it opens up the blood capillaries and keeps the flow going into their extremities.

Rigo Zimmerman February 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Despite the innuendo there is some truth in that too.

Nikolai February 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm

I’m pretty sure if there’s any evidence of icing on the road, the race will be stopped. There will be massive crashes if it’s not stopped.

But even without ice, if the temperatures are in the single digits (Celsius), it won’t matter what you wear, the water will get in and if the race is long enough, the feet and hands will begin to freeze and bike handling will be compromised.

For the officials, it’s not an easy call what to do, they’re sitting in their cars, they don’t really know the situation and I guess should listen to the riders what they’re saying. In my life, I’ve witnesses a couple of times a peloton that just simply stopped by the common agreement and refused to race any further.

MT Dave February 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I have worked in the single digits (Fahrenheit) but called it at zero. And nobody works on an icy roof so I don’t blame these guys. The cost:benefit isn’t there.
Not to take anything away from this race but, maybe they would choose differently for a more prestigious race?
Either way, like Nickolai says, don’t judge a man until you walk in his shoes.

Wmbate February 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm

You do not need ice to slip and fall. Even the best racing tires will loose their grip on cold surfaces. A friend of mine still suffers from concussion symtoms years after his fall when his front tire slid out on dry but very cold pavement.

Bundle February 3, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Thank you, Inrng, for bringing this subject to our attention.
I think the photo you have chosen from the 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège (where Hinault beat his followers by 9 minutes, and only 20 riders could finish the race) answers the question quite conclusively: temperature can never be a reason for suspension or cancellation (think of how Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro because his team had geared up for extreme cold whereas Van der Velde literally froze on the Gavia descent), and snow can be a reason only, and strictly only, when it is mechanically impossible to go through it on your bike. That’s all.
If the road is slippery, well, let’s be careful. And if it’s frigging cold, let’s dress properly and brace ourselves. That’s it. The rest is (no sexism intended) pure sissy-whining.
And thank you as well for allowing me to remember two of the most unforgettable races in history.

dennis February 3, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Perhaps this is wandering off topic a bit, but Wmbate’s comment has made me curious about cold weather tires. I have fallen on cold pavement and can attest to its slipperiness. In surfing we use softer wax as the water gets colder–if you used your tropical wax in Northern California you’d slip right off! So my question is, with so many races in freezing conditions, do the professionals have tires with different rubber compounds for different conditions? (Besides using bigger tires for cobblestones? )

CAT4Fodder February 3, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Look – this is the risk you run with a February road race as an organizer. However, that being said, many of our favorite moments in racing where not on the 75 degrees and sunny, but when the elements challenge the riders (see Hampsten at the GIRO, the Strada Biancha in 2010 GIRO, the Spring Classics).

I really am conflicted on this one, but are the roads in this race any worse than the pave in the rain?

Larry T. February 3, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Dennis: http://www.vittoria.com/en/tire-selector/
I put on a pair of these in the clincher version to ride on this winter despite the fact it’s not that cold in Sicily, though this winter it’s been plenty wet! You’ll see this green tire in the tubular version on a lot of the pro bikes in the early season if it’s wet and especially in Paris-Roubaix. (Disclaimer: I WISH we got free tires from Vittoria but we don’t – hint to Rudie?)

Marty February 4, 2012 at 1:03 am

Pansies.

Jody Prummer February 6, 2012 at 12:18 am

I have been using “Continental Ultra Gatorskin” 23mm dry days and 25mm wet days. I have ridden them in real bad conditions and work well. When it snows I put on studded tires.

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