With the Tour de France racing through a heatwave, water’s more important than ever. It’s used both for drinking, cooling… and to help stop the road melting in some places.
Dehydration is a big issue in endurance sports but while there are sensors to monitor body temperature and blood sugar, nobody’s got one for body water content (yet). Yes everyone can use their brain but it’s not a reliable guide, if you feel thirsty it might be too late and in very hot conditions the senses fade, the body is not used to drinking litres of water every hour.
How much water depends on the rider, an 80kg rider will consume more than a 55kg rider, the temperature, effort and more. There are tools used by some teams where an algorithm can estimate the energy required for each stage given the course details, but the amount of water is harder. As much as possible. Riders are often weighed on returning to the team bus because weight loss during a stage is primarily water. Some can do sweat tests as well to try and measure the minerals lost, see a rider with dark kit after a long stage and you can spot the salt marks.
Getting water has been part of the Tour’s lore for over a century now. Once upon a time fountains would be besieged by riders each trying to get their bidon into the trough, like journalists do with microphones today in front of a rider. Some would scoop water out a ditch. Famously they’d raid bars along the way, seizing anything they could get their hands on, whether water, beer, wine or more. Apparently bar owners would love it as they’d be able to send the bar bill to Paris. How the riders coped with all of this isn’t obvious.
Today things are more measured. But handing up water to riders is a difficult task that costs precious energy. Teams can post staff along the route but that’s useful for feeding and passing up a bottle or two, perhaps with an energy bar or gel stuck to the bidon with an elastic band. But that’s insufficient for a hot day where each rider can drink 15 bidons in stage, or 12 litres. You couldn’t post enough staff and riders are prone to dropping bottles.
Service: instead someone must go back to the team car to collect as many bottles as they can. To do this a rider goes to the back of the bunch and then raises their hand, or holds up a bidon in the air. The race officials spot them and call their team car via race radio. The team car drives up through the convoy to get as close to the peloton as possible and the rider then drops back and starts to take on board as many bidons as they can. With more and more riders wearing skinsuits, aka race suits, it’s not so easy to put bidons into the “jersey”; you often can spot who is up for the race and who is the water carrier by their wardrobe choices at the start of a stage. Then the rider has to go back to the peloton weighed down by so many bottles. Try riding with a full bidon in each back pocket and you’ll notice it, ride with many more and it’s wobbly. Sometimes a rider will shout “service!” on their way back through the peloton, a polite and brief way to say “let me through, I’m doing my job and not trying to chop you off a wheel“.
Ice: Water isn’t just for drinking. Riders need it to cool down and so more bidons are required to spray the face, pour down the back of the neck and so on. The same riders who go back for water bottles also pick up ice. Here pantyhose is cut into sections, a handful of ice cubes put inside, and then both ends knotted and voila, an ice pack. It works and once the water has melted away the fabric left behind doesn’t weigh anything.
Moto fraicheur: The Tour de France has a moto fraicheur, a freshness motorbike where the back is loaded with bottles which riders can grab so they don’t have to shuttle back to the team car. In the heatwave right now it’s not enough so the Shimano neutral service is a travelling bar and stocked with water bottles so riders can get drinks, again without having to drop back to the team car. With the extreme heat some rules get relaxed. Riders can now often take water bottles until 10km to go when the rule is usually 20km. The UCI has partially relaxed littering rules, not that riders can sling waste anywhere but if a rider wants to lob a bidon to a fan then that’s ok now.
How many? If we work off 10 bidons a day per rider – less on colder days and TTs, more in a heatwave and for dousing – that’s 210 per rider in the Tour. Say 160 riders in the peloton and that’s 160 x 210 = 31,500 single use bottles. Although a good share of these get passed to roadside fans as a souvenir for the day.sc
Lost in translation: a bidon is the word used in French and one of those words that has been exported into universal cycling jargon. It really means a metal can, which is what bidons used to be for cyclists until plastics came along. As riders winch their way uphill, many a spectator will ask for a gourde rather than a bidon but the word might leave non-French speakers baffled… and the spectactor sans souvenir.
Hot takes: There was a mini-polemic last week when video footage of a Tour de France watertruck emerged, you could see the road surface being doused. This invited exaggerated talk of 10,000 litres being poured onto the road, a scandalous waste of a precious resource. Only these claims were overdone and, as mentioned in a stage preview here last week, the whole course is not watered. Instead this technique is reserved for a sketchy sections where the the tarmac can melt and maybe 250 litres at a time is used. ASO’s André Bancala, nicknamed Monsieur Route (“Mr Road”) has explains that watering the tarmac is just enough to bring the temperature down to stop it liquefying, the crucial temperature he fears is 60°C and watering can help bring it down to 50°C. Timing matters, not too far ahead of the race so that the road heats up again, not too close so that the road is still wet by the time the riders arrive. Bancala’s been doing it for 25 years and equipped with an infrared thermometer says the average road temperature has increased by 1.6-17°C over time.
Specialised tarmac: ideally there shouldn’t be a truck. Watering the road is unusual but seems down to the way French roads melt in summer. Riding the today’s route yesterday you could see black patches of tar blistering and bubbling in the morning sunshine, it was like going over bubblewrap with the pop-pop-pop of the tar bubbles under the tires. That’s ok but by the afternoon other parts of the road were beginning to liquefy. It’s tar not oil, so it’s grippy and not slippery. It creates a thick, viscous mess. Imagine coming around a corner to find someone’s spread tubular glue or treacle on the road, ride into it and it grabs at the tires; alone you can go around it, in a peloton someone risk planting their front wheel in it. It’s not unique to France but it is widespread in a way that roads don’t melt in other countries. A recon ride of the Tour route in Switzerland during the June heatwave and the tar was pristine; riding the Tokyo Olympic course in August and the roads were fine too; but in the Pyrenees yesterday it was melting as usual. Roads don’t seem to melt in other countries, it’s odd as it’s a false economy, a road made with such soft tar surely needs to be repaired more often?
On your eau-n: for the amateur cyclist without a team car, what to do? Cemeteries often have running water so that visitors can water flowers. The website eau-cyclisme is great for France as you can note fountains and other sources of water for a ride. As a rule if you see a chance to get water on a hot day, take it rather than waiting for the next opportunity, even if it’s just a top-up. Because often the next fountain has run dry, the store in the next village is closed for the holidays and so on. Pouring a bidon over your head can be lavish but if you stop at a fountain, dunk your helmet and, if you wear gloves, stick your hands in the water.