climate change

Analysis: How the climate crisis is already impacting the world’s biggest cycling race

Jumbo-Visma team’s Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey cools down with water as he cycles during the 15th stage of the 109th edition of the Tour de France. Photo credit: Marco Bertorello / AFP via Getty Images.

By Anders Lorenzen

Ahead of the start of one of the world’s largest cycling races, and one of the three big grand tours, Le Tour de France -, headlines seemed to centre around the resurgence in COVID-19 cases amongst the riders and not the fact that the Tour could experience a series of extreme weather events. During the 2nd stage of the warm-up race La Route d’Occitanie, which the organisers had to significantly shorten due to extreme heat.

In the age of the climate crisis, what does the future hold for cycling races and outdoor cycling in general?

French climate protesters who interrupted stage ten of the Tour de France picked their moment well as it ended up taking place during an extreme and unprecedented heatwave which engulfed much of Western Europe. This meant the riders had to ride through extreme temperatures of well into the mid 30’s degrees C, peaking at 40 degrees C on stage 15 on Sunday the 17th of July. It was so hot that the organisers had to water the roads ahead of the riders passing through. They stopped short of making any changes to the route but did introduce other last-minute adaptations.

Graph credit: ProCycling Stats.

Road cyclists are incredibly resilient and it is not unusual for them to continue cycling after crashes despite sustaining often painful and serious injuries, however this year we witnessed a higher than normal rate of ‘abandons’, and some of these were due to either fatigue or sickness brought on by the extreme heat. From a health and safety perspective, it is not advisable to put the body through that level of stress in extreme heat.

What is the solution?

Increase shade and tree cover?

Solutions for race organisers are tricky to come by – they could attempt to incorporate shadier routes and do things like invest in tree planting schemes alongside existing routes –  however considering the route is never the same and changes each year, the average stage is approx 150km – 200 km long and there are 21 stages in all that is a lot to ask. 

Move away from the summer months?

Another obvious step would be to change the timing of the race and move it out of July which is the height of summer in France to a cooler time of year.  But the cycling calendar is already more or less fully booked up from February to October so there is very little room to incorporate a three-week stage race. 

Tackle the race’s own emissions problem

The Tour could do worse than trying to clean up its own act in terms of the emissions it creates,  Each of the 22 teams has three operational cars throughout the route to support the team, a truck transporting the bikes, a bus transporting the riders, as well as all support staff, private chefs and so on. Then there are the official race cars, medical teams, TV crews, sponsors caravan, etc. Not forgetting that everyone involved in the race has to be flown to the start country, France, and then back home. And it also frequently starts abroad, which adds at least another leg of air travel.

There are no easy solutions, but as shown by the recent heatwave, western Europe is not shielded from the impacts of the climate crisis and business as usual is no longer possible even for one of the most iconic and historic sporting events in the world.

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