There’s No Escaping the Heat

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Even though today’s Stage 12 didn’t cross any major mountain passes, finished at a lower elevation than it started, and raced most of the stage in a ripping tailwind, the stage was anything but easy. The heat has made the 2006 Tour de France much harder than it may otherwise have been, and the strain of staying hydrated is showing on many riders.

Riders seem to be going through more bottles of fluid than usual this year, and that really isn’t surprising considering the temperatures have been in the 90s almost every day. Normally, you would see riders averaging about two bottles per hour on the bike, but for the past few days that number has increased to three bottles in an hour. That’s an enormous amount of fluid to take in, and it is important to consider what’s in the bottles when you are drinking upwards of 50 ounces per hour.

There is a relatively rare but very dangerous condition called hyponatremia that can result from drinking too much water. Otherwise known as “water intoxication,” hyponatremia is caused by a dilution of the body’s electrolytes and leads to confusion and nervous system problems. In very extreme cases, athletes suffering from hyponatremia can lapse into comas or even die.

Maintaining the body’s electrolyte balance is essential because the nervous system needs sodium for conducting the electrical impulses that coordinate all of your bodily functions. Electrolytes leach out of the body as you sweat, and the white residue you see on rider’s helmet straps and jerseys is dried salt that used to be in their bodies.

With the temperatures as high as they have been this year, riders have to consider electrolytes as well as calories and hydration when they eat and drink. Sports drinks are rich in carbohydrate, and they also provide a lot of sodium. When domestiques go back to the team cars to get bottles for the team, they are picking up bottles of water and bottles of sports drink. As they distribute the bottles to their teammates, the domestiques try to give riders one of each.

During the mountain stages in the past few days, we saw riders take bottles from spectators as well. They almost never drink from these bottles, as they don’t know what’s in them or where it came from. The strain of the Tour de France is hard on the immune system and if the bottle is contaminated, there is a good chance the rider will get sick. Instead, they grab bottles from spectators and dump them over their heads to keep cool.

Weather forecasts indicate the Tour de France is going to remain hot and dry for at least the next several days, so the riders will have to remain vigilant regarding their hydration, energy, and electrolyte levels. No matter how hard they try, however, the weather will cause difficulty for several competitors and we may see more riders abandoning the Tour due to fatigue caused by the heat.

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