Hot as hell at the Tour Down Under

There’s blood on my laptop. It’s on the back of my hand and leg and face, and also on my collar. My collar is soaked. I’m just glad the CyclingTips shirt I chose this morning is black. I’m going to pack tissues in the future, just in case.

It’s hot in the Tour Down Under media car. North of 50ºC hot. Spontaneous nose-bleed hot.

At first I thought it was sweat running down my lip. It’s everywhere else, after all — dripping off my brow, soaking through my shorts, sticking the shirt to my back. But the taste of metal is a giveaway.

This is my sixth Tour Down Under and every year has been the same. A week of clothes stuck to skin, of thrice-daily sunscreen applications, of long long days covering Australia’s biggest bike race.

There’s a common thread that links together all the ochre-jersey performances I’ve seen and reported on. And that’s the feeling of being seated in a media car post-stage, en route to the race hotel, laptop on knees, headphones in ears, hastily tapping away at some story.

That feeling is accompanied by the frustration of battling for a stable hotspot internet connection, battling an increasingly sore neck and, of course, battling the heat. But there’s also a rush of adrenaline. The thrill of trying to write good stories, quickly; a thrill intensified by the difficult working conditions.

These sensations are what come to mind when I think of the Tour Down Under. They’re imprinted there, just as much as the sight of Richie Porte flying up Willunga Hill, dancing to yet another victory. I love this bike race, heat be damned.

***

My companions are all speaking Flemish. I like to imagine that when the TDU office was drawing up the media car allocations, they saw my surname and assumed I speak Flemish. I don’t. I can make out the occasional rider’s name amid the stream of incomprehensibility, so too the occasional “godverdomme”.

I assume they’re talking about the heat. They certainly were when we first got in the car and our driver could barely grip the near-molten steering wheel.

I’m loathe to open my laptop, to create more heat in this sauna. But the work needs doing and the sooner I get it done, the sooner I can relax. The sooner I can get out of these blood-and-sweat-soaked clothes. I’ve never appreciated a shower as much as after a hot TDU stage.

It’s still 40ºC as I peel myself out of the backseat and step out to face the Hilton Hotel. Inside the race’s media centre it’s more than 20ºC cooler. Too cold. Cold enough that the scorching heat soon becomes a distant memory and I put on a jacket, pulling the hood tight across my head. I’m not the only one.

It will be a miracle if I don’t get sick from these temperature changes.

***

The riders have it far harder, of course. It would take a vast sum of cash to convince me to spend several hours riding in this heat, as so many thousands of amateurs do to follow the TDU. And racing in this heat? Even in a peloton that effectively neutralised two consecutive stages and only “raced” for the last 10km of each — even then, no thanks.

“In this heat it’s just messy,” Heinrich Haussler said to me. “In the race it’s like ‘Yeah, it wasn’t too bad’ but then you get to the hotel and you’ve just got this massive headache and you’re thumping like boom boom boom.

“You’re dehydrated, you’re cooking — the heat drains you like crazy. Even though we didn’t race that hard yesterday and the watts were pretty low it still just takes it out of you.”

In some ways it’s surprising that road racing even happens in Adelaide at this time of year, in these conditions. That the UCI’s extreme weather protocol has been invoked here each year for the past three speaks volumes.

But it’s the best time of year for the Tour Down Under. In fact, it’s probably the only time of year the race would work. Falling in South Australian school holidays makes it perfect for the race’s tourism goals (the race is owned by the South Australian government) and if it were late in the year (so as not to clash with European racing), attracting a quality, motivated field would be nigh on impossible. Just ask the organisers of the Tour of Guangxi.

And, really, while the riders suffer, they know what they’re in for. They know that the TDU means racing in hot conditions and they come out to Adelaide well in advance to acclimatise. They’ve got their ice vests, they’ve got bottles they can pour over their heads, and they’ve got a UCI protocol in place to protect them if things get too extreme.

Spare a thought though for those at TDU who will soon be thrust into the sleet of Europe’s early spring races. From 45ºC to freezing in a matter of weeks? Yeah, nah.

***

I fill the bathroom sink with warm water and scrub at my shirt collar with a bar of soap. The water turns a murky brown as I soak and scrunch the fabric, a lovely combination of sweat and blood. I rinse out the shirt and inspect the collar. There’s no way to tell whether I’ve got all the blood out. That will have to do.

I roll the shirt in a towel to dry then clip it to a coathanger and hang it from a door frame. With any luck it will be dry by tomorrow, ready for me to wear again. Ready for another day in the furnace of this savagely beautiful race.

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