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Does climate change threaten the Tour de France?

On July 12, somewhere towards Magland, between Morzine and Megève, the Tour de France was hit by the upheavals of society. The fact is sufficiently rare to be underlined. Since the 1980s, such events have been spotted bit by bit. In 1982, the French tierarisation sent thousands of idle workers back to the factories. Disillusioned by this twist of fate, the scrap metal workers of the Usinor industries seized the Tour as a last resort. The step is cancelled. In 2018, it is again the wind of globalization that pushes desperate farmers to voice their fears through the Tour. The peloton halts for a few minutes, the protesters’ complaints are drowned out by the sound of tear gas.

Alberto Bettiol saw the action of the Last Renovation collective up close

The Magland sit-in is thus part of this short series of social interludes on the Tour de France, which despite itself has become the ultimate indicator of the ills of society. When the average citizen looks away, the happening makes it possible to force him to face the reality of things. Since he seeks to forget via entertainment, intrusion into this program appears to be the only way to highlight the dark side of the community. If the modus operandi is debatable, the action has the merit of linking one of our most famous societal representations, the Tour de France, with deeper climate issues. Because these two elements are indeed linked.

Last Renovation, best climate change performer

The association that disrupted the 10e stage of the Tour de France is not its first attempt. As Christian Prudhomme recalled, on arrival in Megève, ” It happened at Roland-Garros, at Silverstone in Formula 1, in the German football championship… Fortunately, the stage was then able to take place normally. “. The process is the same each time. Spring, attach and protest. The inscriptions and slogans of the demonstrators recall the cry of alarm raised by the IPCC in its report of March 4, 2022, giving humanity three years to act before the most disastrous consequences of climate change are irremediable, i.e. 1095 days. . Admittedly symbolic, this delay nevertheless illustrates the urgency of a reaction proportionate to the magnitude of the effects. The Last Renovation collective has thus seized on this countdown to signify the casting of the hourglass of catastrophe.

On Twitter, the association claimed its action by listing the predicted consequences of inaction : “Deadly heat, extreme weather events, famines, mass migrations, armed conflicts… and this for all the next generations of humans. “. Naturally, such climatic changes would have serious repercussions on the Tour de France. More than any other discipline, cycling is indeed subject to the vagaries of the weather, throwing riders between the snow walls of a transalpine pass or under the crushing sun of an Iberian desert. The radicalization of these phenomena would inevitably harden the race conditions. Previously conducive to epic tales, these would turn into lands of drama, narrating runners confronted with the unbearable. The Tour de France was disrupted by climate activists. Soon it will be disrupted by climate change. Here we provide an overview of its threats.

The heat wave, new atmosphere of the Tour de France

For a week, these images have been repeated constantly. Those of thirsty runners, dried up, stunned by crushing heat. The Tour de France has turned into a race for freshness, cans and ice cubes. The faces are marked by the general state of fatigue of the runners. Struggling against these torrid conditions, the latter draw on their meager caloric reserves and exhaust their precious forces. Each arrival features exhausted men, unable to stand up, lying down or sitting on the sides.

In the crossing of the Alps, the runners were overwhelmed by the heat / Pierre_Bn / Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

In the crossing of the Alps, the runners were overwhelmed by the heat / Pierre_Bn / Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

When the mercury flies away, the runners crumble. Whether they are leaders, fighters or gregaris, all are victims of this burning scourge. In the ascent of the Col du Granon, the blazing sun grilling the mineral decor probably participated in the failure of Tadej Pogacar. On the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Romain Bardet recounts having been the victim of a heatstroke in turn, describing sensations close to fainting: ” At one point, I really felt the heat coming over me. When I started having the chills, the pulse pounding in my temples, I said to myself that I had to take my rhythm. “.

Indeed, high temperatures cause dehydration through loss of sweat and water which can in turn lead to a lack of mineral salts and in particular sodium. Muscle contractions become painful, body temperature rises, hyperthermia awaits. At this stage, the body can give way at any time. By riding in these conditions, the riders therefore constantly come close to the risk of sunstroke and loss of consciousness. The likelihood of such consequences naturally increases with temperature.

Adapt, how far?

The Tour de France bends…

Aided by an increasingly abundant scientific literature on the subject, the Tour de France bends and puts in place all the conditions necessary for the smooth running of the race. The refueling rules are relaxed, the “fresh motorbikes” multiplied, the assistants – refuelers are deployed. Thus supported, the runners manage to maintain a suitable temporal temperature, leaving to water themselves profusely every five minutes. To this end, ice cubes and cans are therefore out, taking turns at a relentless pace in the neck and on the frame of the heroes of the Tour de France. Already tested during the 2019 heat wave, this strategy still seems to be achieving its objective, with no serious cases having been reported.

Tony Martin with an icicle jacket in 2019 / Credits: the Tour de France

Tony Martin with an icicle jacket in 2019 / Credits: the Tour de France

… and is not far from breaking

But this organization is not flawless. It is enough for a runner to miss a supply point, for a cyclist to disappear into the pampas and slip through the cracks for tragedy to await him. In Alpe d’Huez, Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) brushed against this sword of Damocles. ” I had a stroke of heat, I had no water for a few kilometers and I couldn’t refuel. he explained on arrival. In 2019, Pascal Chanteur, former runner and representative of the runners’ union affirmed that ” doctors say you can’t ride when it’s over 44 degrees. “. If the Tour de France has not yet exceeded this threshold of suffocation, it is approaching it. This Sunday, in Carcassonne, 38°C will be expected in particular. In view of the intensification of global warming, it would only take a handful of years to cross the medical threshold of the unbearable.

Just as the Tour de France is not immune to the upheavals of society, cycling is not impervious to the nuisances of heat. From time to time, a prefectoral decree (2e stage of the Tour d’Occitanie 2022) or a riders’ strike (5e stage of the Tour of Oman 2015) thus jeopardize the plans of the organizers. And when no one is responsible enough to take the measure of the risks incurred, a waltz with the drama begins. In 2016, during the world team time trial in Doha, Qatar, Dutch Anouska Koster, overwhelmed by the ambient 40°C, suddenly collapsed before vomiting. Surely she must have read the booklet the wrong way. How to beat the heat » provided by the UCI before the event.

In 2016, the world championships were disputed in overwhelming heat in Qatar

In addition to the heat, other consequences are already taking their first steps. And the Tour de France could not avoid them.

The 2019 edition instantly recalls, in the collective memory of the French, the panache of Thibaut Pinot and the heroism of Julian Alaphilippe. But by digging a little deeper into his memories, one can easily recall the conditions of their downfall. Once the Franc-Comtois returned to the cockpit of his team’s car, and the Berrichon outdistanced by his rivals, this sad day had taken an apocalyptic turn. Shaken by violent showers, a mudslide suddenly obstructed the descent of the Col d’Agnel, forcing the organizers to end the stage prematurely. Egan Bernal put on his first yellow jersey amid general incomprehension. The Tour de France saw its alpine battlefield reduced to nothing by the ferocity of the storm.

That day, the Tour de France could not arrive in Tignes. Two years later, he suffered outrageously to achieve it. Beaten by the hail, frozen by the rain and numb by the cold, the runners experienced hell on the road to the chic alpine resort. 10 men leave the race in progress, stunned by such an outburst of the elements. Once again, the adjectives used by the press to describe the conditions experienced embrace the register of the apocalypse.

These times, the Tour de France could not do anything. There was no manual, no method for adapting. The first time, there was no other solution than to cancel. Cancel the end of the step. Cancel the start of the next one. The second, there was only the alternative of Calvary. The consequences of global warming are already experiencing their beginnings, and the Grande Boucle is already experiencing them. To face the predictions of the IPCC, the heroism of the runners will not always be enough.


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