We have all marveled at the resilience of professional cyclists in the first few months of this 2013 racing season. Theyve competed in extremes of weather: from tropical humidity at Le Tour de Langkawi to sand-blasted, desert winds at the Tour of Qatar; from bitter cold and swirling snow at Milan-San Remo to burning 110-degree heat in the Tour of California; and, now, day after day of torrential rain (with snow in the weekend forecast) at the Giro dItalia.
These weather extremes are ones wed normally expect to be stretched over three decades, not just three months. We have to raid our memory banks to recall similar challenges: a snow-battered Charly Gaul overcoming Monte Bondone at the 1955 Giro; the torrid temperatures that contributed to Tom Simpsons fatal collapse on Mont Ventoux at the 1967 Tour de France; Bernard Hinault battling a blizzard to win the 1980 Lige-Bastogne-Lige; Andy Hampsten conquering freezing rain and snow over the Passo di Gvia in 1988 to claim the maglia rosa; the Tour de France organizers deciding to bypass the Col du Galibier in 1997 because of freezing temperatures and gale-force winds; and the months-long heat wave that melted tar on the road where Joseba Beloki crashed (and ended his career) at the 2003 Tour.
An estimated 70,000 people died in that European heat wave of 2003, after which USA Today wrote: Environmental experts warn that because of climate change such heat waves are expected to increase in number in coming years, meaning Europea continent that historically has enjoyed a temperate climatewill have to make adjustments.
Ten years later, the overwhelming reach of climate change has reached a critical point. Last Friday, it was reported that the concentration of climate-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million for the first time in human history. As context, when the industrial age began (including the manufacture of the first bicycles), the level was 280ppm. The last time the 400ppm level was reached was in the Pliocene Age, some three million years ago, when there were no polar icecaps and the level of the sea was an estimated 130 feet (13 stories) higher than it is today.
Discussing the 400ppm milestone, American professor Ralph Keeling, whos in charge of monitoring the atmospheres carbon-dioxide levels that his father began 55 years ago at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, said in a statement: It is symbolic, a point to pause and think about where we have been and where we are going. Also this past week, a study published by the Institute of Physics IOPscience Web site showed that, after reviewing 11,944 climate scientific abstracts, 97 percent of those expressing an opinion on the human element conclude that global warming is manmade.
So where does cycling figure in the climate-change equation? On the plus side, the continued rise in the number of people riding bikes is one of the biggest factors in taking cars off the road and reducing the human worlds carbon footprint. Pro bike racers may not be a significant proportion of the bike-riding population, but combined with the thousands of amateur competitors and millions of fans they can have a disproportionate influence on getting more and more people to buy and ride bikes.
This has been proven in Great Britain, where the unprecedented success of its track and road riders at the past several Olympics, along with the Tour de France stage and GC victories of respectively Mark Cavendish and Brad Wiggins, have inspired millions to start or re-start riding to work or for pleasure. The burgeoning number of pedaling Brits has been exemplified by the astute sponsorship of Sky Broadcasting, which has not only bankrolled the Olympic and Tour de France teams but also promotes the various Sky Rides in major cities, which attract as many as 55,000 cyclists a time.
On the negative side, it can be said that the manufacturing process that produces more than 130 million bikes a year adds to the carbon footprint. As for bike racing, every event depends on support cars and motor transport, but thats likely a tiny speck in the overall effect of atmospheric pollution. Of more immediate concern to the sport is how climate change is increasing the likelihood of weather extremes like those we have seen in the past week.
More challenging weather means a greater emphasis on staying healthy to win races, particularly races that go on for a week or more. Take the case of BMC Racings Cadel Evans, who decided to ride the Giro at the last minute and, with the race halfway though, is lying second overall. Much of his success has been due to his being an all-weather, all-terrain rider whos very consistent when hes healthy. Its something that Evans works hard at.
As he said on his blog after Thursdays stage 12 in cold, torrential rain: I raced most of the stage with two rain jackets just to stay warm. Not in theme with my aero helmet and wheels, but staying healthy here is half the battle. Similarly, on the crucial stage through the Marche hills last Friday, he said: [We had] a final 70km that required headache-inducing concentrationand some luck and finesse to stay upright and in front on oil-slick descents [that made] the brake pads slippery and everything, well, messy.
The poor weather and continual rain had an opposite effect on Team Skys race favorite Wiggins, who has unsuccessfully tried to overcome a chest cold. That sickness, combined with his fear of crashing on wet, dicey descents, has seen him plummet down the standings, whereas his Colombian teammate Rigoberto Uran, race leader Vincenzo Nibali and Evans seem immune to the nasty conditions.
At the same time, Evans American teammate Tejay Van Garderen has moved into the lead at the Amgen Tour of California because of his own patient approach to racing. On the over-baked Tramway climb out of Palm Springs on Monday he didnt panic when first Irishman Philip Deignan of United Healthcare, then Colombian Janier Acevedo of Jamis-Hagens Berman, jumped away in search of glory. Van Garderen calmly kept to his own (still fast) climbing speed to take second on the stage behind Acevedo. And three days later he used his WorldTour skills to go with the 16-man move engineered by the RadioShack-Leopard-Trek team that echeloned into the Pacific coast crosswinds and ended with The Shacks Jens Voigt winning the stage and Van Garderen taking over the race leaders gold-and-blue jersey.
Patience, good health and consistency have always been required qualities for winning bike races. Climate change will put even more emphasis on the good health part of that formula, while being impervious to freezing wet or baking dry conditions will rapidly gain in importancealong with the x-factor of taking risks.
If this coming Sundays stage of the Giro to the top of the Col du Galibier actually takes place in winter-like weather, it will probably be the men such as Evans and the imperturbable Nibali who come out on top. As for Wiggins, he now has to regain his good health, make peace with teammate Chris Froome, and attempt to defend his Tour title in Julywhen the biggest challenge might be overcoming intense heat.
All thats certain is that the extreme weather conditions are here to stay.
You can follow John at twitter.com @johnwilcockson