Notes from the Scrum: Hell on earth in California

The mercury climbed well above 100 during stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California. Should the route have been altered?

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (VN) — Pieter Serry lay on the ground, in hollow bewilderment, his skinny white chest streaked with melting water, his eyes flickering from side to side.

I helped lay his soaked head to the concrete, nothing but a wet towel for a pillow. An oxygen mask was placed over his mouth, and the bag faintly fluttered. People scrambled to put ice packs in his armpits, his groin.

Minutes before, his director, the imposing Wilfried Peeters, pulled up to the steps near the press conference in the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team car, shouting for an ambulance. Serry sat in the backseat, heaving into a trash bag, the effects of a day so hot it softened blacktop. Serry apparently abandoned 500 meters from the finish but paid the highest price on a searing ride into Palm Springs.

This is the effect of “epic.” It has a human cost, and it looks like a terrified bike racer, bleached by extreme heat, lying shirtless on his back, his body wet under rivers of ice water.

Peeters said aloud to other team managers they were waiting for help that never came. His rider was, later, loaded into an ambulance and driven down from the tramway climb above Palm Springs, where stage two of the Amgen Tour of California ended — in victory for some, and agony for others. Organizers later said they heard nothing of the ambulance call.

Minutes later, BMC Racing rider Marco Pinotti sat on the same patch of pavement, not quite as sapped as Serry, but hurting nonetheless.

In the parking lot below, riders sat on the hot road, pouring water over themselves, thousand-yard stares upon their salt-streaked faces. It begged the question on this day that some riders’ computers measured temperatures of 120 degrees: How much is too much?

To a rider, not one would say that it was too hot, and that they shouldn’t have been racing into the forge of the Palm Springs desert. Not before the stage, and not after. To the peloton’s grit and credit, only two riders abandoned outright, though that number may have been a rider higher, as organizers were talking about allowing Serry to continue.

“No other sport would do what we do. But that’s cycling. Whether it’s right or wrong. But that’s not up to us,” said Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff) at the finish.

And this, from Phil Gaimon (Bissell): “I think it’s too hot. I don’t think it’s inappropriate. I don’t know how to decide that. [Organizers] had no way of knowing, and I don’t know how practical it would be to shorten the stages. Nobody’s died. I think I’m the closest so far,” he said.

There is a code that prevails in the peloton. Don’t spit in the soup, ever, and this includes criticizing event organizers for route selections and race conditions. In this gladiator sport, no man wants to be the one who says “enough.”

So someone must say it for him. Would the peloton have avoided Ghent-Wevelgem this year in the shattering cold had organizers not chopped off 50 kilometers? Absolutely not. Would someone have won Milano-Sanremo in a blizzard, if asked? Of course.

Since no rider will willingly say it, I will: Monday’s stage was a ludicrous march through the closest thing to hell on earth for a bike race, and organizers should look at themselves long and hard for not altering the route.

For as much linguistic bravado as exists in sport and is readily pedaled by us journalists — survival, battle, savage — this wasn’t sport, but became an actual battle for riders against total heat and exhaustion.

For better and for worse, bike racers do not protect themselves, so it’s incumbent that the sport protects them. Other, more popular sports, face grave challenges due to the elements as well. Several high school football players have died due to heat stroke in recent years, and Korey Stringer, an NFL offensive lineman, died in 2001 at the age of 27 from heat stroke at the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp. This is a concrete threat, not something that hardly ever occurs.

For their part, event organizers have said they considered the weather as it appeared clear it would be very hot, and that major changes didn’t need to be made.

“You know, when you talked to the riders after the race … they really didn’t have any dramas when they dropped down here into the desert, and that’s where the wall of heat hit them,” race director Jim Birrell said. If it were terribly dangerous, he said, medical personal would have alerted race organizers. “I think our chief medical officer, and our commissaires would have pulled us into a situation where a decision had to be made, and that never came into play. We hope the best for those two [riders].”

But sadly, we have come to expect performance beyond reason, and we’ve come to criticize races in our sport for being too flat or too boring. I’m as guilty as anyone, and looking back I shouldn’t have scampered after BMC’s Tejay van Garderen right after the hot finish, hoping to salvage a quote.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but today’s is a situation that wasn’t hard to foresee. According to weather records, the average temperature in the Palm Springs area this time of year is 95 degrees.

Over the last three days, temperatures here have hit 104, 106, and 108 degrees, respectively. It’s not like no one saw this coming.

And, oddly, this afternoon, race organizers Tweeted a photo of fans at the finish, and a bit about a “nice breeze up here.” I have no idea what mountain they were standing on, but it cannot have been the same boiling parking lot that held a cooked peloton shortly after.

As bad as it all seems, it’s not wholly the Tour of California’s fault. There is not a sound structure in place for altering a major bike race like this, and it’s hard to know what’s safe and what’s not when the opacity of the rules — or lack of strong rules completely — don’t specify what’s safe and what isn’t. When decisions on racing come down to human subjectivities, those outcomes are easily corrupted, knowingly or not, by sponsor interests, television interests, team interests, etc.

“You’ve gotta move this away from — if it’s snowing, if it’s raining, whatever,” Garmin-Sharp manager Jonathan Vaughters told VeloNews Monday night. “What are safe conditions? And as long as that’s in the purveyorship of riders’ opinions, TV producers’ opinions, organizers’ opinions, you never get an objective answer. There needs to be some definitive rules.

“Basically you need to get a board of directors of human physiologists to say ‘OK, you know, you should be doing this, you should not be doing this, you should not be racing on roads like this’ … whatever.”

Right now, it’s up to the common sense of human beings, which varies greatly in given moments when various issues come into play.

“That should be part of the sport. It should be an established part of the rulebook,” Vaughters said. “Just come up with a definitive process, put the rules in the rule book, and take the pressures and controversy off the riders, off the team managers, off the race organizers.”

All of us need to remember that this is sport, not spectacle. And that there is a profound difference. The men and women we watch compete are human beings, flesh and blood like the rest of us. And there is more value in that than in a summit finish, or in an epic stage. We owe that much to the athletes we watch, and to ourselves.

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