Article by: Chris Komorek from The Lead, Twitter: @c_komz
As the Trek-Segafredo riders roll back into the Tour Down Under village in the middle of Adelaide from a scorching hot stage on the roads of South Australia, there’s one factor that sets them apart from their competitors. It’s a shallow, wading pool – suitable for ages 6 months to 3 years, a sticker warns on the side. It’s the kind of pool you’d expect to see your two-and-half-year-old cousin splashing around in with rubber duckies, not elite cyclists.
No rubber duckies here though. Just ice cold water. The whales, jellyfish, turtles and starfish decorating the edges are a nice touch, but no one was being fooled into thinking this was going to be fun.
“Ice plunge baths are something I’ve done in the past and something I want to introduce more regularly,” says Daniel Green, Trek-Segrafedo’s head of sport science and assistant team manager. Ice baths are important for recovery and most pro-teams have them in place. In fact, Orica-Greenedge upgraded their hotel room to one with a bathtub.
Peter Stetina and Kiel Reijnen, the team’s American contingent, are the first to take the plunge. Reijnen eases in gingerly – partly so he doesn’t tear the sides of the pool and partly because it’s a shock to the core.
“What, where is everyone? No one else is coming in?” Reijnen asks as his teammates begin to head back to the hotel just across the street.
He then starts discussing the Corkscrew descent, a legendary ride amongst the growing peloton of riders in South Australia.
“That was intense,” he says. “I didn’t enjoy that one bit.”
The average speed of the peloton on the descent from atop Corkscrew was 104.9km per hour. At that speed, you’re tightening your grip and adjusting your posture… in a car. These guys are doing it on two wheels, the wind ripping through their hair and the corners approaching rapidly.
When Dutch cyclist Boy Van Poppel returns to the village, he, like everyone else, hits the scales to record his post-race weight.
“You’re looking good,” Green says as he scribbles down Poppel’s weight.
“We (get them on the scales) to check their pre and post hydration status. We look at how much weight they have lost on the stage just through sweating, and we try to get that replaced as soon as we can and most certainly before bed,” says Green.
Van Poppel’s heart rate drops from around 90 to 60 bpm as soon as he enters the ice bath. Lowering the heart rate and making sure each cyclist is relaxed is an essential part of recovery.
Green says potential weight loss over an entire stage is dependant on a lot of factors.
“It can vary greatly between individuals and even between days. Some riders will be able to hydrate more than others and return pretty balanced, whereas others might be 3.5kg down on where they started.”
In hot and humid conditions, such as found in South Australia during the 2016 Tour Down Under, the riders are likely to lose 2.5L in perspiration every hour. In a three and a half hour race, that’s around a total of 8.5L of water loss.
Green says they’ll drink as much as they can while riding, which is usually around 1 litre per hour, but even that won’t balance it out.
“Drinking one litre per hour can still leave you three to four litres down post race, so it’s important we get their weight pre and post race to get the rehydration right,” he says.
Sure, people have died from drinking too much water in a short time but those people were certainly not elite athletes riding hundreds of kilometres in searing heat.
So do the elite athletes competing in the hot South Australian sun at the Tour Down Under ever hit the limit of what is humanly possible?
“Probably not,” says Green, “Your body is able to rehydrate pretty quickly with fluid, if anything, it’s more limited in terms of the amount of carbohydrates and electrolytes that can actually be absorbed from supplements. Our supplements are purposely watered down so it doesn’t have a huge impact on their bodies.”
For us average, non-elite cyclist folk, to consume 1L of water per hour would probably find us making trips to the bathroom more frequently. But is that due to something colloquially known as “breaking the seal”? And do the cyclists experience that constant need to relieve themselves when drinking that much water?
“Breaking the seal definitely exists,” says Green. “When you drink a lot, your bladder fills up gradually and when you ‘break the seal’ your body, which is suddenly holding all this liquid, begins to continually fill up and it tricks you into thinking there’s more than what there actually is.”
Riders who need to relieve themselves, they put their hand up and they stop by the side of the road. It’s a simple solution to a natural urge, and one that the riders engage regularly.
Ice-baths are, in Green’s eyes, imperative for short-term recovery. However when it comes to post-tour recovery, it takes more than just ice to set the riders right.
“At the end we look at getting the hormone levels balanced, but the most important aspect of recovery is physical down time and a regaining a regular sleeping pattern,” says Green.
A regular sleeping pattern? Obviously we asked what mischief the riders get up to every night on tour.
“I refrain from calling myself the ‘Team Dad’ because I don’t want to be that guy,” says Green, adding that the riders don’t have a set time to sleep, but they do have a meeting time in the morning.
“That’s an 8am breakfast call. So as long as they’re then, that’s fine with me. A bedtime story is not out of the question though,” jokes Green.