Cooling the heat

Cloying, clinging, draining, debilitating, pulse-raising, strength-sapping, vision-inducing heat. Extreme temperatures are no friend to the cyclist, something EF Education First Pro Cycling Team’s Simon Clarke describes so succinctly.

To discuss with him the searing heat that characterises many of the engagements in the elite UCI WorldTour is to encounter an attitude so rational and accepting that one might almost be discussing the inevitability of ever-worsening traffic at rush hour, or an increase in the price of fish, rather than an elemental discomfort foe that, if not properly engaged, can place a rider’s life in danger.

Consider that Clarke is a Grand Tour stage winner, with two victories at La Vuelta España. He has raced the Tour Down Under on eleven occasions. His home race is, by common consent, the hottest on the calendar, with La Vuelta considered the only race comparable, in temperature terms at least.

“Definitely, a few stages of the Vuelta have come close to the heat we face at the Tour Down Under. It can be pretty challenging, but instead of trying to fight against something you can’t control, it’s better to take a positive approach and find a way to get through those conditions,” he says.

His comment reveals as much by what he doesn’t say. “Pretty challenging” is as far as he will go to acknowledge the intense physical demands that come from racing in temperatures which, in other countries at least, would spark a weather warning. The amateur rider might consider riding in such conditions (not racing – mark the difference) for even an hour or two as a story on which to dine out. Clarke, by contrast, does not regard racing in more than half of the Tour Down Under’s twenty editions as remarkable, but merely as part of the job.

Modesty is part of the equation here, no doubt, but Clarke’s analysis uncovers other insights. For a professional athlete, the principal duty is to perform, and developing a mindset to enable this, regardless of weather conditions, is part of the skillset.

“You can compare the human body to a car. With no water in the radiator, it loses power and then conks out completely. Riding a bike in extreme heat can have a similar effect. Your heart rate increases as it tries to maintain circulation, but your power decreases as a result. The body is a well-regulated machine, with limits that will stop you before you can seriously damage it, but you soon discover that you can’t produce any more power, and quickly find yourself out the back of the race, riding on your own.”

Simon Clarke at Strade Bianche

Clarke has managed to avoid the doomsday scenario he describes so clearly and has experienced the combined effects of a relentless sun and a relentless tempo.

“Not all eleven Tours Down Under have been ridiculously hot. If I remember correctly, 2007 and 2017 were the two super-hot years. Not every year is completely unbearable, but when it is, which happens now and again, it’s important to have good equipment.”

The equipment a rider can look to for assistance in the battle with heat is now highly sophisticated, ranging from pre-race aids like ice vests to fabric treatments that dissipate the ferocity of the sun’s rays. The helmet, naturally, is one of the cyclist’s most important weapon in the face of such an unrelenting foe and managing heat from the head.

“The head is an area where you can lose a lot of heat, but when you put on a helmet, while it’s great for safety, it’s not great for heat dispersion,” Clarke says. “If you want optimal heat dispersion, you don’t wear a helmet, but of course that’s not good from a safety perspective. The ideal helmet is one that has the biggest impact on heat dispersion. My Ventral Air is the best helmet I’ve ever worn. It’s the one that comes closest to the feeling of riding without a helmet.”

Precisely positioned ventilation ports and internal channels manage airflow by controlling intake and release. The effect is realized across a range of speeds, keeping the rider cool on climbs, while reducing drag at higher speeds. Clarke, a rider strong enough uphill to have won Grand Tour stages and quick enough down the Poggio to claim a superb top ten finish at this year’s Milano-Sanremo, is well qualified to comment on where a helmet needs to perform.

“It’s all well and good having a lot of vents, but if they’re not strategically placed to create air-flow, they’re no use,” he maintains. “A vent that allows air into the helmet must have an outward vent that allows it to pass all the way through, otherwise air can get trapped. The helmets we use generate an aerodynamic air-flow, but also helps to take away the hot air you face when racing in high temperatures. It has a dual effect.”

The helmet is one of the few technical advantages that remain with a rider once the race is on, and the air-conditioned sanctuary of the team bus has been left behind; the ice vests returned to storage. Technical fabrics offer some mitigation from the heat, and even ice socks are not unheard of, but no single piece of equipment has so great an impact on heat management as the helmet.

The EF Education First team will start any race where heat is a factor with a distinct advantage. Perhaps it is no coincidence that its blistering start to 2019 came in the blistering heat of an Australian summer: victories before the European season had even begun. We might reasonably assume that, among the myriad factors and marginal gains that come to determine the outcome of a bike race, the Ventral Air has played its role.

Significantly, Alberto Bettiol won the hugely prestigious Tour of Flanders wearing a Ventral, the aero focused sibling to the Ventral Air. Belgium is not widely known for its soaring temperatures, but the Tuscan’s career-defining victory in one of cycling’s historic, ‘Monument’ Classics proved that effective heat management is an advantage wherever exertion is a factor. After nearly six hours of racing, Bettiol had sufficient resource to launch a 500w attack on the Oude Kwaremont to set-up a 17km solo effort and seize a memorable victory.

As Clarke concludes – “Heat is challenging, but it’s better to take a positive approach and find a way to get through those conditions. Having good technical partners, like POC, certainly helps.”

A proactive approach is one championed at POC’s Stockholm headquarters, where the advantage of a cool head to Clarke and his teammates is never underestimated. That it has already proved of such advantage to EF Education First is a justifiable source of pride.