Old School #97: Bottle Sock

Old School #97: Bottle Sock

You know you’re an #OldSchoolCyclist if you put a wet sock over your spare bottle on hot days. Because ice cubes were for sissies.

Let’s talk about Euro. Not the monetary unit, the cultural unit. As in the irreducible essence of All Things European. Expressed, in this case, by potable liquids.

Wine, for instance, is very Euro. The only thing more Euro than wine is wine being drunk out of a dirty water glass very late at night at a table on the sidewalk outside a little café on an unpronounceable street in one of the sketchier sections of the 18th Arrondissement by a guy with a beret and noticeable body odor who is   smoking an obscure brand of French cigarette and reading Sartre by the light of a flickering low-wattage bulb.

Espresso is Euro. Beer is Euro. Ricqlès, which is a mint-flavored soft drink nobody but the French can stand, is Euro. Pellegrino. Cinzano. Gerolsteiner. Even that most American of libations, Coca-Cola, can be Euro. But only when served warm and flat on a hot day and—here comes the most important part—without ice.

Sure they’ll offer up a begrudging chip or two, but that’s just to be polite. Europeans would no more put ice into Coca-Cola than they would into beer, wine, or espresso. Which makes ice about the most un-Euro thing there is. In fact, ice is not merely un-Euro, it’s practically anti-Euro. And ice cubes are even worse than other denominations of ice, and probably a major contributor to that Euro crisis you keep reading about.

Bikes—and especially Old School bikes—are quintessentially Euro, of course. Which is why they should never be brought near ice at any time, except maybe on hardcore winter training rides involving equal measures of layered wool, icy sweat, and human suffering.

The insatiable thirst to be Euro is one reason Old School Cyclists do not put ice into water bottles. The other reason is that, until Certain American Companies began Americanizing them, water bottles had rather narrow necks. This made getting ice cubes into the bottles functionally impossible, and made breaking ice cubes down into small enough chunks to fit down the bottleneck’s bottleneck both tedious and frustrating. Especially when your buddies were outside the house, riding in small circles in your driveway and yelling at you to hurry up, come out, strap in and roll out, or get left behind.

Probably the original idea behind narrow necks on bottles was to permit the use of reasonably sized (and therefore reasonably priced) corks. But, for whatever reason, the neck design did not change, even when the first plastic Italian and French bottles (nobody called them bidons back then) became available in North America. And it didn’t change because, well, because that’s the way they’d always done it, and if it was good enough for Ottavia Bottechia in 1925, it should be good enough for us fifty years later. And besides, it was Euro, and therefore good.

rowSo if ice cubes didn’t work, what would? An overnight spell in the freezer would cause a water-filled and already rather brittle Old School bottle to split at the seams, spraying the whole compartment with semifrozen water, which rendered your bottle useless and your freezer unusable until you went in and chipped away at a skating rink’s worth of ice.

What did work was a sock. Preferably wool and depending on your definition of reasonable, at least reasonably clean.

It sounds like Dr. Seuss. Soak sock in sink. Slip slippery sock on second bottle.  Slickly slide second bottled sock into second cage. And you’re done.

A string or rubber band around the neck of the bottle held the sock in place. It might be good for a thousand miles, sometimes more. Some Old Schoolers with supportive significant others even showed up with little cloth jackets skillfully sewn into place. On the bottles, I mean, not the riders. Or the significant others.

Yes, it was ghetto, but it was Euro ghetto.  It also worked, and, since you essentially had your bottle wrapped in a swamp cooler, it worked pretty well. When you switched bottles an hour or two into a long, hot ride, the sock would still be slightly damp and the bottle’s contents refreshingly cool. Not ice-cold, of course, but plenty cool enough to make a difference on the long death march back.

Inevitably, technology crept in to undermine the bottle-sock tradition. Some innovators would stop at a Seven-Eleven store, fill half a bottle with Slurpee and top it off with water. Freezing cold water plus a sickly-sweet sugar rush for the long journey home, with the added attraction of the worst-ever stains in your bottles until Cytomax was invented years later. Purists disdained such apostasy, of course.

Besides, we all knew that bikes and a company that made Slurpees were mutually exclusive and always would be.


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  1. Scott G.

    In pre nalgene camping, round canteens had wool/flannel panels for the same reason.

    Nitto needs to start making those bar mounted dual bottle cages, just the thing for Eroicans.

  2. Pat O'Brien

    As I type this in a house with an evaporative (swamp) cooler, I am reminded of the canvas water bags, I believe they were called “Lyster bags”, that we used to cool drinking water in the Army.

  3. Rod

    Yes! The old canteens I had all had cloth sides to soak them and get some evaporative cooling.

    Which is useful, but I still like wide mouthed bottles, thank you very much. The only Euro thing I can claim were my Italian great great grandparents. And if lore is to be believed they lost a house gambling 🙂

  4. John Kopp

    Enjoy your old school, but you are describing me to a tee. The only modern thing I have are Look pedals because I can’t find parts for my old Avocets, or shoes with the old cleats. Guess I would fit right in on an Eroica ride.

  5. Conrad

    I fill a water bottle about one third full and freeze it. I’ve never had one split. Then fill it up with your beverage of choice. The solid block of ice in your bottle will last quite a while.

  6. Maremma Mark

    Rick, you haven’t been to Italy in a while have you? Not only do Italian cafes put ice in Coca Cola, they’ll put it in any drink you ask them to. Yes, ice has come to Europe, as has air-conditioning, with a vengeance. Sure, ice will never be as iconic in Europe as it is in the US where people are seemingly unprepared to deal with heat. And thankfully here air-conditioning isn’t kept at quite the arctic temperatures it is in the US. Sweat is no longer tolerated I guess unless you’re involved in an aerobic activity.

    As for socks on water bottles; being old school like me you must have used those wonderful Cinelli bottle socks made from leather. They zipped up and came right to the throat of the bottle, fitting snugly. When you filled your bottle you would get the leather sock as wet as possible and that moisture in the leather would help insulate the bottle. It worked like a charm. At some point in the early 90’s I could no longer find them and have been waiting for somebody to re-discover their usefulness.

    One thing Italy still has which makes summer riding very civilized are really nice water fountains. Many of which are aqueduct fed, providing wonderfully cool refreshing water. You can find them just about anywhere, parks, train stations, in front of churches and cemeteries as well. It’s a saving grace.

  7. Author
    Rick Vosper

    Hi Mark,

    I loved the fountains, too. That’s what’s going on in the rather badly blurred image at the top of this post.

    Regarding Cinelli leather bottle jackets, I’ve only ever seen one, and that was back in 1980, on a bottle owned by an up-and-coming bike industry entrepreneur best known for being co-holder of the Davis Double Century tandem record. His name was Mike Sinyard. (His partner was Joe Breeze).

    Mike also had one of the sewn-on kind of bottle sox, blue felt on a yellow bottle. He gave it to me; wish I still had it.

    Finally, with respect ice in Italy, no offense, but were you perhaps in the tourist districts? My most recent ice-based experience was in 2005 in an office district in Milan. We adjourned for lunch to a local pizzeria. The cokes came warm and unadorned; my Ugly American colleague asked for ice in his, and when it came in insufficient quantities, demanded more. After some literal eye rolling, the waiter disappeared in the back for awhile and returned with a 2-liter bowl with maybe a kilo of ice cubes and placed it carefully on the table.

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