Of all things, the water bottle has been in the news this past week. First came the loose bottle on the ground at a feed zone that caused Volta a Catalunya favorite Alejandro Valverde to crash and later pull out of the race. In Belgium, world champion Mark Cavendish accused a Katusha team rider of throwing a bottle into his wheel and making him crash near the end of the Across Flanders race. And then there was a pronouncement from the UCI that, among other new regulations, the world’s governing body will soon be banning aerodynamically shaped bottles.
This is all a far cry from the origins of racers carrying drinks on their bikes. A century ago, they’d either have a small flask in a jersey pocket or a bottle stuffed into a small bag strapped to their handlebars. The next innovation, just before World War I, was a metal cage fixed to the front of the bars that had room for two aluminum water bottles (or bidons, as they’re called in French).
Water wasn’t the only thing that bike racers kept in their bidons, of course. Some liked tea or coffee, others even carried wine or beer with them. And a hip flask in a pocket might contain whiskey, brandy … or more suspicious potions. The first big scandal involving a bidon, at least at the Tour de France, came in 1911.
Frenchman Paul Duboc was challenging Tour leader Émile Georget after winning the first of two stages in the Pyrenees. Duboc then attacked from the start of the second one, a 326-kilometer trek through the mountains from Luchon to Bayonne. Georget stayed with Duboc over the first two climbs, but couldn’t hold his wheel over the mighty Col du Tourmalet. Then, starting the next climb, with Duboc holding a commanding lead, disaster struck.
Race director Henri Desgrange later described how he came around a turn to find Duboc sitting at the side of the road “in a terrible state, struck with nausea that had turned him green, and suffering from terrible diarrhea and painful vomiting.” The rider had just drunk something handed to him at the feed zone in Argelès. Desgrange continued: “I smelled a bidon at his side and it didn’t appear to me to have the odor of tea.” A former Tour rider (probably with a grudge) was later identified as handing Duboc a drink laced with something poisonous in the feed zone.
My own first memories of water bottles date from the time my father was getting ready to ride a 24-hour time trial in England. He was mixing a concoction of food supplements including a wheat-based one called Froment, which he poured into his aluminum bottles. It didn’t smell too good, and it certainly didn’t make me want to take up bike racing!
Perhaps the strongest ingredient placed into a bottle was the lead shot that that the French team manager Léon Le Calvez inserted into an aluminum bidon for his star climber (and former Tour de France winner) Jean Robic at the 1953 Tour. Robic was lightweight, even for a cyclist, and Le Calvez reasoned that adding 20 pounds to Robic’s bike for the downhills would help him descend much faster. They would attempt the experiment on a Pyrenean stage heading to Luchon.
Robic, who was already leading the stage by a minute after climbing the Tourmalet, stopped so his mechanic could run up and fix an apparent problem, but unseen by the commissaires he’d secreted the heavy bidon in his coveralls and placed it in Robic’s bottle cage. It was potentially a great plan, but Robic couldn’t control his unbalanced bike on the short uphill stretch to the summit and toppled over, with the lead bidon tipping out on the side of the road. Robic continued without it, and despite his light build he stayed clear of the chasers and won the stage and took over the yellow jersey.
Perhaps it was poetic justice that, two days later, Robic crashed when he touched the wheel of the rider ahead of him on a fast descent. He was knocked out and ended up in the back group, losing 38 minutes and any chance he had of winning a second Tour. In any case, Robic’s “heavy bidon” was banned before it was ever used, and it would have been an unlikely scheme when aluminum was replaced by the plastic bidon in the mid-’50s.
However, a couple of plastic bidons filled with water is still heavy enough to help a light rider go faster downhill. Maybe the UCI should ban that idea, too! But at least one rider has been disqualified from the Tour de France for illegal use of a water bottle. This happened on stage 6 of the 1997 Tour, when Belgian national champion Tom Steels got incensed when he had to stop pedaling in a chaotic, mass-sprint finish, pulled a bidon from his down-tube bottle cage and threw it at French sprinter Frédéric Moncassin. The commissaires didn’t like that and threw Steels out of the race.
Bidons have become a hot souvenir item, particular for fans who position themselves at the end of feed zones. They’re hoping that riders jettison their empty bottles before replacing them with new ones from the musette bags handed up by their team soigneurs at the feed zone.
Keeping riders fueled has become one of a team’s major tasks, with sophisticated energy drinks, gels and other race food replacing those odd concoctions like my dad used in his 24-hour time trials. I’m glad that by the time I began racing, there were plastic bidons that kept water fresher than the aluminum ones. Today, there are even insulated bidons, with double-wall construction and a reflective foil layer, which keep your drinks cooler for longer.
But, reading the latest UCI regulation on bottles that comes into effect next year, such bottles may not conform to the new standard bidon size of between 4 and 10 centimeters diameter. But whatever the size, if it’s dropped on the road, falls into a wheel, is filled with poison or lead, or thrown at a rival sprinter, the bidon will still do some damage!
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Bill McGann is best known to the cycling world as the former proprietor of Torelli Imports. These days he spends his time writing about cycling and has two excellent volumes on the Tour de France to his credit.
Discussions of the strength of the 2009 Astana squad regularly bring up mention of the great teams of the past. The most commonly cited “greatest team ever” is the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. Padraig put forward a strong case for this argument.
But hold on. Let’s not forget the LeMonds and Hinaults of the more distant past. I would like to submit 2 Tour teams for consideration for the “Greatest Ever” trophy.
The sport was different then. The bikes were fixed-gear, lugged, mild-steel affairs with terrible brakes. The stages were staggeringly long, sometime approaching 400 kilometers. This put an emphasis on endurance rather than speed. Stages would start before sunrise because they could take 13 or more hours to complete. There was another joker in the deck. Early Tour riders had to perform their own repairs. Broke a spoke? Replace it yourself. Got a flat tire? Repair it yourself. Broke a fork? Go to a blacksmith’s shop and fix the fork yourself. And don’t you dare let anyone help you, even by working the bellows, or you’ll be penalized.
Yet, for all those differences, they were the same as us. Riders then were dedicated athletes who trained hard and rode at the very limits of their abilities. They were revered and idolized by sports fans. The crowds along the roads then, like now, were huge. In 1908 there was one team that stood above all others of the time, and perhaps above all others for all time, Peugeot.
On that team was the 1907 Tour winner, Lucien Petit-Breton. I believe he is the most complete rider of the pre-World War One era, often labeled by cycle historians as the “heroic” or “pioneer” era. He could sprint, climb, descend and roll along the flat for hours. He was the first racer to win the Tour de France twice.
Also on the 1908 Peugeot team:
François Faber (1909 Tour and 1913 Paris-Roubaix winner),
Georges Passerieu (2nd 1906 Tour, 1st 1907 Paris–Roubaix),
Emile Georget (won 6 stages in the 1907 Tour, but only came in third that year because he was penalized for an illegal bike change),
Henri Cornet (awarded victory in the 1904 Tour after a great cheating scandal resulted in the disqualification of the 4 riders ahead of him),
Hippolyte Aucouturier (winner of 1903 and 1904 Paris–Roubaix, 2nd in the 1905 Tour de France and owner of the finest handlebar mustache in cycling history),
Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq (3rd in the 1905 Tour and the first foreign winner of a stage in the Giro),
Gustave Garrigou (2nd in 1907 and 1908 Tours de France and Tour winner in 1911), and
Georges Paulmier (would go on to win 2 stages in the Tour).
Nearly all of the riders on the Peugeot team were outright champions, men who today would command their own teams.
What did this outstanding group of men accomplish in the 1908 Tour de France?
They won every single stage. All 14 of them.
Peugeot also took the first 4 places in the General Classification, plus 6th and 8th place.
They weren’t racing against a bunch of chumps. Among the other superb riders contesting the 1908 Tour, Italy’s finest were entered: Luigi Ganna, (1909 Giro winner), Giovanni Cuniolo, Luigi Chiodi, Giovanni Gerbi and Giovanni Rossignoli. Forgotten today, they were magnificent athletes. Peugeot’s beating them all was no small accomplishment.
No team has ever equaled that record. I daresay no team has ever come close.
Coming, the French National team of the early 1930s.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International