Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Tales of the water bottle

 Fausto Coppi and Jean Robic ascend l’Alpe d’Huez with stem-mounted water bottles

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!


Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Thrash

    So why would an Aero Bottle with a more teardrop shape not be safer? If a rider rolls over it there is less of a chance for it to cause a crash. Oh wait – it was a UCI ruling, now it makes sense.

  2. Gary Watts

    I also have to wonder where all the musettes end up. It’s not common to see a collection for sale for example.

  3. Doug Page

    Last spring in Burgundy we rode into the parking lot of a roadside restaurant. The comely waitress standing by the door asked my friend if he would like his bidon filled. The bewildered look on his face before I translated was priceless!

  4. Daniel

    Cavendish did indeed blame a Katusha rider, but clarified on Belgian TV that the rider threw the bottle into a hedge which bounced back and hit his wheel (they were riding a narrow lane with tall hedges at the time).

  5. gmknobl

    Personally, I think the whole regulations for water bottles is overboard, like much of what they do. I mean, do they really have a problem with truly aerodynamic water bottles? Has anyone made a bottle that almost makes your bike a monocoque frame? I suppose if someone actually does put a mini-motor in one then we’ll have a problem.

  6. Wsquared

    Heavier water bottles will not make you go faster if the decent is continuously on a downward grade, but if there are some false flats or slight up hills during the decent, the heavier bike will help you carry more speed through them.

  7. Goeric

    Doug an Wsquared seem to forget that a byciclist is still subject to aerodynamic forces (down on planet earth). That’s why a havier body will fall faster than a lighter body, everything else being equal (body shape and size): a ball made of lead will hit the ground much faster than a ping pong ball of the same size. Of course, if we were living in a vacuum, they would hit the ground at the same time and speed. So yes, as long as you’re not biking on the moon, a couple of full water bottles will help you on a descent (compared to empty ones)!

  8. Wsquared

    All other things being equal, in this case it’s about greater mass retaining more energy. If you fire two bullets with the same shape and size at the same muzzle velocity, but one weighs more than the other, the heavier bullet will travel further because of its greater mass. That’s what I meant about heavier weight carrying more speed over false flats on a long bike decent.

    In this case since the rider would be carrying water bottles anyway, there is no change in his aerodynamics, just the greater weight of the lead. As in the TDF story above, this tactic works best if the lead water bottles are added at the very top of the decent. Otherwise, you would have to use a lot more energy on the way up, slowing you down.

  9. Goeric

    Sorry, I should have acknowledged that you where right on the fact that you’ll be able to “carry more speed over false flats”, as you say.

    But being heavier will also simply make you go faster on a downward grade. To demonstrate this let’s consider only the gravitational force and the aerodynamic drag (the cyclist is not pedaling and we don’t consider the rolling resistance, which should be negligible compared the aerodynamic drag at high speeds). In this case, the equation of motion is:

    M * acceleration = sin(alpha) * M * g – 1/2 * rho * V^2 * Cd * FrontalArea

    where, M is the total mass of the rider + bike, alpha is the angle of the slope, g is the gravitational acceleration, rho is the air density, V is the speed and Cd is the drag coefficient.

    Now, we can consider the terminal speed which is the maximum you can reach (without pedaling) on a given slope. At the maximum speed, the acceleration is zero:

    M * 0 = sin(alpha) * M * g – 1/2 * rho * Vterm^2 * Cd * FrontalArea


    Vterm = sqrt( 2 * sin(alpha) * M * g / (rho * Cd * FrontalArea) )

    You can see that, for a given drag coefficient Cd and frontal area (i.e. same rider, bike, position, bottles, etc) the terminal velocity increases with the total weight of the rider+bike.

    By the way, these equations also explain your bullet example. If we take a bullet that flies horizontally the formula simply becomes (writing directly for deceleration):

    M * deceleration = 1/2 * rho * V^2 * Cd * FrontalArea

    You can see that the deceleration is lower for a higher mass.

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