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In praise of the musette

This simple cloth bag is a hazard for some riders but a pure embodiment of the sport for others.

Trevor Ward
18 Jan 2017

With their bulky jerseys, caps, goggles and spare tubes wrapped around their shoulders, riders in the earliest Tours often resembled beasts of burden, which was appropriate as the canvas bag they also carried took its name from the nose-bag more commonly seen around the necks of farm horses – musette.

Feed zones in these Tours were usually bars or cafes, where riders would down bottles of beer and plates of food – leaving the bill to be settled by the race organisers – or trestle tables heaving with glass bottles of water or something stronger. Peruvian coca soaked in port wine was given to the top riders during the 1914 Tour because of its ‘extraordinary stimulating properties’, according to an advertorial in French newspaper L’Auto.

Formal feed zones weren’t introduced until 1919, though initially they were more like what you’d see these days at a sportive, with riders expected to pull in to a layby, find somewhere to park their bike and make a lunge for that last remaining banana segment. 

This innovation was spectacularly abused by Julien Moineau during a dog-day stage of the 1935 Tour. According to historian Les Woodland in his Companion To The Tour de France, Moineau arranged for a group of friends to set up rows of tables laden with cold beer to distract the peloton while he continued to the finishing line, arriving 15 minutes ahead of the pack.

History doesn’t record whether this incident contributed to the humble musette’s elevation to a vital part of the stage-racer’s armoury, but by the 1950s the trestle tables were gone, replaced by team managers with outstretched arms bearing cotton bags bulging with fruit, sandwiches and sugar lumps.

In today’s era of wireless shifting and power meters, a 10-inch square cotton bag with thin straps may seem like the cycling equivalent of the abacus, but it fulfils a vitally important function. Getting sustenance to riders during the heat of a full-on race remains one of the most crucial – and fiddly – elements of bike racing, which perhaps explains why innovations have been few and far between over the last century. 

Tinkoff-Saxo did try out a ‘bidon-vest’ in 2014, but otherwise the design and use of the humble musette has remained largely untouched – despite the ongoing comedy parade of crashes at feed zones caused by errant straps or carelessly discarded bags.

Prompted by the experiences of its riders, including Joe Dombrowski who describes the musette as ‘a pretty antiquated system with a strong affinity for front wheels’, Cannondale-Drapac last year experimented with a circular bag that incorporated a frisbee-styled internal frame. It was certainly distinctive – riders grabbed it by clasp-style handles rather than a shoulder strap – but was eventually sent back to the drawing board for economic reasons, since each unit cost five times as much as the traditional design.

It could be argued that in the modern age of team cars and roadside soigneurs, feed zones are a bit of an anachronism anyway. Dombrowski admits that he avoids them at all costs, keeping well over to the left side of the road and dropping back to his team car later for his bag of food. Maybe a variation on Tinkoff’s bidon-vest is the way forward, allowing a domestique to transport musettes in bulk to his teammates at the front in relative safety.

The problem is the load the musette is carrying. For a long stage of the Tour, a typical musette will contain a couple of bidons, gels, energy bars and rider-specific treats such as rice cakes and mini cans of Coke. For this reason alone, the musette is probably set to remain an integral part of professional bike racing for the foreseeable future.

While that prospect may depress Dombrowski and many of his fellow pros (Jack Bauer is another non-believer, famously throwing his bike into a ditch during 2015’s Gent-Wevelgem after his musette became tangled with his front wheel), those of us who don’t use them as high-speed food troughs retain a certain affection for them.

One reason is their aforementioned simplicity, which flies in the face of all the technology and gadgetry that seems to now swamp our sport. Another is the history associated with them. Along with the casquette and the diamond shape of a bike frame, the musette has stayed loyal to its original incarnation.

The musette is also a classic icon of sporting fashion, up there with cricket jumpers and baseball mitts. Which brings us to a potentially dangerous and fraught question: what exactly does an amateur use one for, and should they ever be used off the bike?

When cycling historian Scotford Lawrence raced in France in the 1950s, he recalls musettes being coveted by fans because they weren’t commercially available to buy.

‘They were a mark of the “serious” cyclist and were much sought after, particularly if they advertised a top continental maker such as Helyett or Campagnolo,’ he says. ‘And they were re-used by general cyclists to carry all sorts of minor goodies in.’

These days, you may still see musettes being put to their proper use during 12 and 24-hour TTs. Otherwise, I have found them perfect for more mundane chores. I will regularly fold one up and stick it in my back pocket before a training ride, to fill with a four-pint carton of milk and loaf of bread from the local garage on my way home.

Alternatively, they also make the perfect beach/pool bag for holidays: light enough to carry in your luggage, capacious enough for sun cream, phone and book and, most important of all, distinctive enough to let your fellow beach/pool users know – if your perfectly shaven legs didn’t already – that you are a disciple of the most beautiful sport in the world. 

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