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In praise of tea

Trevor Ward
18 Apr 2017

Coffee may be the cyclist’s choice these days, but there’s still a place in our hearts for the honest, no-nonsense cuppa

On a desolate moor overlooking the Firth of Clyde just a few miles outside Glasgow, there is said to be a ‘cyclists’ cave’, where the ancient, mysterious art of the ‘drum-up’ is still practised to this day. 

To the uninitiated, the skill of ‘drumming up’ a pot of tea over an improvised campfire has been a tradition of Scottish cycling for almost a century. Graeme Obree was a master of the art when he was a member of the nearby Loudoun Road Club in the early 1980s.

He recalls in his autobiography, The Flying Scotsman, how older members of the club would carry a ‘tinny’ strapped to their saddlebags.

‘This consisted of a smoke-blackened bean can with an old spoke that could be handled with a stick onto a carefully built fire,’ he writes. ‘There were known “drumming up” spots in various places, and on long journeys the drum-up spot would be the rallying area for heat, tea and food.’ 

Further back in the mists of time, another local cycling legend practised even more lavish ‘drum-ups’. Davie Bell, who founded Ayr Roads CC and had an annual road race named in his memory, once packed a couple of hens on a ride in the 1940s.

His companion ‘suggested we eat them, or one of them; but we became perfectly satisfied with what we carried in the bags – soups, sausages, sandwiches, pies, and lashings of tea.’

The key ingredient of the drum-up – or ‘picnic’, as the softies south of the border called it – was ‘lashings of tea’. This was the fuel that fortified riders on day-long rides, overnight touring trips and even professional stage races. 

When Tom Simpson became the first Brit to wear yellow after winning a stage of the 1962 Tour de France, he was pictured drinking a refreshing cup of tea, reinforcing its reputation as the ‘go-to’ beverage in times of celebration, consolation, discomfort or suffering. There isn’t a problem that can’t be solved with the words, ‘I’ll just put the kettle on.’ 

Tea in a bottle

By the 1980s – when the science of rehydration amongst racing cyclists was still viewed by many with the same suspicion as UFO sightings – riders were putting tea in their bidons.

In Jeff Connor’s entertaining account of his time with Britain’s ANC-Halfords team during the 1987 Tour, Wide-Eyed And Legless, he recalls team leader Malcolm Elliott asking for his bidon to be filled with tea, to which chef soigneur Angus Fraser – ‘a large, scar-faced Scot’ who obviously had never been a disciple of the drum-up – replied: ‘That’s what the soigneurs in Belgium do, but it’s a load of bollocks.’ 

Around that time, mixed messages were being sent out by the PG Tips chimps. These were the stars of a popular series of TV adverts that saw them riding bikes in the ‘Tour de France’ and uttering catchphrases including, ‘Avez vous un cuppa?’ and ‘Can you ride a tandem?’

Meanwhile, coffee brands were sponsoring pro teams – including Faema, Café de Colombia and, currently, Segafredo – but no tea company was following suit (unless you count Italian iced tea maker Estethe’s sponsorship of the Giro d’Italia’s maglia rosa).

In its corporate spiel, Italian coffee producer Segafredo even claims, ‘Anybody that rides bikes knows that there is nothing in the world that goes better with cycling than coffee.’

Er, sorry? What about sunshine? Empty roads? A tailwind? They all definitely go so much better with cycling than an overpriced hot drink from a corporate coffee chain.

The strong, silent type

Tea would never be so boastful. Tea is Sean Connery to coffee’s Benedict Cumberbatch. The rider who chooses tea at the cafe stop is the strong, silent type.

He’ll be quietly contemplating the ride while his more excitable, latte-drinking companions are standing in line waiting for their coffee to be tamped, milk to be frothed and decorative clover leafs to be applied. By the time they sit down, their bacon rolls will already be cold. 

‘Coffee is so Strava,’ sneered one audaxer I spoke to. What he meant is that while both have their merits, both have also been hijacked by obsessives and poseurs.

Part of the reason, surely, for coffee becoming synonymous with cycling in Britain in the last 20 years is the proliferation of espresso-making machines in cafes – we all know how much cyclists love anything shiny and chrome with lots of detachable parts (I know one ex-pro who even takes photos of them at cafe stops). 

But while you can buy all manner of overpriced, cycling-themed coffee accessories – including Rapha’s infamous £95 Chris King-designed espresso tamper – no-one has yet thought tea drinkers gullible or shallow enough to want a silver-plated, Campagnolo-inspired tea strainer. (Though I will claim to being the proud owner of a limited edition Tour of Britain tea mug, given away free at the start of the 2013 race.)

In 1932 a young Australian cyclist was pictured celebrating the latest in a string of record-breaking wins with a cup of tea. Ernie Milliken was considered a true hard man, regularly breaking speed and distance records on his fixed gear bike. 

I think we can safely assume that when he was forced to abandon stage five of a gruelling, 1,000-mile race in 1934 after waiting for an hour in hail and sleet for a spare wheel, his team manager didn’t say, ‘Would you like me to grind some beans, warm up some milk and make you a nice skinny latte?’ 

Instead the offer would have been that which continues to welcome riders who find themselves in need of refreshment near a certain Scottish cave: ‘Fancy a brew?’

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