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In praise of the cafe stop

Trevor Ward
15 Nov 2019

Sometimes the best bit of the ride is when you stop for coffee and cake

There’s a great scene in Louis Malle’s 1962 documentary Vive le Tour! in which various riders jump off their bikes to raid a cafe and fill their jersey pockets with bottles of water, beer and even champagne. As if completing the Tour in woollen jerseys on steel bikes with down tube shifters wasn’t hard enough, in those days the rules forbade riders from receiving drinks from team cars.

These days, a cafe run is much more civilised. For all the interval training and endurance rides, for all those chaingangs and hill reps, there is one type of ride that offers the solace and comfort we all occasionally crave, where cadence is usurped by confection – the cafe ride.

Contrary to what the pros had to put up with during the Grand Tours of yore, entering a favourite cafe mid-ride is one of cycling’s unheralded pleasures. As well as respite from the weather, gradients and effort, there’s camaraderie with the cake and coffee, a chance for conversation that isn’t punctuated with laboured breathing or shouts of ‘Car back!’ 

‘Cycling should be a social sport, and sharing a few stories over a coffee and cake is an important part of that,’ says fitness coach and nutritionist Paul Bailey (www.fit4training.com), who helped train Geoff Thomas for his ‘Le Tour – One Day Ahead’ charity ride a few years back.

‘Cafe rides also help new cyclists progress from short rides to longer efforts. The break is great for helping get to the next milestone.’

The ideal duration of a cafe stay varies from rider to rider and depends on factors as diverse as meteorology – ‘should we wait until the rain stops?’ – and metabolism – ‘just let me digest this second piece of chocolate layer cake’.

But a rule of thumb is t = (dr + a)/4 + 2pr,  where t is the time in minutes spent at the cafe, dr is the duration of the ride to the cafe, a is the average age of riders and pr is the number of professional riders spotted.

Yes, the pros love their cafe stops too, especially during recovery rides. Mark Cavendish and Alex Dowsett are regulars at the Blue Egg in Essex, while Steve Cummings was a regular at the Eureka Cafe in Cheshire when he was a member of Birkenhead North CC.

The Eureka was my own cafe of choice during weekend rides to North Wales when I lived in Liverpool. Chris Boardman would also occasionally be among the colourful medley of club jerseys. We drank half-pint mugs of tea in those days, a hangover from the era of Louis Malle’s film when rehydrating on the bike was considered the work of the devil and coffee was viewed with suspicion because it came out of a jar. 

The Eureka has been serving cyclists for more than 80 years and claims to be ‘the world’s first and best cyclists’ cafe’, but the tradition can be traced back even further.

According to historian Scotford Lawrence of the National Cycle Museum, the first recorded instance of a cafe ride was in 1818 when Goethe described in his diary how his fellow students would ride to the ‘Paradise Park And Cafe’ in the German town of Jena on their laufmaschinen – pedal-less, wooden ‘hobby horses’ invented the previous year and the forerunner of the bicycle.

By the end of the century, cafes serving the needs of cyclists had opened all over Europe. In the UK, the Cyclists Touring Club awarded plaques to ‘approved’ establishments, although this didn’t prevent some spectacular lapses in customer service. In 1899, the CTC brought a court case against the Hautboy Hotel in Ockham, Surrey, for refusing to serve lunch to a female cyclist.

The cyclist, CTC member Lady Harberton, had been wearing knickerbockers, which the hotel landlady had taken offence at. Lady Harberton was banished to the hotel bar, where she refused to eat because ‘there were men smoking’. The case was dismissed.

Cyclists’ cafes were also hotbeds of romance and intrigue. While Lady Harberton’s bloomers were causing a scandal in Surrey, a novella was published in France in which a ride to one of the many ‘sporting cafes’ in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne results in adultery and a female character cycling topless.

The book, Voici Des Ailes by Maurice Leblanc, is published in English by the Veteran-Cycle Club as Here Are Wings, in case Sean Kelly’s autobiography wasn’t racy enough for you...

The food’s important, too, of course, although some cakes are better than others.

‘Chocolate cake is essentially a mix of sugar and fat in one delicious dose,’ says Bailey. ‘Great on the taste buds, but pretty complicated for your body to make the most out of. If you eat your cake and then immediately get on with riding, you’ll use most of the sugar in it for energy purposes.

'However, sit down just that bit too long and your body will have secreted a lot of insulin, causing you to store most of that sugar as fat – on top of the fat that is already in the cake from butter. Cakes with dates, nuts and oats will always win over those filled with sugar and flour.’

There’s another reason to embrace cafe rides – many establishments support local cycling. Of cafes I regularly use, Corrieri’s in Stirling sponsors the local club’s 10-mile TT, while The Bothy cafe in Ballater in Aberdeenshire gave £100 to its local club, Torphins Typhoons, simply because ‘they are a friendly bunch, even if they do sometimes smell a bit’.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the cafe ride comes from one of the bicycle-riding adulterers in Maurice Leblanc’s aforementioned novel: ‘I know of nothing so delicious as to satisfy the hunger which you have created by the use of your own muscles.’

Although he may have been referring to something completely different…

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