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In praise of bidons

29 Oct 2020

What other sport can claim to have a drinking vessel as part of its mythology and even its regulations?

Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Danny Bird

In 1986, my girlfriend and I stumbled across the Tour while riding our pannier-laden bikes around France. A stage had just finished in Nantes and it was easy to weave through the parked-up team cars – there were no team buses or security cordons in those days – until we recognised the sweat-streaked and hollow-eyed form of Robert Millar sitting topless under the raised door of a Panasonic-liveried hatchback.

Two things stuck us: how skeletal and tiny he seemed, and how beautiful and covetable his bright red, Coca-Cola-branded water bottles were.

Millar (who has since gender-transitioned to Philippa York) was gracious enough to talk to us. In an age before convoys of motorhomes lined the roadside flying corporate Team Ineos flags, a couple of British cycle tourists turning up in T-shirts, baggy shorts and trainers was probably a novelty, and after wishing him good luck for the next day’s stage he offered us a couple of bidons.

We gratefully accepted and, after giving them a rinse at our campsite that night, they replaced our existing, suddenly lifeless-looking water bottles.

Yes, they were branded Coca-Cola – it had taken over from Perrier as the Tour’s official drinks sponsor that year – but they might as well have been encrusted with emeralds and diamonds.

By the time we returned home to Britain, the bidons were scuffed and the logos barely legible, but nothing could detract from the fact they had previously belonged to a professional bike rider – a former King of the Mountains, no less – competing in the Tour de France.

Bidons aren’t merely practical, disposable dispensers of liquid refreshment – they have great sentimental value too.

Other treasured bidons include a green Gatorade one from the Ride With Brad sportive in 2012 – which I managed to get signed by newly crowned Tour winner Bradley Wiggins himself – and a black one decorated with skull and crossbones bought from the St Pauli football club shop in Hamburg (the team had its own cycling club). Of course, the problem with bidons is all that plastic.

This wasn’t the case when bidons were built to last. The most common bidon sported by professional riders in the 1940s and 50s was a distinctive aluminium container manufactured in Britain at the Birmingham factory of Coloral.

By the mid-1950s, however, these were superseded by plastic bottles, which were significantly lighter and more functional. (Ironically, this radical transformation came at a time when most of the peloton was still to be convinced about the merits of rehydration on the move.)

The Coloral brand was recently resurrected by Tom Cartmale, who says he was inspired by the classic photograph of a bottle being passed between arch-rivals Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali during the 1952 Tour stage to Alpe d’Huez.

Controversy still surrounds this photo and whether it was even a bidon that was being passed between the two. One account says the photographer handed them a bottle of Perrier and asked them to pass it between them so that he had something different to photograph. But would two fierce rivals, embroiled in the combat of a Grand Tour mountain stage, have really complied with such a request?

The uncertainty has added to the photograph’s lustre, and made the humble bidon – in this freeze frame of history, at least – the centre of the cycling universe.

Fluid dynamics

Mythology abounds about this humble vessel. In Tim Krabbé’s classic book The Rider, the narrator is told the story that Jacques Anquetil always used to move his water bottle to his back pocket during climbs to make his bike lighter.

The narrator watches footage of Anquetil and sees that his bottle is, in fact, always in its cage, but refuses to believe the evidence: ‘The story strikes to the soul of the rider, and is therefore true. Those pictures are inaccurate.’

Another legend has it that tiny Jean Robic – who won the 1947 Tour riding a 48cm frame – filled his bidon with 10kg of lead to assist his descent of the Tourmalet during the 1953 Tour.

It was René Vietto, considered by many as the greatest rider never to win the Tour, who is credited with the idea for switching bottle cages from the handlebars to the down tube. As well as being more aerodynamic, this also improved the bike’s handling.

The term ‘marginal gains’ had yet to be invented – ‘bar raids’ were still the peloton’s preferred choice of rehydration – but Vietto had previous when it came to performance-improving strategies.

On a rest day during the 1947 Tour, he told his team doctor to amputate one of his toes after it had turned septic (the result of an old injury). ‘It will make me lighter in the mountains,’ he said.

Even something as everyday as a bidon can be weaponised, however, and the killjoys of the UCI have been quick to stamp out any design details that might give riders an advantage. 

In 2011 cycling’s governing body introduced rules regulating the size, shape and positioning of bidons, stating, ‘Bottles have been increasingly moving away from their original function of allowing riders to rehydrate towards an alternative use as aerodynamic elements which are integrated into the design of frames in order to improve riders’ performances.

‘It has become essential to regulate the positioning and dimensions of bottles to avoid any future deviations and to return bottles to their principal function.’

Which serves to remind us that despite all the legends, myths and history surrounding this basic accessory, the bidon is simply for drinking from.