A ban on bottle tossing disrupts a tradition in cycling
By Juliet Macur
Alex Howes, an American cyclist on the EF Education-Nippo team, heard a familiar sound from roadside fans at the Itzulia Basque Country race in Spain last week.
“Bidon! Bidon!” they cried out, imploring him to throw the bottle he held in his hand. Bidon is cycling lingo and the French word for water bottle, and the fans pleaded for one as a race souvenir, COVID-19 and backwash be damned.
Catching a bidon thrown by a rider is a cycling tradition; it is the sport’s version of getting a foul ball at a baseball game. But evidently it is not sacred in the eyes of the International Cycling Union, the sport’s global governing body. The organization instituted new rules that prevent riders from tossing trash, including bidons, anywhere but in specified areas, effectively putting an end to the spontaneous toss-and-catch ritual that has lasted for decades.
The rules went into effect April 1, and afterward Howes could only apologize to fans.
“I’m so sorry, guys, but I can’t,” Howes recalled saying to the crowd as his pockets and jersey were stuffed with used bidons. “I want to keep my job here.”
Two riders have already paid a high price for breaking the new rules.
Michael Schär of Switzerland and Letizia Borghesi of Italy each threw a bidon outside the designated litter areas at the Tour of Flanders just days after the regulations went into effect. Schär threw a bidon into a group of fans. Both were disqualified from the race.
“For this unconscious gesture, they really made me feel like a ‘criminal,’” Borghesi wrote on Instagram, adding: “Also bottles don’t pollute because they are collected by children or fans who are collecting them. I think seeing a child smile when picking up a bottle on the roadside is priceless.”
Chris Froome, the four-time Tour de France winner, called the ban “ridiculous” in a Twitter post that included a clip of him throwing a bidon to a cheering fan during the Volta a Catalunya in Spain at the end of March. Froome noted, with an eye-rolling emoji, that the move now would warrant disqualification.
Thomas De Gendt, a Belgian rider, called the issue “bottlegate” and said the rule needed to be changed.
“I understand that we can’t throw bottles in the nature,” he wrote on Twitter. “But giving a bottle to a fan who is asking for one is something totally different.”
The cycling union said that the rules were made to promote rider safety and to respect the environment, and that riders, teams and race organizers had jointly adopted them in February. Cyclists had two months to prepare themselves, so the change should have come as no surprise, said Louis Chenaille, the spokesperson for the cycling union.
“We firmly believe that these measures, which in some cases require changes in attitudes, will contribute to making cycling the sport of the 21st century,” he said in an email last week.
For generations, many riders were, let’s say, less than respectful of the environment. They chucked sandwich wrappers over snow-covered Alpine cliffs. They hurled cotton musette bags, which hold riders’ snacks, into previously pristine rivers. They tossed bidons onto farms, at the feet of grazing cows and into fields of towering sunflowers. And some of that cavalier littering was caught on live TV.
Christian Prudhomme, race director for the Tour de France, said last week that he had received countless complaints from people who saw riders throw trash into nature. So in 2010, he and the Amaury Sport Organisation, which runs the Tour and other cycling races, decided to set up three dedicated trash areas along each stage. Last year, they raised the number to six, he said, and now the cycling union insists that races have trash disposal areas along their routes.
Teams now have to figure out where to put their used bidons, if not into the hands of clamoring fans. And there are a lot of bidons involved.
These days, one team could use 100 per day, according to Paul Navin, who does massage therapy and other vital tasks as a soigneur for Howes’ team. At the Tour de France this summer, that would be 100 bidons times 23 teams, then times the 21 days of racing. It adds up to 48,300 bidons along a course of 2,000-plus miles.
Those bidons now need to be disposed of in specific ways, which include giving them to a team soigneur or throwing them into any team’s car. Navin explained that he now waited at the side of the road with a garbage bag so his team — and any other team — could throw away its bidons. He spends extra time searching the area for errant ones, nervous that he will be fined for leaving trash behind.
Howes’ job just got harder, too. As a domestique, which is a team’s worker bee, he had the job last week of picking up filled water bottles from the team car and distributing them among his teammates. He then had to collect the used bottles and find a place to dump them — without breaking the rules. On one occasion, he took a 30-minute detour to drop bidons into a race judge’s car.
“Meanwhile, there’s a thousand people on the side of the road, yelling, ‘Bidon! Bidon!’ And I can’t even give them a small piece of the race that would make them so happy,” he said. “It’s beyond frustrating.”
The introduction of the new rules has hardly been smooth, Howes said.
Throwing bidons to a soigneur on the roadside has been a challenge for the cyclists, he said, because sometimes there are as many as 50 of them almost simultaneously trying to do so while speeding by. Throwing accuracy is not a prized skill among riders.
“None of us played ball sports, so you have a bunch of skinny cyclists trying to wing a half-full bottle over a bunch of riders, and it could be pretty dangerous,” Howes said.
When bottles end up outside the designated location, he said, it is unclear how the authorities will determine exactly who was responsible: “Is CSI going to be tracking down the fingerprints on the bottle to figure out which teams should be penalized?”
The existing changes need tweaking, he said. Consider the location of the trash zone at last week’s race. The area included what Howes described as the roadside on a bridge that was at least 150 feet above a river.
When riders reached that trash zone, they searched their pockets for sticky wrappers, bidons or other garbage and tossed those items into the proper area — only to see most of the rubbish fly off the bridge and right into the river because it was so windy, Howes said.
“I was like, ‘C’mon, guys, what the heck, let’s put a little bit of thinking into this,’” he said.
Howes said riders partly had themselves to blame for the bidon complications. He remembered once seeing a rider toss a water bottle straight into a beautiful river and then scolding him for it.
“Professional cyclists aren’t different from regular people,” Howes said. “Not everybody is a genius, not everybody makes the right decisions.”