Pro Cycling's Dirty Secret

Pro Cycling's Dirty Secret

Cycling is great for the environment - pedal about your daily business and you can slash emissions at a pedal stroke. And the Tour de France is cycling in all its majesty, winding through Europe's most stunning natural landscapes. But, there is a big skeleton in pro cycling's cupboard - plastic

Absolutely bloody loads of it, mainly in the form of riders' water bottles (or 'bidons' in cycling geek-speak) tossed to the roadside/hedge/cliff as the peloton powers past. From the Grand Tours to the Spring Classics, pro bike racing is awash in a sea of plastic.

cycling water bottle UCI bidon

Power, grace, beauty. Oh, and fly tipping

Officially, this never happened

Officially there are designated waste collection areas for bottle tossing, at the start and end of feed zone areas.

There was the rule book which said: "to respect the environment... it is strictly forbidden to carelessly jettison... drink containers or any other accessory outside of the waste collection zone".

While the riders' road book said: "I will use the bins... at the start and end of the feed zones in which to throw my rubbish... Outside of the feed zone, I will put my rubbish in my pockets".

So everyone was in agreement - there would be absolutely no random bidon tossing and populating the most beautiful parts of the world with endless rancid plastic bottles.

Watch the races though and you'd see a very different picture as bottles and wrappers sprayed from the peloton into the surrounding countryside. 

Then this year the rules changed (and all hell broke loose)

As if reading our suggestions below in this very article (originally written in 2018 this piece has been updated as the rules finally start catching up) the UCI chose to disqualify riders who threw bottles where they shouldn't. 

And given the uproar this caused from a shouty minority of pro cycling insiders, you'd think the UCI had suggested the death penalty rather than simply a bit of sensible and environmentally-beneficial rubbish collection. It wasn't even a new rule, merely the actual enforcing of an existing one. 

Said insiders banged on about how much fans loved getting riders' bottles (we disagree, see below) and how much a bottle thrown to them from their hero in 1802 when they saw their first ever live race was what made them want to cycle forever. 

But these diehard pedalheads miss the bigger picture because the environmental and cultural impacts of pro bottle-tossing are no longer even close to acceptable. 

When a race like the Tour de France can generate almost 9,000 used water bottles alone, making nearly one metric ton of plastic (see 'How many bottles does the Tour de France use anyway' below), every effort must be made to reduce the amount needed in the first place, and ensure used bottles are properly cleared up and recycled.

cycling water bottle UCI bidon - 33fuel better fuel


We don't provide a plastic scoop in our Better Fuel Energy Blend or any of our powdered products, because the last thing the world needs is more plastic and you probably have a spoon at home ;)

What happens to the Tour's lost bottles?

An oft-repeated reply is that tossed bottles are leapt upon by eager fans. Two points do rather puncture this idea of a virtuous cycle attached to what is little more than high-speed fly tipping however...

  1. Seriously, do you want someone else's water bottle? Particularly after they've spent the last hour sweating and dribbling all over it. In a global pandemic...
  2. Even if you did, many are inaccessibly lost in the undergrowth

Another common response is that the official cleanup crew gets the rest as they come through behind the stage. The thorn in this theory's side is the aforementioned horde of bottles buried in the surrounding countryside. 

Even the most committed eco-warrior would think twice about digging for days in search of these, let alone a part-time bin man in a hurry on ten euros an hour if he's lucky. 

cycling water bottle UCI bidon 2

Geraint Thomas catches back up to the peloton after diverting mid-race to a nearby recycling station with his empty water bottle. Possibly

How many water bottles does the Tour de France use anyway?

Lets look at the maths quickly:

The Tour has 176 riders and let's say each rider uses 4 bottles daily. He ends each day with one bottle and is - theoretically - able to use that bottle again, leaving 3 'disposables' daily. The Tour is 21 days long, but we need to subtract 2 rest days and 2 time trial days.

That leaves 176 riders x 3 bottles x 17 days, or 8,976 water bottles discarded by the peloton during the Tour. 

Bloody hell. 

Now before we all have a fit, let's be kind and say 50% make it into the official disposal areas/cleanup or are picked up by deranged fans itching for some lukewarm pro backwash.

This still leaves 4,488 water bottles rotting in the countryside.

Assuming all bottles are the smaller 500ml varieties weighing around 80g each (they're not, many are bigger), that's over 359kg, getting on for half a metric ton of plastic...

The UCI's enforcement of bidon rules, which let's remember is only asking riders to do what's already in the rule book, wipes out all of these lost bottles at a stroke. 

Pro rider bottle tossing - the cultural impact

It's not just the environment that takes a hit each time a pro bidon soars into the shrubbery, it's sports culture. The simple message broadcast is 'when you are exercising hard, fly tipping is fine'. 

It can even be a sign of just how hardcore you are. 

cycling water bottle UCI bidon 3

As Velominati, keepers of cycling's 'rules' explain: "I can only imagine the moment in a young Pro's life when he first gets to fling an empty to the side of the road. There must be no clearer sign that you've hit the big time".

The result of this outdated thinking isn't just mass-participation events swamped in half-empty bottles and gel wrappers, its high-traffic training spots loaded with it too as Bob from Crawley powers to a bedwetting 12mph average on his Sunday ride and is far too deep in 'the zone' to possibly put that empty gel wrapper back in his pocket. 

From Box Hill to Mount Ventoux and Richmond Park to the Western States trail, our training highways and byways are adorned with sports nutrition detritus. 

Trail trash, route rubbish & binned bidons - the solution

Amazingly, this is really bloody simple. 

For pro cycling

Forget financial punishment, go for heavy time penalties for anyone bottle-tossing outside of designated areas. Dock offenders to the tune of several minutes and compliance can be guaranteed overnight. 

Note: this was our 2018 suggestion, the UCI's bidon rules brilliantly went further, actually disqualifying riders who binned bottles in the wrong place. Better still, when riders broke the rule in the Tour of Flanders, the UCI followed through and disqualified them. 

And this is where things got weird. Because the riders & teams (who all knew about the rule they had just broken and the penalties involved) complained that their penalties (as outlined in the rules they knew all about) were too harsh.  

There are many issues in pro cycling worth fighting to improve from dodgy barriers and dangerously narrow finish chutes that are way too fast, to mental health, eating disorders and drug use, but 'putting your rubbish in the bin' isn't one of them. 

Anyone who says doing this is too hard has lost the plot.  

Pro cycling is tough and prides itself on being such. Anyone who can't hack carrying an empty bottle until they see a rubbish area is clearly in the wrong sport and should take up knitting. 

As for the handful of cycle-obsessed small children who will now be deprived of the opportunity to have a bidon tossed their way, we suggest that they will get over this quite quickly and may appreciate the fact they actually have a planet left to cycle on in 40 years a little bit more. 

cycling water bottle UCI bidon 4

Do good on your next ride or run, and earn trail karma - you never know when it'll come in handy

For the rest of us 

Whether it's a bottle, bar wrapper or a gel pack - we carried it in. Now it's empty and even lighter, we can carry it out and recycle/bin later.

For those keen to take this a step further, the concept of 'trail karma' as first introduced by our good friends at Trail Runner Nation podcast is the answer. 

The idea here is that by doing something simple and selfless while exercising - like pocketing an empty wrapper someone else has discarded - you bank karma, which is repaid next time you're in a bind. 

It could be that tree root you just miss turning an ankle on mid-run, the storm that holds off until you're home or the random rider who lends you a pump when you're out of gas canisters mid-puncture.  

It's all karma baby. So next time you see some ignorant twonk's sports rubbish at the roadside, pick it up and gain a few karma points - you never know when they'll come in handy. 


33Fuel chia energy gel


100% recyclable and with a resealable cap so you can easily stash empties in your pocket or pack with no mess, our chia energy gels are designed with the environment in mind

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