What happens after a bottle reaches the person who has to use it is self-evident. The wingman carries the bottle, the recipient drinks a little – not too much all together because, as the grandmother said and as Davide Cassani says in the videos on YouTube, “then it hurts” – and finally, if all goes well, he puts it away again half full in the bottle cage. If it goes wrong, that is, if it is very hot or the moment is somehow topical, the liquid ends immediately, and the bottle is thrown away. In any case, as soon as it is empty it is thrown away; often even before they are.
While a good number of lucky water bottles experience the excited moments in which it rises to its original function, others stay nice and cool in the refrigerator from departure to arrival. Once they arrive, as long as they are not given to that child with big, pleading eyes, the surviving water bottles return to the bus or hotel, together with the cyclists who did not use them for that day. Generally, these water bottles are given a second chance, especially if the next day there is the new leg of a stage race.
There are few, very few very lucky water bottles, those that are photographed and celebrated for the way they are grabbed, passed, emptied or thrown away. There are others, almost all, functional to moments not particularly relevant, and therefore anonymous. There are some that do not even see the race, because they become training bottles. And there are still others that may not even come out of the box in which they had been put many months before.
Each year, each team orders many more water bottles than they use. It always happens, because a cyclist without water is a much bigger problem than a warehouse with a few more boxes. It happens even more when, in May, a team changes sponsors and everything on which “Sky” is written must have written “Ineos” overnight. And even if the main sponsor does not change, from one season to another perhaps one of the sponsors changes, or a combination of colors, or the pantone of a color, or an inscription, and then off with thousands of other water bottles. Bottles unused during the past year and unusable for the next year are generally given away, perhaps to a youth team that is near the warehouse.
Overall, a professional men’s team orders between twenty thousand and forty thousand water bottles for each season. For three weeks alone, you need more or less three thousand. This does not mean that one hundred and fifty water bottles are actually used in each stage, that is almost twenty bottles for each of the eight cyclists competing. They carry three thousand because you never know, and because in addition to being containers for liquids and any collector’s items, water bottles are also excellent advertising media.
On 6 July 2019 in the surroundings of Brussels, the starting point of the last Tour de France, there were 22 teams, and it is reasonable to think that scattered among bicycles, refrigerators, trunks, boxes and lockers there were in all more than sixty thousand water bottles. more than fifteen a day for each of the one hundred and seventy-six runners at the start. Not all of them made it to Paris, and no one has certainly used as many as planned; but there were. Just considering the men’s teams with World Tour licenses, it can be said that each cycling season involves the order of about five hundred thousand water bottles. It means, to fill them all, 275 thousand liters of water, or 100 kilometers high if you put them one on top of the other, or almost three thousand square meters if you put them side by side.
It seems like a lot. Indeed: it is a lot. But a little perspective is enough for it to become little: in the time it takes to get to the end of this paragraph, which this apparently unnecessary incision is stretching just as much as needed, in the world a number of plastic bottles more or less equal to the bottles produced for an entire season for all the men’s teams on the World Tour. If you have any doubts about your reading speed, it has been calculated that around one million plastic bottles are sold worldwide in one minute.
Broadening the perspective even further, it is estimated that around 350 million tons of plastic are produced in one year. All the 500 thousand cycling bottles we are talking about instead weigh – when empty – something close to 25 tons: a zero point, followed by a few other zeros, of the total. It can be said, therefore, that in the grand scheme of things, water bottles may not be considered a major environmental problem, for a sport that, among other things, is based on means that work with muscles and not with engines.
Regardless of the fate that the bottles already produced will meet during the year, it is however certain that new ones will be produced every year, almost always using virgin plastic. Every bottle, if thrown and abandoned on the edge of some road, in a meadow or in a field, takes a long time to become something other than a bottle; too long to care. But it is true that even among professionals – the only ones who have a valid reason to throw away a bottle – there is increasing attention to the issue. Many water bottles, therefore, end up in the “green zones”, areas specially designed to ensure that cyclists in the race get rid of water bottles, packages, bags, papers and litter. Many others on the roadsides, in the meadows or in the fields remain for just a few seconds, at most minutes, because luckily there are those who collect them, a phenomenon that perhaps has more to do with passion than with ecology; but that’s okay for the environment anyway.
There is no way to say how many water bottles are thrown every year on the roadsides by cyclists, not even with a fair margin of error. It depends on too many variables. In 2018, in its last Tour de France, Sky thought, as a complement to the “Sky Ocean Rescue” operation, of putting codes on its bottles, so that whoever found them could make it known with the incentive of being able to win something. Then Sky changed sponsors and nothing was known about that project. Too bad, because in his small way he could have lent a hand to tell some other good story.
By the way, I have collected some in my small bottle of water too (even if the one I use is another: almost all black, with a phrase and a sign on it that mention Joy Division). Those I collect, ask for or find, however, I keep. The latest, for now, is from 12 October 2019. The day before, the Giro di Lombardia was being run, and this bottle was launched by someone from Bardiani-csf. Maybe the promising Luca Covili, who reached the Como finish line 20 minutes and 100 positions after the winner Bauke Mollema. Or maybe one between Lorenzo Rota and Giovanni Carboni, the best placed of the team that day, respectively sixty-third and sixty-fourth. I picked it up just over a hundred kilometers from the finish, at the roundabout at the intersection of the provincial road 51, which rises from Civate, and the provincial road 60, which descends from Galbiate, while the group went hunting of the fugitives of the day, under the advertising sign of a company specialized “in the sale, installation and maintenance of stoves and fireplaces”.
It is a white bottle, with a black cap and red valve. Above there are the names and logos of: Bardiani valves (“Which find their application in the dairy industry, the food and beverage processing industry, the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry”), csf Inox (“Pompe centrifuges and industrial volumetric pumps “), Guerciotti (” Historic cycling company and leader in the development and production of racing bicycles “), LifeCode (” Sports supplements to achieve goals “) and Elite (” Specialized in the research and production of of training, water bottles and bottle cages for cycling »). There is also the hashtag #greenteam, which is neither a sponsor nor a declaration of ecology, but has to do with the history of the “longest-running cycling training in world cycling”.
In short, not a great story that of my last bottle. Not even a big bottle, if you look closely, but it’s still one more for the bottle shelf and one less left where it shouldn’t be. To look at her, or to look at the others who arrived before her, it is strange to think that she has dedicated all these lucubrations to it. Those who know me and learn that I did it for real can even make you laugh. Comprehensibly.
Bottles, in hindsight, are not strictly essential to cycling and who knows if in ten, twenty or thirty years something new and different will not be invented to bring water and energy to those who are pedaling. In the meantime, however, they are there, they’ve been there for more than a century and that’s fine. They are not essential for cycling to exist: for that, someone pedaling and someone saying «Come on! Come on!” on the roadside. If that someone is near a bottle to be collected, however, he is happier.