The paradox of water bottles, in cycling

They are produced with great care, they are very important and transported with care, yet they are used for very little and thrown away immediately.

Even before water bottles began to go out of fashion for environmental reasons, there were some areas in which they were very popular: among these the world of cycling, where you can go a short distance without the water contained in the bottles. As with all objects used in sports competitions, the water bottles used by runners are very well studied and the companies that produce them try to improve them year after year. Yet paradoxically they have a very short life: as soon as cyclists have finished drinking the water they contain, they throw them away, to lighten themselves. But then they can be collected by collectors fans, and enter a kind of second life, displayed on a shelf.

One of the chapters of Acqua passata, the sixth book written by the editors of Bidon, an online magazine dedicated to cycling whose name means “bottle”, in French, in many other languages ​​and in general in the international cycling community. Acqua Passata tells a little of everything you might ask about cycling water bottles and tells many stories of famous water bottles that runners have passed. The chapter on how water bottles are produced, which we publish, is titled “We need a bottle” and was written by Gabriele Gargantini, also editor of the Post. The entire book can be purchased, in paper version, from the People site, the publishing house that published it, or in ebook version also on Amazon or IBS.

For cycling to exist, there are things whose presence is essential. If that cycling is on the road, and it is contemporary, you need, to begin with: some asphalt, carbon fibers, two vulcanized rubber wheels, brakes, a handlebar, a chain and two pedals that allow, complementing each other and with a pair of sprockets, to exploit a bottom bracket to convert a rotary motion into forward motion. Since it is a human-powered vehicle, the bicycle needs a human being to ride on it. That human being, whoever he is, is largely made of water. While pedaling, it consumes some of that water, thus feeling the need to periodically introduce new water into its body. You can find it in bars or drinking fountains. But it is much more convenient to carry an escort with you, especially if the human who is cycling is in a hurry to reach the goal.

A certain haste in reaching a certain goal, today, there are many, not only when they ride a bicycle. Those for whom haste is objectively motivated are cyclists and professional cyclists, the members of the only categories who are allowed, sometimes even begged, to get rid of the bottles they have just used. Bottles in cycling are a strange thing: essential for a few minutes, or a few kilometers; then suddenly superfluous. Before use they are protected, after they become a weight to be sacrificed to the very strict cause of the weight / power ratio. In cycling – especially in professional cycling – the water bottle is a product in which the final recipient is often neither the buyer nor the most important consumer. The final recipient is someone else: who has found it, collected or requested it, perhaps without thinking about all the way that bottle has traveled to get to the shelf on which it now serves as an heirloom.

To make a bottle, as well as to do a lot of other things, we start with synthetic polymers. Generally they come from oil – but we are working so that they also come from other and better sources, which do not need billions of years to renew themselves – and to our eyes they come in the form of small balls: hard, compact, odorless and, looking at them , not at all attractive. You can roughly know how those balls of “bottles in power” are obtained, but many companies use formulas that they prefer to keep to themselves. In any case, it is enough that one in a hundred of these balls is of a certain color to have flasks of that color.

With anticipated apologies for the cold in the heart that every engineer will experience by reading the next lines, in the bottle factories the balls are heated until they merge together to form a single fluid, which is molded by gravity into an oblong shape. Looking at it closely, you can already guess that that piece could become a water bottle, but it is still too early to pick it up or pour water into it: it has a temperature of over 150 degrees centigrade. That temperature is used to ensure that a mold and a strong jet of air allow the piece to lengthen, to perfect its shape and to define its features.

This is followed by a series of procedures, almost all carried out by a machine, which aim to verify that all the bottles are the same and in the same way smooth and free of imperfections. Among these procedures there is one which consists of a quick brushing and another which, again and for a short time, heats the outer wall of the bottle, to allow the print to be precise and indelible. The plastic surface of the water bottles is then treated to change its surface tension. Funny, by the way, that this phenomenon is called “wettability”.

In another production line – which can be a few meters away and under the same roof, but also hundreds of kilometers away – caps and dispensing valves are created, the other two parts necessary to transform the raw container mentioned above. in a practical gadget to carry and if necessary drink liquids without spilling them. In many cases, both the cap and the valve are covered with a rubbery material, more pleasant in contact with the lips and less slippery.

As with toothbrushes, razors, condoms, smartphones, cars and space rockets, even with water bottles you always try to do something that is innovative and better every time. The qualities that we are trying to perfect are lightness, softness, the absence of odor and the speed of dispensing the liquid. A few grams less, a few milliliters per second more, and the pleasant certainty that the water inside tastes like … water.

Those who produce water bottles for cyclists spend a considerable part of their time listening to the varied experiences of use of masseurs, mechanics and above all cyclists. It serves to understand which critical issues to transform into novelty through chemical formulas, compounds and production processes, all without neglecting the economic aspect – however, we are talking about a container of water, not a lunar lander.
After being conceived, designed, perfected, manufactured and tested, the bottles are ready to be shipped. In the case of professional road cycling bottles, each team already knows which company they will get their bottles from for the next season, and how many they will order. Even before the winter retreats begin, the first water bottles leave the factories for the teams’ warehouses. We can therefore imagine two water bottles, born from the same bag of polymer balls, extruded from the same vine, grown in the same mold, leaving the factory the same day: one to become the white bottle of an Emirati team, the other for become the black water bottle of a strong British team. A little before Christmas, both will travel on wheels – by truck – to the two teams’ warehouses. Only to find himself, a couple of months later, in the bottle cages of two rival bicycles, perhaps somewhere on the roads between Milan and Sanremo.

Water bottles, however, rarely stand alone. After ordering them from the companies – among the most important are the Italian Elite and the Dutch Tacx – the teams receive them in large boxes, each of which contains about 200. Before each race, and even before each stage race, the teams make a calculation that takes into account factors such as the expected temperature, humidity, length and possible difficulty of the race. It is assumed that for each cyclist, for each day of racing, at least four water bottles are needed. But experience suggests that in this calculation it is always better to abound, so for most of the races each team prepares between seven and ten water bottles per cyclist. They are usually prepared the night before, so that they are ready in the morning. Most water bottles in modern cycling are full of water. But there are also those in which mineral salts or maltodextrins are added to the water, sometimes in different doses and percentages from one athlete to another, due to taste, possible health problems and dietary discomforts, or because he said to do so. the trainer or nutritionist. Each flagship has at least one refrigerator inside, which in turn holds several dozen water bottles. At least fifty are water and at least another thirty are water and salts or water and maltodextrins. In the most important races there are two flagships, each with a refrigerator inside. Then there are the water bottles that, inside another car, are carried ahead of the riders, to wait for them in the refueling area.

A few years ago, someone tried to use 300 milliliter bottles, but it didn’t work: today most of the bottles are 550 milliliters. To distinguish their contents and recognize who they are intended for, mark them with a felt-tip pen. A good mechanic must know how to fill the refrigerator in the right way by fitting as many bottles as possible, but he must also put the special bottles – filled for a specific rider – where he can easily find them. A good wingman must understand when it is time to go get them and bring as many as he can, but he must also remember where the bottles are positioned, and which ones, so that he can promptly serve them to the companion who needs them.

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.

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