The organizers of professional cycling races, particularly the Tour de France, have always had some strange ideas about water. Restrictions on water consumption by the riders has been one way race organizers for Grand Tours have tried, even in recent times, to keep the races tough, as a test of the survival skills of the riders. As if the long stages, broken roads, heat, cold, furious attacks, terrifying descents, and interminable climbs were not enough, tyrants like Henri Desgrange and his successors have imposed rules on drink bottles (as well as many other trifling regulations).
Until at least the 1960s, riders as well had strange attitudes to water, believing that too much would bloat the stomach and lead to impaired performance. Mammoth stages on just a handful of bottles were not uncommon, before physiology and science caught up and the benefits of regular hydration were realized. Still, and in a tradition that continues today, riders took limited refreshments from spectators on the side of the road – another way the cycling has managed to include its supporters in the action.
With the restrictions on bottles in place, even as seemingly recent as the 1970s, the café raid was a common occurrence. Domestiques would organize themselves for a mass raid on a designated outlet and its shelves stripped of almost any liquid beverage available: mineral water, sodas, beer, even Champagne. Then the domestiques, their pockets stuffed with all manner of bottles of different shapes and sizes, would chase down the peloton to share their booty.
For the seemingly helpless café owner, it would be all good fun. A few lost profits, perhaps a backhander from the race organizers to compensate, but a chance to rub shoulders with the riders, and have a story to tell local patrons afterwards. The raids added colour to the race, levity, and a sense of keeping the race firmly rooted to the towns through which it passed.
For the domestiques, being a capable ‘water carrier’ was a valuable skill, even better if one remembered one’s bottle opener, or had another ingenious method of getting the cap off if the opener had been forgotten. Important, too, was the ability to source a team leader’s favourite beverage, perhaps even a little Champagne – which never did the riders any harm in decades past – to dull the pain of an impending climb.
The rules have eased now on water, with the realization that dehydration actually exists and could be hazardous to the health of riders. Motorbikes ply the peloton with their sponsor’s wares, and team cars are always ready to provide refreshment – although there’s little Champagne to be seen, during the race at least. Domestiques are still valued, though, for their ability to carry bottles from the team car to their leader, but no longer do they need to remember their bottle openers.
But restrictions still exist, most notably on final climbs in stages in the Tour, for example, where team cars cannot give bottles to riders – as much to prevent cars from hampering the action and giving tows as forcing the riders to climb unaided. But spectators continue to provide a ready source of refreshment. Frankie Andreu gives an insight into the mind set of the riders in one of his diary entries from the 1999 Tour in the Pyrenees.
“The grupetto was a big one today. Many riders are tired and the first chance they get to sit up, they do. Christian [Vandevelde] was making deals all day in the last group. Guys were so hot and desperate for water, they were begging Christian for water and the promised to buy him a beer in Paris. He has about a case of beer waiting for him at the finish.
“Prudencio [Indurain], while riding in the group, spotted a two-litre bottle of Orangina sitting on a picnic table. When he spotted it he yelled out, ‘Who wants some Orangina?’ Of course, everyone wanted some; so Prudencio in one swoop swung over into the gravel and grabbed it off the picnic table. It was a party.”
All screen grab pictures from Stars and Water Carriers, the movie of the 1974 Giro d’Italia.