The term “sticky bottle” gets used a lot to describe the the practice of getting a small tow from the team car. It’s made the headlines this week with Vincenzo Nibali’s disqualification from the Vuelta. The language is interesting because bottles are not sticky, it’s a way to talk around the subject. If a rider grabbed a handle on the team car they’d be called a cheat, use a plastic bottle and there’s a nod and a wink. Does using this term condone it?
Definition: a sticky bottle is when a driver holds up up a waterbottle to a rider who then holds on to the bottle for a few seconds, as if the bottle is adhesive, while the driver of the car accelerates to help propel the rider forward, giving them an illicit motored tow forward. It’s a bidon collé in French too, the literal translation and the term appears in commissaire bulletins from the UCI. The fact that it needs defining suggests it’s not common or understood, even a casual fan understands terms like sprinting, slipstreaming and attacking.
But even if it’s become an official term cited by the UCI it’s all a lie, a phrase deployed to avoid embarrassment. Bottles aren’t sticky. Sure some leaked energy drink can make a bottle tacky to the touch but to propel a rider at 50km/h you’d need some the ACME glue of a Road Runner cartoon or a tube of Soudal as this comic clip demonstrates (see 1m20s). In other words a sticky bottle is really something out of a cartoon or a spoof video.
Linguistically a sticky bottle is a euphemism: a phrase invoked to avoid embarrassment or talk around topics that are taboo or awkward. When someone dies we prefer to say they “pass away”. These phrases allow us to step away from confronting the issue directly and talk around it. We use “sticky bottle” because it’s fun – that cartoon again – and because it allows us to avoid talking about taking a tow from the team car which is a taboo topic, a forbidden act. Even the UCI gets coy when it references a bidon collé instead of, say, a tow on the team car.
Yet using a bottle is just a means, the elaborate and staged pretence of it all is amusing. If a rider grabbed a special handle sticking out from a team car we’d call it cheating. If a rider was given a long pull or a handsling by their DS we’d call it cheating. Yet when a plastic bottle is placed between the manager and the rider it’s tolerated.
If a rider has come back to the team car on a hot day to pick up a lot of bottles for their team car then giving them boost on their way back isn’t going to alter the race. The same with a crash, helping a rider back to the bunch after a nasty fall isn’t giving anyone an advantage, it’s merely correcting a disadvantage that’s often caused by misfortune like a puncture or crash. But why use a bottle to pretend? Why do official commissaire reports fine people for “sticky bottles”, joining in the conceit.
Does cycling have other euphemisms? There’s the “magic spanner”, the oily cousin of the sticky bottle. It’s when a rider feigns a mechanical problem, often after a puncture, and holds onto the team car as the mechanic leans out of the window to make a spurious repair, usually to the back brake. The team car picks up speed and in no time the rider is being propelled back to the peloton. Only it’s banned:
Getting a tow or a handsling from the team car isn’t allowed yet as long as there’s a waterbottle between the driver and the rider it’s often tolerated. Whether a sticky bottle is right or wrong is up to you and views probably depend on the case involved, for example the length and speed involved. Nibali’s superglue boost the other day was too much for most including the race officials.
As much as it’s part of cycling’s lore the euphemims deployed involved hints at shame, as if we can’t talk straight about it. The practice mirrors this, a little conspiracy that’s reliant on the presence of a plastic bottle. But bottles aren’t sticky so why do well all keep pretending they are?