Euro Café Culture

Coffee cycling

A piece by Cyclingtips discussed the rise and fall of café culture in Melbourne, Australia. There the café is a big part in the local cycling scene, a destination for many rides. Similarly Matt Seaton writes the of “mysterious affinity between cafes, coffee and cycling” in Britain.

If coffee, cafés, cakes and cycling often go together they rarely connect in Europe. In countries like Italy, Belgium or France, a coffee is consumed quickly and a café stop rarely features on the ride, if it does it is usually incidental.

The café is a feature of almost every European town and even village. In Paris there are some cafés that attract tourists because of their reputation and in some Italian cities you’ll pay €10 for an espresso should you sit in a famous square in Venice, Rome or Siena, in effect you’re not paying for a coffee but renting real estate, namely the seat and the view. But cycling is not usually about visiting historic squares and the sport is often close to its rural roots in Italy. Visit the village café and it’s €1.

France has many cafés and the majority feel like they’ve seen better days. Worn plastic seats, faded decor and a dusty interior can lend a kind of charm but often it feels like you’re stepping back 20 years in time when you step inside the majority of rural cafés. Certainly modernity is rare, you’re more likely to find one of those old TVs with a wooden surround than Wif although there are plenty of modern examples that are a hub for local life too.

The Café Des Sports
There are many “sports cafés” in France, often founded by someone with an interest in sports and you will find sports shown on TV or maybe a row of trophies behind the bar, perhaps won by the owner or maybe the glory of a local sports team. Followers of the Tour de France might remember the green jersey is backed by PMU, a French gambling company. For years it was the state-owned monopoly provider and today it has terminals all over France in cafés where you can place your bets, normally on the horses but you can try cycling during the big races too.

Chairman Hulsmans. Spot the yellow jersey on the wall.

It’s different in Belgium
No country in the world comes close to Belgium for pro cycling support and culture and in particular the Flanders area. Here ex-riders have become barmen and opened their own establishments, decorating the walls with memorabilia. These are not solely for cyclists though, just a part of local scene where locals meet and riders might visit at the end of a training ride.

Café is French for coffee but these days sales of tea outstrip coffee sales in France. A brasserie means a brewery but these days almost nobody makes beer on site except or a handful of microbreweries. But the cyclist will sit outside anyway and it’s here that you get a good vantage point to observe village life.

What to drink
It depends on the country. In Belgium you might want something warm like a hot chocolate accompanied by the gauffre or waffle. In Italy the coffee is king but you can sometimes pay a premium to sit down, most espressos are consumed standing up at the counter. In France the coffee often is not as good as Italy but still offers a hit for caffeine fiends.

What to do
Porte Journal
For me the best thing is the free newspapers. Pick the right place and you’ll find L’Equipe or La Gazzetta available for customers to read, a chance to catch up on the latest sports news. If the place is upmarket the newspaper will come on a stick.

Coffee, good or bad for you?
Caffeine helps as a stimulant and has secondary benefits, apparently it boosts the ability to burn fat. But too much coffee brings obvious symptoms like high blood pressure and the shakes. But it has lesser-known effects like excessive loss of minerals like potassium and calcium which are essential for the cyclist. In a word: moderation.

Coffee is something that’s important to many cyclists but especially those outside Europe where it is ritual with its own rites, see the Rapha Espresso Tamper which is so Euro yet at the same time I’m sure sales of this tool are slow in Italy.

Beyond the drink, the café as a coffee shop is a hub of local life across much of Europe but rarely a destination for cyclists unlike, say, Australia where the coffee stop is a fixture of many group rides. But it can be good to stop, a chance to get a drink and survey the local life as well as read the newspaper.

This is part of a series on European foods with links to cycling or simply for fuel:
Part I: Nutella
Part II: Pâte de fruits
Part III: Stroopwafels
Part IV: Coffee
Part V: Frites
Part VI: Pasta
Part VII: French Bakeries
Part VIII: Water
Part IX: Sirop
Part X: Pharmaceuticals
Part XI: Summary
Part XII: Esta Thé
Part XIII: Grated carrots
Part XIV: Speculoos
Part XV: Belgian beer
Part XVI: Oman Coffee
Part XVI: Italian Ice-cream

30 thoughts on “Euro Café Culture”

  1. I’ve always been intrigued by the Belgian cafe connection where it is a home for the support club of a local (or adopted local) cyclist and may sponsor a team.

  2. It seems to me that an obsession with coffee, and indeed all the peripheral elements of the cycling ‘lifestyle’, is much more common in cycling’s New World, since we come into things with a more romantic attachment to the sport, whereas in the heartlands these things are a well-established part of the culture and therefore less noteworthy.

  3. It is certainly true that French cycling clubs in general ignore the cafe on their rides. In a ten year period of regular club riding in France, my local club only stopped for coffee once – and then there were complaints about the cost, and being late home for the 12.00 lunch !
    I suspect you are correct when you say it is a cultural thing.

  4. My experience from living Stateside for a few years is that outside of Europe, the ideas about what is ‘European’ are quite different from European reality. Often some elements are picked out and put in a different context to make something completely new. Cycling Cafe culture is a prime example of that.

    The cycling club I’m with has its own ‘clubhouse’ that sells coffee and beer It’s run by volunteers so it can sell at low prices and that’s where people have a drink after the sunday morning rides or Tuesday evening training. This is actually quite common for sports clubs in The Netherlands, not limited to cycling.

  5. Don’t start me about Australia and there idea of “Euro” or “Pro”. It usually is about looks,sock height, bib length, coffee stops. It is a strange concept for many Europeans, especially wearing stockings labeled as “socks” for riding. I know Aussies that try to be very euro and go for a “long” ride of 120km where the accumulated time sitting in coffee shops is up to 90min. “Yeah, mate we smashed it yesterday. Did about 5hrs, stopped for brew at X,Y and Z. How about my sock height,ay? Racing tomorrow? Naah, mate there is a hill in there and it’s more than 40km. That’s too hard.” Have to listened to something like this every week!!! I’m euro by birth and it drives me crazy ;-). Things are different in Tasmania though ;-).

  6. I have been riding in Spain for nigh on 10 years – on our Saturday club runs there is always a bar/café stop half way through to wallop down a big baguette sandwich, wash it down with wine/beer/coca-cola and then round it off with a coffee. It’s an essential part of the club run as it gives people the chance to chat/catch up/discuss club business that is difficult to do on the move. Being ‘Euro’ or ‘Pro’ is the last thing on anyone’s mind – coffees are ordered at the last minute and woofed down often when you are at the bar paying. I don’t think my club mates would even begin to understand the fetishisation of coffee that goes on in cycling circles in the English speaking world. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing – just pointing out that this romanticised notion of European cycling does not neccessarily exist in a lot of Europe.

  7. Here in Vlaanderen I often train with a bunch of guys where one half of the group are a bit anal about getting home by 12 midday, which, depending on the distance of the ride, means starting at a time I associate with milking cows! The other half of the group are quite happy to end up at one of our homes where we sit in the garden and down cola’s, have a good chat, and then split for our respective rides home! I usually then ride to the centre of our city, Sint Niklaas, and have a coffee at a cafe which sponsors a local club and connect with some of those riders! There have been days when I will be walking past those cafes in the late afternoon, as I live a few hundred meters away, and see one or two bikes still outside! And it’s not coffee they’ve been drinking for the past 3 or 4 hours!

  8. I quite enjoy doing the group ride – I don’t think all Aussie riders are as obsessed with being Euro as Paolo would have you believe but I do think our group hang out at the coffee shop for about ten minutes longer than I would like.

    • No, not all Aussies of course ;-). There are some tough riders down here. I also enjoy my saturday morning bunch ride and a coffee at the end. I did a ride with junior road worlds silver medalist Caleb Ewan last year and while most of the bunch stopped in a valley for coffee and food, he rode up the next 6km climb, turned around on top,came back down when we were just finishing our coffees and rode up the climb with the group again.

      • My group ride leaves at 8 on a Sunday so I try and get in a couple of hours prior; at least that way when I sit down for my coffee I feel like I’ve done something.

        I’ve been to the Convent bakery in Abbotsford on a Sunday morning and I reckon quite a few of the “cylists” there that are tucking into a big breakfast have only done a lap or two of yarra blvd to ‘earn’ that feed.

  9. While there may be a certain element of pseudo-Euro cool associated with the post-ride coffee stop, it’s basically an opportunity to relax and chew the fat about the state of the world – a healthier alternative to going to the pub.

  10. Nice article! I have only been to France once, but spent a good amount of time in rural areas as well as some time in Paris and my observations matched the ones made here. Sometimes it seems that the only place in a town is its cafe and sometimes cafe/convenience store. The cafe of that type does not really exist in the States; a bar may serve coffee (but that’s not why you go there and they probably don’t open til late) and a coffee shop basically never sells alcoholic anything (and you certainly can’t get “tabac” at either- at least not where I have lived). I saw a good amount of plastic chairs, variable quality food, horse racing on TV, but never any cyclists. Plenty of them at my local Starbucks on a weekend morning, though.

  11. It’s an interesting discussion and it’s probably worth pointing out that one of the influencers may be the time at which people ride. With comments about being home by 12 and riding at a time associated with ‘milking cows’, and having had friends cycle in Europe, I think Euro riding takes place later than in Aus for example. We start rides at 5:30am and often much earlier. I for one don’t have time to have much if any breakfast, nor tea/coffee beforehand. Thus finishing the ride with a coffee/toast etc is like finishing with breakfast. Generally we’d try to be home well before midday because if not we’re baked and fried in the hot weather! Having said that, I agree that the opportunity to sit and chat over coffee post ride is very attractive!

  12. My old club in Wash/DC/USA area often would start and finish the Sunday team ride at a very supportive cafe… It was great for the pre-ride espresso boost and the warming shots and cakes post. Of course, our team was an homage to Fausto Coppi… thus the Euro fascination applies. 🙂

  13. I don’t think Yorkshire can be part of Europe. My local club always has a cafe stop, but for mugs of tea and bacon rolls. No expressos in sight in Royston!

  14. I am more a MTB rider/racer, and 90% of our sunday rides feature a favourite coffeé or rural pub refreshment. We take a lunch and chat a bit. During the offseason we even do a few beers 🙂

    • Gobsmacked! I live and ride/race in Belgium and have never seen anyone absorb a trappist in the middle of a ride! Of course you have those we call ‘wieler-tourist’ (bike tourist), basically guys who know all the etiquette and technique of road racing, do a decent amount of km’s, but at a steady pace, and these guys will sometimes talk about looking forward to a post-ride beer! Serious racers, though, would look at you like you are not worth your bike if you mentioned a beer during a training ride!

      There is an 100km event in August, Fiets Dodentocht (Bike Death Journey), which features a block of 35-40km of serious climbs, and usually attracts about 7000 entrants! Great fun! 15km from the end you ride through, yeah, through the Palm Brewery! Some do stop for a heady beer or two, then sway the last 15km to the finish where they can hang out all afternoon celebrating the event with more beers! Did the beer stop in the brewery once! Then hammered the last 15km in the big ring, not really feeling anything!

      • I was out on a tough spin a few weeks back, and during a coffee stop, one of the fitter guys downed a beer. Then he passed me on the next hill. Not a bother on him.

        I’ve seen some of old timers stopping during some of the more headlong Flemish sportifs, and have a beer outside one of the official ‘rest stops’. Didn’t *actually* see anyone having a beer during the Sean Kelly Classic in the Ardennes (different route, but same climbs as Liege Bastogne Liege) but I reckon that if they did, it might have come up again on one of the next climbs.

        • Reminds me of a story about an Italian who won Milan San Remo more than fifty yrs ago, dropping the rest of the field more than 20km before the finish line! When asked about his attack he told of how his mom would make a terrific egg-nog which his brother gave to him as he passed him at the foot of the Cipressa! He says he felt a surge of energy and like Superman he flew the rest of the way!

  15. I love the coffee stop. On our team ride we usually stop about 5 miles from the finish to chew over life, cycling, jobs and more cycling! When it is below freezing it takes a lot of willpower to leave the comfort of the shop..

  16. I think Italy rivals anywhere else in the bar/caffe category. First, Italians invented ESPRESSO and they have plenty of cyclists, where are they currently on the numbers of pros in the top tiers? Per capita it’s gotta be way up there. I lived in Sicily last year (leaving again for the same place next month) where the local ride started around 2 PM at a place called Bar Sun. This is in Siracusa, home of the Paolo Tiralongo fans club. Rides begin and end at this place and sometimes there were a hundred riders there. The bar is the perfect place – caffe, snacks, toilet facilities, etc. Lot’s of them in Italy are run by ex-racers and you can often get the “When Cipollini was a junior I used to kick his a__” from the guy making your caffe. An espresso (or popsicle on hot days) stop is a ritual we observe on our tours and plenty of times we’re met by local cyclists doing the same thing. These folks (like us) are rarely hardcore racers, but most often guys who just love to ride!

  17. A rugby point rather than cycling but David Campese has (or had) a combined cafe and rugby shop in Sydney. Did feel surreal having coffee served to you by the great man.

  18. Can I be pedantic and point out that that CT article was more about the fall of one cafe in Melbourne due to new ownership?
    And as for an obsession with ‘Euro cool’, I think cafes are integrated enough into Aussie cycling that it’s more about ‘Aussie cool’ than anything. 120km ride? Great; sounds good to me. Cafe stops? Fine with me, whatever, who cares? If you’re upset with how someone else spends their time when enjoying their cycling, perhaps the obsession is yours. Tassie complex much, Paolo?

  19. On holiday in Tuscany in September, I visited Volterra as tourist. Paid E3.00 for an espresso and E2.00 for a small bottle of water at a cafe in the main square.

    The following day I returned to the same cafe, on my bike, in cycling gear. Espresso was now E1.20 and water was E1.00. I didn’t uestion it but assumed it was a cyclists’ rate.

  20. and BTW, no premium on seats at the cafe’s in the Piazza del Campo in Siena, the one where the Palio takes place. About E3.00 for a coffee.

Comments are closed.