The Waste of a Race

Paris Nice Green Zone

Time for some trash talk. There are many efforts to clean up cycling these days but here’s a more obvious example: stop riders littering the countryside they ride through.

Trials have been done in several races and now the UCI is getting on board for Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.

Bottles often get snapped up by spectators but there’s a trail of energy bar and gel wrappers left behind after a race. Let’s not exaggerate, it’s not like there’s litter every ten metres but given the metallic packaging is easy to spot you can almost track the route of the race thanks to the debris left behind.

Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico will both have a “Green Zone”, a space before the 20km to go sign where riders can thrown away bottles and wrappers. Here the mess can gathered in one place and swept up. It’s been used before, notably in Paris-Nice in 2011. But what’s new is that the UCI is getting on board and instructing commissaires to fine riders throwing away things once they’ve passed the 20km to go sign.

This is a good idea but I can’t help thinking the sport still has a long way to go. After all if scattering litter attracts a fine after 20km, what about the rest of the race? It’s should not be acceptable to drop waste all over the countryside, the sport should clean up its act. Riders and teams can be fined for a “sticky bidon” but leave sticky packaging in the countryside and the sport shrugs.

Now it’s hard work fetching waterbottles so it’s impossible to imagine riders tasked with taking the empties back to the team car, riders can just target people by the road and some teams have biodegradable models. But packaging for bars and gels should go back in the pockets and any littering at any point should get a fine. Some riders do this privately as a personal gesture and some teams like French squad Sojasun have extra pockets on the side of the jersey designed to stock sticky stuff. But note when a race passes by there’s no litter patrol after to collect the debris.

oman bike rental scheme muscat mutrah
The red jersey goes green in Oman

Cycling is good for the environment but a bike race often is not. You only have to see the number of vehicles present to get this but on a wider level sometimes the sport is used to sell transport. For example the Tour de Langkawi on at the moment is linked to healthy efforts in Malaysia to get people cycling and the Tour of Oman was used to help publicise an urban bike rental scheme in the capital city Muscat. So if a race isn’t green it can promote better ideas. It’s not impossible to ban team cars but it’s a big change, the sport can adopt simple ideas.

A race can leave a trail of litter behind and the sport is beginning to clean up its act. After trial efforts things are becoming official with special zones and fines, a welcome move.

But this should be a cultural matter rather than regulatory, the 20km sign and a Swiss Franc fine shouldn’t be needed. Maybe the sport should be going further to fine all riders who drop litter at any time? This might be hard to police but it’s something all riders should think about. It’s not “pro” to degrade the landscapes that make the sport so special.

53 thoughts on “The Waste of a Race”

  1. Yes, I’ve stopped to collect empty packets along my local climbs and have wondered whether these were dropped intentionally in an attempt to appear “Pro” or just due to an inability to put them back and keep them pocketed for the duration.

  2. A fine and noble intention, but I feel that regulation is the right way to go. Why? Because it avoids the ‘thick end of the wedge’ element, who could hijack the debate when a race passes through their neighbourhood. You can easily imagine residents kicking up a fuss about names painted on the road, for example. If the ‘green efforts’ are set out in black and white, rather than up for debate, then people would be less able to campaign in a way that could be negative publicity for the race and the sport.

    However, I agree that the regulations could and should be tighter than they appear to be now.

  3. Amen to this. It’s dreadful watching pro cycling on TV and seeing them litter plastic all over the place. No way does it all get cleaned up, and even if it did, it sets an awful example. It’s just a terrible, *terrible* look for cycling, and it needs to be made unacceptable and costly! The wider sports cycling scene also needs to get this message. The trail of plastic left behind in the countryside after sportives is a disgrace. Stop!

    That said, I will throw banana skins into the hedgerows or fields. Technically this is littering and people do get fined for it, but I’m not sure I can agree. 🙂

    • RE: sportives, 1000% agree.

      Granted, i haven’t ridden many in recent years however from the ones i have, i dont remember a single one where the organisers have made any sort of issue of this.

      I can understand (not advocate) pro’s doing it, as they’re in a bunch moving 40kmph+, so theres a safety element to it all, however why lone sportive riders feel the need to discard rubbish in the bushes is beyond me.

      At least banana skins degrade…..

      • Banana skins can take quite a while to degrade.
        Up to two years depending on the conditions.

        Plus a banana skin isn’t part of the natural environment for most cyclists, I guess.
        I haven’t seen many banana trees in Northern Europe!

        So just bin it!

        Ride hard and leave no trace.

  4. There should be fines for the entirety of the race. It’s a disgrace, even here in our local races. Not hard to stuff trash back in your pocket. It’s not like pro’s have spare tubes, phones and keys in their jersey pockets. There’s room for a few wrappers.

  5. It seems like a no-brainer to stop littering, but changing habits is hard. I suspect the younger riders already do this, and it’s the “veterans” that might be challenged with any changes. The younger riders can provide good examples to spread the practice. Interesting topic, thanks.

  6. Didn’t they tell riders to pocket their rubbish in the 2011 Dauphiné? I remember seeing replays of Wiggins in yellow doing just this to show a good example.

  7. I don`t care who ignorantly drops it Litter is Garbage or rather its Garbage to litter.I like the catch nets at the junctions of Dutch roads,simple but effective

  8. This topic is very intense in offroad cycling. Most of the race organisers (In Europe) are forced to guarantee a cleaning patrol after the race.
    I am surprised that in Pro road level it is left unsolved, given the fact there are ridiculous rules to almost everything eg. socks heights 🙂

  9. I’ve done sportives and seen people throw away empty bidons. I don’t know what they’re trying to achieve or who they’re trying to impress, but it looks as bad in teh lfesh as it does on tv.

  10. Good topic.

    Agree to the principle that the cultural change will be more rewarding than any fines or target zones but the actual catalist is the fines and zones, highlighting the change in thought required.

    Extra pocket in jersey is a good idea but how difficult is it to stuff a wrapper up the leg of your shorts? Thats what I do, much easier and safer even when pedalling.

    In fairness to the WT teams, I dont imagine they all use the same over the counter stuff we all use, so many teams have chefs make stuff up for them bespoke and wrap it in greaseproof paper or the likes.

  11. Another top notch post. I like that the small, but important issues are aired by Inrng.
    Have to agree with most posters that the rule should be for the whole course. There really is no excuse for this televised trash trail. Instant disqualification should resolve the problem rather quickly !
    Would be nice to hear a view on race radios, the issue seems to have gone rather quiet.

  12. I wouldn’t mind seeing bio-degradable wrappers on energy bars and gels, though I’ve often wondered just how that would be possible considering a wrapper is supposed to keep the elements out, not succumb to them. Still, a worthy challenge since even if wrappers are collected, they still end up in a landfill.

    • Err, Clark, I think that’s the point of landfill – it’s a hole in the ground. If you put things in it which aren’t biodegradable, then you’re only hiding them from view.

  13. Simple, really…anyone caught littering should be warned once, and if caught again during the season, should be kicked out of the race they’re currently in. No reason for littering other than laziness.

  14. But Phil and Paul (well mainly Phil) keep telling me that riders only drop bottles near people, and only drop litter the other side of the feed zone and someone DOES come along after races and clean it up.

    They said it, so it MUST be true!

  15. Not that I’m defending current practices of riders, but how does any other sporting event compare to a road race? F1 racing comes to mind as one of the worst offenders for the environment. Golf is brutal on the environment – regulation-exempt pesticdes and the inordinate amount of water required to feed the beast.

    Comparing to the worst offenders should not be an excuse for thinking a little greener, though. There is only one Mur d’Huy – we mess that up, and it’s over.

  16. Isn’t it time to stop using the cheap foil packages that spill goo all over riders’ fingers and grip tape, not to mention turn the jersey pocket in to a sticky bin and use something more like toothpaste tubes instead? Ok ther’s a lot of business interest in sports nutrition because it’s ridiculously profitable, but couldn’t they use tubes that are practical to manage whilst riding and less likely to end up on the road deliberately or accidentally?

  17. I have a couple of ideas.

    Whichever teams team car has had the most used empty bidons returned and left in it by the end of the race – this team is given an extra point.

    Gels should have the teams name on so that they are traceable back to the dirtiest teams.

    • Or we could add a streetsweeper to the end of the convoy.

      These are great ideas though. I use a reuseable squeeze pack for gels- no mess, no litter. Surely thats not too hard for them?

      • The trouble with a streetsweeper is that the foil wrappers are tiny and hard to find (especially if you have to clean 200km of road – you’re bound to miss a few!) and they blow away in the wind. The wrappers are made of plastics which are very persistent in the environment and cause no end of ecological damage.

        People do seem to copy the pros and throw their wrappers away. I was shocked to see someone throw an energy gel wrapper away in the middle of a forest during a half marathon running race recently. This was new to me (as is people eating during a race that is only an hour and half long anyway).

        There’s no excuse for littering. It should be banned immediately – with fines and disqualifications as punishment. It’s a seriously bad look for cycling.

  18. Not related to the pros exactly, but since we’re talking cycling and being ‘green’, C02 cartridges used for tyre (tire) inflation are shockers. Use, then toss away. They cannot be reused (as far as I can tell) and most are tossed in the bin after use. About as un-green as you can get. Give me a mini-pump and a couple of hundred good pump strokes and I’m away. And I’ve just given my measly, wiry cycling arms a bit of a workout. All foodstuffs used in a race should be wrapped in a biodegradable substrate (ideally the wrappers should be pocketed).

  19. Such rules should apply to all parties, not just riders. Have a look at the actions of the driver of the Katusha team car at 1:34:30 in the link below. It’s from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this past weekend.

    Would there have been any reasonable inconvenience to him had he simply put the energy bar back in the car after his soon to be victorious rider rejected it? An appalling display of laziness and disrespect.

  20. Was horrified last year riding my local canyon to see gel packets everywhere.

    But it wasn’t cyclists. It was runners in a marathon.

    Same problem in different sports.

    • That is pretty crappy with the runners, but with marathons, it seems as though the waste is more concentrated near the water zones and they don’t have pockets on their kit, so it seems a little worse for the riders.
      Plus, with the bottles/bidons that get tossed, I wonder how often the bottles end up becoming an road hazard if they aren’t thrown far enough. at least the paper cups in marathons aren’t as likely to trip up a runner. (I noticed during the tv coverage of TdF Stage 7, and they were dumping bottles in the canyons before the first major climb where there were no people watching the race, and they were lauding the magnificent historic castle along the stage route)
      What is the bottle costs for these teams, and is this (the costs being passed along the reason that bottles end up costing at least $5-20 each.

  21. at least it’s a beginning,
    you know two weeks ago at the office my college took a coffee from the machine and I asked him why he didn’t opted for a stone mug instead of a plastic cup. He simply answerred he don’t like stone mugs and the plastic debris doesn’t interest him neather. This was the first time I couldn’t argue against him because I knew this case was lost.
    In short when you see other bikers throw away their debris try to talk with them.

    regards pat

  22. I certainly feel less aero with an empty gel in my rear jersey pocket.. 😉

    If you forced pro-riders to use a litter area these would instantly catch on in Sportives as amateurs go to laughable lengths to ape the professional peloton and any kind of technical ‘zone’ hits the right note!

    On a serious note, banana skins are a lethal skidding hazard, have you not played Mario Kart?

  23. Aren’t there anti-littering laws in most countries ?
    Perhaps if the police or local authorities were to enforce these and actually fine a few of these pro riders who dump their rubbish over the countryside…

    A few years ago, a rider in front of me in a UK sportive casually lobbed an empty bottle into a field at the side of the road – this is in a National Park, an area of outstanding scenic beauty, hence why the sportive was there in the first place !
    I saw him at the next foodstop and felt like confronting him, but one look at his face and I decided it would be a waste of time, he didn’t look the type who would listen.
    However I got his number and found his picture on the event photographer’s website, outed him on a cycling forum
    He read it and wasn’t pleased, but hopefully he’s learned…

  24. If I remember correctly riders are not allowed to take on any food from the cars in the last 15 kilometers, so there should not be to much in the riders pockets anyway. Thinking of a Belgian race, I would be less concerned about the riders – but the spectators. They wait like for ever, eat almost as much as the rider and what about the wrappings? Last year in Liege/Luik (TDF prologue) the waste bins in the city were on severe over load.

    For myself I found the perfect solution:
    Simply take out and place back the empty wrappers. 😉


    Dr. Ko

  25. As a 50+ (soon to be 55+!) cyclist, I cringe when I see other cyclists (er…pro wannabes) trying to emulate the peleton by discarding trash on the roadside. Absolutely “minable,” as they say. Over time I hope that racers/cyclists of all ages and abilities will cease littering, and, as the young riders float to the upper echelons of the sport, they carry that ethos with them.

  26. Surely if they can reach behind to get the packet out of their pocket, they can just as easily put the lighter empty back in? Think a lot of clubs are now encouraging their kids to do this. Hopefully the next generations coming through will be doing this as their culture

  27. Hear hear!

    One of the biggest mass rides in Spain is the Quebrantahuesos which passes over into France, crosses the Marie Blanque and comes back into Spain.

    The mess left at the feedzone at the top of MB is quite appalling. That’s riders getting off their bikes, feeding, and just dropping litter wherever.

    I hope they’ve cleaned up their act since the last time I rode it as its an area of outstanding natural beauty.

  28. I come from a sailing background and their are similar issues. About 5 years ago officials trialled implementing scoring penalties, and this certainly cleaned it up.

    5 seconds for every bar wrapper would probably work.

  29. I would LOVE to see a comparison of the carbon footprint of major sports around the world. Despite the littering by racers, I wonder where cycling ranks? I’m thinking pretty low, since I don’t think fans move around en masse for too many races, the TdF aside. Maybe short trips, but you don’t have thousands of fans traveling all over to support a team on a weekly basis. I cringed when I saw that the Univ. of Notre Dame was playing their opening football game in Ireland this year. Ugh, flying 100 players, plus all the coaches to Ireland for one game?! Then all the fans following behind? Horrible for the environment.

    A good effort though!

    I do have to say though that in terms of eco-friendly, I don’t think many folks who follow PRO cycling are that cuddly. Most people I know who are serious cyclists use their bicycles only to race & train, driving a car the rest of the time. I’d loved to see more avid cyclists also be commuters.

    • Ron,

      There are major races where people drive a significant distance to see the event and there are several thousand attendees that get there by auto at probably more than half of the stages. Then especially in the tour and other events there is the pre-race advertising caravan that drives several thousand miles during the race, the infrastructure of the race, the tv/press caravan, helicopters cars and motorcycles for coverage, the police to keep the course open, the trucking of the gates and material along the race course and finish lines, then there’s the team cars and buses driving more than the length of the course each race, and driving from stage to stage/race to race.

  30. And this is yet another reason for the rest of us to homebrew gels if you use them. Get a reuseable bottle, buy some brown rice syrup, and you’ll never have to shove sticky wrappers in your nice kit ever again. Oh, and you’ll save money for chains & tyres, plus reduce your waste output.

  31. Cannot all of u shut up and let the cycling be as it is today. Think of all those fans out there that think that a waterbottle og feedbag would been soo cool to find along the roadside, but i agree about what you guys say about all those gel packets and foil wrappers. 🙂

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