Bottles Aren’t Sticky

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?

61 thoughts on “Bottles Aren’t Sticky”

  1. I suppose the difference (between holding onto a car) and hence the term is due to the fact that picking up a bottle from the caravan is legal (within proscribed rules); the question is how long one holds onto it, and if the car accelerates, slinging the rider or not.

    In other words, a sticky bottle is a euphemism, but the act is subject to degree and interpretation. The only way to get rid of the act, is to ban feeding from the caravan.

    • I think if you really want to lessen the towing aspect of a sticky bottle, you could do it without banning feeds from the caravan; you just need to make it illegal for the DS to pass the bottle off in the pushing position, i.e. flip the hand positions of pass and grab. Maybe too subtle, but it’d work.

      Generally though, I don’t have a problem with sticky bottles.

  2. Having taken a tumble off my bike yesterday, hands and arms road rashed and feeling like a truck has ridden over me (which luckily didn’t happen), I must say that I have every sympathy now with a rider getting back in the race via a sticky bottle.
    Hardest game in the world !

  3. And cycling wonders why they struggle to attract big brand sponsors. We might get the subtleties but the public just sees cheating. Is there a difference between a towe and a bloodbag to the uninitiated? Both get cyclists back in the game.

    If the sport wants to go mainstream in what’s essentially an age of mass surveillance it’s going to have to truly play by the rules.

  4. The bottle also serves as a bit of an intensity gauge. If liquid is shooting out the top, it deforms, the top blows off, the acceleration is a bit much.

    It’s absurd, but so is racing up mountains for three weeks.

  5. Can riders give eachother a sling like in the madison event on the track? I’ve seen it happen a few times, usually in a last ditch effort to get up to the lead group or echelon.

      • I seem to remember Cav being quite open about receiving a hand sling from Kwiatkowski, thus making it into the first echelon and eventually winning stage 13 of the 2013 Tour. Does this mean commissaires cannot act on statements from involved parties, they have to see it for themselves (or footage, as for Nibaligate)?

        • I remember that too. But commissaires are not there to review every TV interview, tweet or youtube clip, their work is usually done for the day once the race is over. If a team reports it to them they might well act though.

      • It is common practice, however, if you are on a climb and you can no longer hold the wheel of the guy in front of you, to slingshot the person behind you just before you bonk so that they can stay on the wheel of the next person. This is considered good manners as losing the wheel and forcing people behind you to disengage from the group is frowned upon. Many a time in post stage interviews riders complain that such and such person lost the wheel and messed up their stage.

  6. I think its dismissed because its 5 seconds of a 20,000 second race. It’s like when a tennis player takes 5 seconds extra in between points than he/she is allowed. The chair could give a warning or assess a point penalty, but they don’t yet, tennis writers don’t go on about cheating. We as cycling fans are too sensitive and insecure about our sport.

    • “…tennis writers don’t go on about cheating.”

      They’d go on about it for at least a while if Andy Murray had just been kicked out of the French Open. It’s topical and pretty huge, whatever you think.

  7. I think it’s fine to hold on to the bottle when it’s just a matter of maintaining balance/matching the speed of the car in order to stock up. The problem only really comes when it becomes a form of propulsion.

    Although it’s quite hard to word something like that in black and white, the two cases almost always can be told apart by whether the rider has come back to the car in order to get some sustenance, or whether it’s happening after they’ve been dropped/had a mechanical. As such I kind of think it should be left up to the jury – but that they should be encouraged to crack down on people abusing it.

  8. There’s an additional problem around visibility. Sure, the commisaires could ban every riders caught doing this on camera, but what about the ones not on camera? Which is why we have the acceptable blind eye, as long as you don’t take the mick. Seems to work ok for me.

  9. It’s one which does not require paralysis by analysis, yes Nib’s took the biscuit big time the other day but who would begrudge a rider cut to ribbons taking a slightly sticky one from the car. Let’s not have a rule for everything and everything having a rule. it might be chess on wheels but it’s NOT chess on wheels.

    • I largely agree with your sentiment thatcycling should “not have a rule for everything and everything having a rule”, yet at times it can definitely be difficult for the pro riders in the peloton to know where they stand. On ITVs highlights show last night (30th) David Millar was saying how many of the unwritten rules of the peloton have grown up because the UCI rules are so complex and idiosyncratic (eg. Sagan’s fine for reacting angrily when knocked off by a race motorbike), that the riders have to come up with a code of their own to make the races function even where it infringes the official rules.
      The upshot probably is fewer better defined rules, taking into account the traditions of the sport, would probably be better for riders and fans alike!

  10. Surely the logic comes from riders going to the team car to collect water. The effort required to drop back and collect a good few kilos of water and then riding back mitigates any advantage of a few seconds of assistance. Obviously this can be abused and here by lies the problem with so many cycling rule…..give people an inch and they’ll take a mile.

  11. Sport is full of subjective refereeing judgements and people push their luck in all manner of ways. I don’t think that’s a cycling problem – football has the art of fouling as well as relentless gamesmanship.

    “Gamesmanship” was coined in 1947 by the excellent Stephen Potter but it’s probably as old as organised sport.

    • Quite so, and “gamesmanship” is part of sport (and here I include cheating without getting caught, which is the epitome of “pushing the rules to their limit”). That’s the reason why I defend absolute zero tolerance. Competitors try to take advantage anywhere they can, and it’s the referee’s job not to let them and to deter them.

  12. Am I the only one, who actually think these things are okay, and to a certain point should be applauded? Yes, Nibali was wrong, but a sling to the guy behind you to get up in the Group in front in his slipstream, a sticky bottle, drifting, or magic spanner to get back in the peloton after crashes, punctures and so om. I think this is things a skillfull cyclist should do, and is some og the charm in cycling. But hey, thats Me.. ?

    • Agreed.
      (The fact that I endured another tortuous night with weeping sores and a sore back has nothing to do with this though).
      Long live the sticky bottle !

    • They can check it but this is more about how we and they label it, as long as they write it up as “stick bottle / X Swiss Francs” we’re dancing around the subject rather than talking straight.

      • But doesn’t it go beyond the label? The rules are reasonably clear, but how they are enforced or interpreted is subjective, regardless of what they are called, assuming they are seen to begin with.

        Each commassaire has their own view on every subject, which can vary day to day, depending upon what side of the bed they got up on, circumstance, and what other crap that rider or team has pulled previously.

        Despite this, my experience has been that the Comms try to strike a balance between what is in the rules versus what is not, yet will be tolerated, based upon what is a competitive advantage, what is an equal opportunity, and what is egregious. Things are rarely black or white in a gray world.

  13. Any rider can have a bad day, or a bad moment, on the bike such that a few seconds of push or pull from a bottle, energy gel, or spanner might take the edge off a bit. Unless it really changes the outcome of the race, it should be tolerated regardless of the rules on the books. At least its a lot tamer these days than in the old days, when someone would disappear from the course and then suddenly reappear about a Km from the line, or when someone in a time trial would be pushed along by the downdraft of a helicopter.

    • Love the Moser reference . I think some of this is the charm of cycling. If you were fair dinkum you would have a commissair for each car , that way no rule could be bent , Nibali went too far of course . I was crying with laughter when I saw that one ! I didn’t find riders skirting train barriers at Paris Roubaix so funny as that did change the outcome of a race.

  14. And the sticky bottle is an art onto itself. About five years ago in a race in China, a local rider who was attempting this maneuver ended up falling off his bike, rolling under the car and being run over–all of which was caught on video and ingloriously posted to Youtube (I’m too lazy to find it and link it here).

    • @ Joe K.
      In a non-racing situation, I once tried to hang on to a friends car (experienced cyclist himself) and almost wiped out. The pros make it all look so easy, but it’s much more difficult than it looks.

      My take on sticky bottles is that it’s OK if the “offender” gains no unfair advantage (such as Nibali). After a crash, or while carrying 10 bottles back to the peloton, a small tow has to be tolerated

      • The trick for beginners is not to have the hands on the brake hoods but more centrally placed on the bars so that if your arm wobbles it won’t turn the bars so much, same with picking up a musette too.

  15. “Yet when a plastic bottle is placed between the manager and the rider it’s tolerated.” This reminds me of stories friends that went to Catholic schools would tell about if a girl sat on a boys lap there had to be a phone book in between them! Funny!

  16. Leaving out those ‘sticky moments’ that occur behind the peloton, I’m often amazed/frustrated/annoyed by those in the break that near the end of a stage get constant support from the team vehicle.

    I assume that with the high temps the 20k rule hasn’t been in effect and so it’s meant that riders are taking bottles right up until at least the last 10k. In yesterday’s stage, Steve Cummings was seen to take one bottle but didn’t seem to get a sling at all. Two days ago Iljo Keisse received 6 bottles in about 3k and that’s just when the cameras where on him. Each time he seemed to get an advantage (his Madison skills coming in handy) and this was born out by the fact that he actually grew the gap to a charging peloton over that period. Once the Ettix team car had stopped handing out bottles, the gap dissipated within a couple of k’s.

    Often in WT races, the team car will still try to make a positive difference near the end of the race by coming up along side to have a ‘chat’ even though they’re miked up. All they’re actually doing is trying to protect them from the wind. All of this, in my view, is cheating as it’s an advantage you have that your competitors don’t.

    I’d like to see the neutral drinks bikes used, for at least the last 30k’s, where riders take the bottle from the back. It would work by simply having a rider call for a drink to the moto who’d go back to the team car, receive the bottles/food and relay them back to the rider who should be at the back of the break. On those days where there’s a large group in the break then the riders can go back behind the commissaries car and get them from the team car as even a bit of a sling only takes them back to the back of the bunch.

    • Would have to agree. Even the way us fans interpret the rules is subject to our own lens. I don’t have a problem with water carriers stuffing their jerseys at the back of the peloton and getting the odd sticky bottle.

      However, do feel uncomfortable at times when it happens to a breakaway and the guy at the back takes an obvious “sticky bottle”, or especially to the lone break, as you have mentioned above where it is pretty risible.

      other rules:
      Problem with your seat post – you stop at the side of the road
      Problem with your brakes – you stop at the side of the road
      Problem with your cleats – you stop at the side of the road
      In all my days on the road bike and indeed mountain bike, never had a problem with my seat post getting loose. Obviously these world class mechanics have never heard of a torque wrench…

      • I hate saying this (I’m knocking on wood now) but things will not really change until a mechanic falls out of the car or accidentally takes the cyclist out.

  17. I legitimately wonder if the sport would be better if no one ever got a sticky bottle or drafted a team car again. On one hand it might breed different tactics like whole teams falling back rather than one or two riders waiting at the back of the peloton, or even more collusion between teams in drafting riders. On the other hand it might just mean the strongest rider doesn’t win the race because of misfortune. I am conflicted, and with the state of the sport at the moment where sticky bottles are common, can only approve or disapprove case by case, which is no way to write rules.

  18. Personally, I’m more concerned by said sticky bottle ending up as roadside litter. Surely this would be an easier practice to eliminate. It’s a highly visible, unambiguous blight on the sport.

    • +2³⁰ on that.

      There’s no way spectators or cleaning up crews are getting all those bottles and wrappers, given many are ditched on motorways, thrown down ravines, etc. It sets an absolutely terrible example. I’d rather see riders disqualified for this than a sticky bottle after a mechanical or crash that wasn’t their fault.

      • The biodegradable bottles are not as eco-friendly as the claim -

        • That article is over 5 years old and refers to supermarket shopping bags, although it may still apply. I’m by no means an expert but given these bottles are advertised as being composable (whilst shopping bags are not) I would like to think they are more eco-friendly. Surely better than completely non-compostable.

          • @Lab Thing is, in a compost heap, with the high temperatures adn bacteria in it, I think he bootle would compose in a while, Just laying around beside the the street will slow down such process a lot. So to do a real test, just throw bottles somewhere into you garden and watch what happens.

          • That’s correct Vitus.
            It was a rather lazy link that I posted earlier, but the other articles I read did advise that the biodegradable plastic decomposes faster (several months) when cut up and in favourable composting conditions.
            A solid bottle left out in the environment will take years to break down, and there are no legal requirements to prevent some toxic substances in the bottle’s composition from being present to escape to the environment.

  19. What about the ever illusive motor in the frame of the bike, has any such bike ever been found? Or even manufactured outside the pro peloton

  20. What’s this bit in the regs specifically against ‘greasing of chains from a moving vehicle’ ?

    Hanging out of a car window and fiddling about with a spanner on someone’s bike sounds sufficiently crazy (to both mechanic and rider), let alone hanging further out to stick your hands near a chain…

    Or is the idea that the rider would have to be freewheeling in order for you to do this, without risk of losing fingers in the mech or spokes, so obviously you would have to be pushing them along ?

  21. The sticky bottle has extended into the sticky gel/energy bar, with plenty of them being thrown away in melodramatic disgust as the wrong type so the rider can swing back into car for another tow sorry gel.

    +1 for neutral service bottles only towards end of race. Though Majka will happily take a sling of a moto aerial with just a conspirational wink.

    When soccer send off every pathetic fake injury dive then we need to take sticky bottles more seriously…

    • Oh yeah. The gel throwing and get another one for 3-4 times is indeed a pathetic version of the sticky bottle.
      Voeckler is one of this guys, not easy to satisfy with every gel/bar they have in his team car.

  22. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with a few grey areas in sport – if someone takes the p**s then we’re often pretty much agreed that they’ve taken the p**s e.g. Nibali.

    Had to laugh at Vino’s comments about the fact that fair play has now finally disappeared from cycling. Vino??!!

    In a way I can’t help but admire the man’s commitment to a reality entirely of his own making.

  23. It never fails to amaze me how much even a tiny momentary push from a fellow rider helps when you are struggling to keep the wheel ahead. A bit of help – as well as a bit of bad luck – clearly have disproportionate effects depending on context.
    It would be interesting to try an experiment where every physical interaction with the team car – sortig out a mechanical, picking up bottles – strictly required stopping by the roadside. Such an experiment might demonstrate the practical viability of banning all direct physical contact with cars in movement (indirect contact through drafting would still remain).

  24. Call it what you want, it is cheating. Proscribe it to being part of the sport… BS. Watching Stage 7 of the Vuelta, it was obvious when one of the breakaway riders benefitted from the olde sticky bottle push… Total garbage. Seriously, there is no place in the sport for this and the only way to eliminate the behaviour is to levy significant penalties… I really enjoy watching Nibali race… Am I okay with the decision to bounce his ass from the race? Dang right. Watch it from home, my friend.

    Separately, I don’t know if this kind of junk has any impact on the level of interest in pro cycling… Even for those of us who greatly enjoy it, it is a pain in the rear to follow. Universal Sports, NBC Sports, BEIN Sports, sheesh, just finding the broadcasts is a pain. And, forget cyclocross (the most accessible of the disciplines), you gotta pay for CrossVegas and the UCI has yet to figure out that you won’t grow viewership without getting it on TV… And, if you question my logic, call Rocky Wirtz. Once my Blackhawks were back on TV, sales of Hawks gear have blossomed…

    Apologize for ranting, just p’o’d that my Vuelta coverage is not in High Def (clearly a 1st world issue – but, then again, endurance sports are typically the province of those who have some cash to burn…)

  25. I sympathize with the idea of using a sticky bottle to get back into a race after an unlucky crash, but there should be an explicit rule to help lessen the effect of crashes on race results i.e. stop the race after a large crash and record the rider positions at the time of the crash and then resume the race with those positions (something in the spirit of the final 3km crash rule).
    Regarding mechanical issues, I have no sympathy. My car produces 100+ times the wattage of a pro cyclist, and my brakes/shifters/gears/tires/whatever do not break every 200km. We have bike weight minimums, so riders don’t have to use flimsy bike parts.

  26. Sticky Bottle, being helped by team cars after a mechanical etc. etc. Most breach the rules, all are cheating and almost all of them are observed by the public either roadside or on TV.

    If the reputation and recovery of the sport is to move forward, cheating in whatever form needs to be dealt with by the authorities. The same people who dragged the sport deep into its past problems, are those most active in encouraging this form of cheating. Turning a blind eye is no answer.

  27. It make part of the romance of the sport.

    All the controversy around it, only makes it even better…! I love the reactions and all the stories that goes along…!
    I believe it should be left as it is…!

      • +1 I think there’s got to be room for judgement here. Abuse of the rules or customs should be penalized, but a guy getting some help from the car because he’s carrying a load of bottles for the team or has been delayed by a crash shouldn’t fear being DQ’d as long as the transgression is not abusive. In Nibali’s case I’d say it was abusive and he was justly punished. “No harm (or advantage over rivals) no foul” should be the default judgement of the race jury and I believe in the vast majority of cases it is.

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