Water, Water, Every Where

With the Tour de France racing through a heatwave, water’s more important than ever. It’s used both for drinking, cooling… and to help stop the road melting in some places.

Dehydration is a big issue in endurance sports but while there are sensors to monitor body temperature and blood sugar, nobody’s got one for body water content (yet). Yes everyone can use their brain but it’s not a reliable guide, if you feel thirsty it might be too late and in very hot conditions the senses fade, the body is not used to drinking litres of water every hour.

How much water depends on the rider, an 80kg rider will consume more than a 55kg rider, the temperature, effort and more. There are tools used by some teams where an algorithm can estimate the energy required for each stage given the course details, but the amount of water is harder. As much as possible. Riders are often weighed on returning to the team bus because weight loss during a stage is primarily water. Some can do sweat tests as well to try and measure the minerals lost, see a rider with dark kit after a long stage and you can spot the salt marks.

Getting water has been part of the Tour’s lore for over a century now. Once upon a time fountains would be besieged by riders each trying to get their bidon into the trough, like journalists do with microphones today in front of a rider. Some would scoop water out a ditch. Famously they’d raid bars along the way, seizing anything they could get their hands on, whether water, beer, wine or more. Apparently bar owners would love it as they’d be able to send the bar bill to Paris. How the riders coped with all of this isn’t obvious.

Today things are more measured. But handing up water to riders is a difficult task that costs precious energy. Teams can post staff along the route but that’s useful for feeding and passing up a bottle or two, perhaps with an energy bar or gel stuck to the bidon with an elastic band. But that’s insufficient for a hot day where each rider can drink 15 bidons in stage, or 12 litres. You couldn’t post enough staff and riders are prone to dropping bottles.

Service: instead someone must go back to the team car to collect as many bottles as they can. To do this a rider goes to the back of the bunch and then raises their hand, or holds up a bidon in the air. The race officials spot them and call their team car via race radio. The team car drives up through the convoy to get as close to the peloton as possible and the rider then drops back and starts to take on board as many bidons as they can. With more and more riders wearing skinsuits, aka race suits, it’s not so easy to put bidons into the “jersey”; you often can spot who is up for the race and who is the water carrier by their wardrobe choices at the start of a stage. Then the rider has to go back to the peloton weighed down by so many bottles. Try riding with a full bidon in each back pocket and you’ll notice it, ride with many more and it’s wobbly. Sometimes a rider will shout “service!” on their way back through the peloton, a polite and brief way to say “let me through, I’m doing my job and not trying to chop you off a wheel“.

Ice: Water isn’t just for drinking. Riders need it to cool down and so more bidons are required to spray the face, pour down the back of the neck and so on. The same riders who go back for water bottles also pick up ice. Here pantyhose is cut into sections, a handful of ice cubes put inside, and then both ends knotted and voila, an ice pack. It works and once the water has melted away the fabric left behind doesn’t weigh anything.

Moto fraicheur: The Tour de France has a moto fraicheur, a freshness motorbike where the back is loaded with bottles which riders can grab so they don’t have to shuttle back to the team car. In the heatwave right now it’s not enough so the Shimano neutral service is a travelling bar and stocked with water bottles so riders can get drinks, again without having to drop back to the team car. With the extreme heat some rules get relaxed. Riders can now often take water bottles until 10km to go when the rule is usually 20km. The UCI has partially relaxed littering rules, not that riders can sling waste anywhere but if a rider wants to lob a bidon to a fan then that’s ok now.

How many? If we work off 10 bidons a day per rider – less on colder days and TTs, more in a heatwave and for dousing – that’s 210 per rider in the Tour. Say 160 riders in the peloton and that’s 160 x 210 = 31,500 single use bottles. Although a good share of these get passed to roadside fans as a souvenir for the day.sc

Lost in translation: a bidon is the word used in French and one of those words that has been exported into universal cycling jargon. It really means a metal can, which is what bidons used to be for cyclists until plastics came along. As riders winch their way uphill, many a spectator will ask for a gourde rather than a bidon but the word might leave non-French speakers baffled… and the spectactor sans souvenir.

Hot takes: There was a mini-polemic last week when video footage of a Tour de France watertruck emerged, you could see the road surface being doused. This invited exaggerated talk of 10,000 litres being poured onto the road, a scandalous waste of a precious resource. Only these claims were overdone and, as mentioned in a stage preview here last week, the whole course is not watered. Instead this technique is reserved for a sketchy sections where the the tarmac can melt and maybe 250 litres at a time is used. ASO’s André Bancala, nicknamed Monsieur Route (“Mr Road”) has explains that watering the tarmac is just enough to bring the temperature down to stop it liquefying, the crucial temperature he fears is 60°C and watering can help bring it down to 50°C. Timing matters, not too far ahead of the race so that the road heats up again, not too close so that the road is still wet by the time the riders arrive. Bancala’s been doing it for 25 years and equipped with an infrared thermometer says the average road temperature has increased by 1.6-17°C over time.

Specialised tarmac: ideally there shouldn’t be a truck. Watering the road is unusual but seems down to the way French roads melt in summer. Riding the today’s route yesterday you could see black patches of tar blistering and bubbling in the morning sunshine, it was like going over bubblewrap with the pop-pop-pop of the tar bubbles under the tires. That’s ok but by the afternoon other parts of the road were beginning to liquefy. It’s tar not oil, so it’s grippy and not slippery. It creates a thick, viscous mess. Imagine coming around a corner to find someone’s spread tubular glue or treacle on the road, ride into it and it grabs at the tires; alone you can go around it, in a peloton someone risk planting their front wheel in it. It’s not unique to France but it is widespread in a way that roads don’t melt in other countries. A recon ride of the Tour route in Switzerland during the June heatwave and the tar was pristine; riding the Tokyo Olympic course in August and the roads were fine too; but in the Pyrenees yesterday it was melting as usual. Roads don’t seem to melt in other countries, it’s odd as it’s a false economy, a road made with such soft tar surely needs to be repaired more often?

On your eau-n: for the amateur cyclist without a team car, what to do? Cemeteries often have running water so that visitors can water flowers. The website eau-cyclisme is great for France as you can note fountains and other sources of water for a ride. As a rule if you see a chance to get water on a hot day, take it rather than waiting for the next opportunity, even if it’s just a top-up. Because often the next fountain has run dry, the store in the next village is closed for the holidays and so on. Pouring a bidon over your head can be lavish but if you stop at a fountain, dunk your helmet and, if you wear gloves, stick your hands in the water.

37 thoughts on “Water, Water, Every Where”

  1. Several years ago some teams were using sleeveless tops or waistcoats with multiple pockets designed for carrying what seemed eight or more bidons. The idea seems to have been dropped. Why? too uncomfortable, too hot, hard to dispose of within the rules…

  2. I went out with my club in France about 15 years ago when it was 35 degrees in the shade. Took two cans but did not hydrate enough before setting off and ended up with nothing in my cans with 20km to go. The guys tried to help me out as much as they could, but eventually I got dropped.

    On my own in searing heat, I stopped in a village and asked a guy for water. He directed me to his cellar where there was a tap. I doused myself, then filled my cans and took a long drink which I was unable to keep down. I had got past the point of no return.

    I’ll never know how I got through the last 10 km, but I made it home somehow, and lay down. Took another drink which again I was unable to keep down, but eventually stabilised.

    A hard lesson learned.

  3. Spanish roads seem to be smooth and fine in all weather.
    Nova Scotian roads don’t melt but get ridiculously potholed after just a couple years from the frost.
    Irish country roads melt in the annual “heatwave” at least in Mayo.

  4. I wanted to also comment about rider hydration.

    I assume their nutrition is so tightly managed that neutral service etc can’t provide them electrolytes in the bottles, and it is only water – is that correct?

    If so, that means there is a danger of electrolyte concentration dilution from the volume of water consumed, I wonder if that is ever a concern or how teams deal with that.

  5. we get melting tar in NZ too. including in very moderate temperature areas that never see anything below 5C or above 30C. i think the common thread is the false economy of using cheap materials.

    some places it is necessary though as where it gets very cold in winter the roads can crack if a hard tar is used eg pyrenees mountains

    • Still a mystery – I know a lot of high mountain road which can go to both extremes of heat and cold and they’re not melting in summer. And not only about cheaper materials, either, because they’re being used here in Spain and still don’t melt, they just get worn out way faster. I knew the owner of a leading tarmac business which put the blame on majors who, according to this person, asked for a tarmac which lasted less about as long as the election cycle. New tarmac apparently generates an instant boost in polls, especially when it’s very much needed (not rational at all, yeah…). Plus, when you know that you’re going to lose elections when they’re closing in, say that couple of months before, when you’d otherwise lay new tarmac, you just *don’t*, so your rival party starts with sketchy roads and has forced spending, often on little cash left available… Fun world. Tarmac which lasts say 20 years, but probably even as few as 6-7, just diesn’t make sense for a lot of stakeholders (including those producing tarmac and those laying it, who all lobby on majors about the subject, by the way).

      …They deserve full cycling hate!!! ^_____^
      (Given that in a world of constant crisis we’re actually left too often with poor tarmac, unlike what a long term perspective would offer)

      • I could talk with some people doing the road here in France. The big problem is money, the roads are paid by municipalities and some small and rather poor villages may have to pay for a lot of roads. So they choose the cheap way (less than 3 times the price of very good quality tarmac used on big roads when the Tour arrives, for example) ; the good tarmac would put the finances on the red. This not very good tarmac contains a lot of glue, which goes to the surface when it’s hot. To avoid this they put a lot of gravillons (little rocks) on the road few months later to really cover the glue, which makes very dangerous roads for cyclists and motorcyclists (they are supposed to swipe it four months later, after it’s been run over by cars, but apparently it’s not always done by the company).
        All this is for small roads, départementales and smaller ; for the nationales I think it’s state or region who pays for it. But in rural departments with a lot of small roads, mayors do what they can ( and wait five years to have more money to make a good tarmac is very complicated : you don’t know if you will still be here in 5 years and maybe the money will be used for others things or emergencies, and more importantly money are given by State in France according to what you spend : so if you spend less you will have less money from the State…)

  6. There was a good anecdote on The Cycling Podcast from Ian Boswell about the frustration of being a domestique, fighting through the peloton for your team leader and handing them a couple of bidons – only for them to dump them over their heads with 90% going on the floor. And then having to go back to get them a drink.

  7. Over 30,000 bidons used in the race and “a good share” of these get passed to fans. ‘Good’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. That’s bad.

    • Why on earth are they single-use? Surely at least some could be passed back to the cars/motos, and it can’t be that hard to sterilize them for re-use.

        • True, and it’s good that they’ll be reused by someone, but if the race itself could reuse them then they’d need far fewer bottles overall. I think that’s the gist of the ‘heavy lifting’ comment above (and I agree it’s surprising that there’s not some way for the race to address this)

  8. I’m curious how the drivetrains react to the water dripping all over them from the riders constantly spraying themselves. No more cables, but the chains must need some protection. Just a random thought I’ve had while watching the riders douse themselves

      • True, and that is also mentioned in the blog post. I believe the researcher (Alan McCubbin) will address other minerals in an upcoming podcast (the Long Munch).
        I’ve just spend 5 hours on a treadmill (twice) to test hypothesis about sodium replacement, as it has not been studied much. Will be interesting to see the outcome of the study.

  9. By the way, I absolutely love it when you pull out vintage race photos to illustrate these posts. Thank you for finding and presenting them.

    • That seems an obvious marginal gain, particularly on flatter stages where they don’t have to worry about carrying the additional weight uphill.
      I always use larger bottles (~800ml) and have a bigger one still that comes out on warmer days. Unless you have a tiny frame, why would you not do this?

  10. Tights ( or pantyhose if you insist , bas collants i suppose in TDF) seem to be a multi use item. National Hunt jockeys ( male) wear them for warmth under their breeches, because they don’t add weight. A wine maker I knew used to strain vinegar through a ( new) pair, and I seem to remember that mending a broken fan belt with tights or stockings was a regular feature in derring do stories. My father certainly used to carry some in his repair kit!

  11. 《 Bidonville 》is french for a shanty town.

    Presumably the tanked fuel or water of colonial expeditions made a good source of sheet material once opened up and flattened out. Those on such explorations would see the locals taking such ‘rubbish’ as prized building material and pejoratively used the term. It’s stuck.

  12. Inrng – interesting piece. To your point about roads melting – our roads don’t. We don’t have the same constant heat as France, but we we don’t have the same amount of tar being spread across the road as France.

    I wonder why the road crews follow that method… seems pretty dangerous for all users too.

    • There are polymer resins that can be added to tarmac to prevent frost cracking and melting under heat.
      No doubts that it will be an expensive option and one probably reserved for major roads and those with heavy use.
      Given that the Tour’s route is quite often on rural and / or minor roads, it probably is too expensive for the local authority to treat them.
      A douse of water is much cheaper.
      Tbh, I don’t think that the Tour can complain too much about its road surfaces, many are freshly re-laid prior to the race and all gratis out of the public purse presumably.

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