Losing the bottle – are we sucking the fun out of cycling?

As we set rules meaning no more bottles for fans, no supertuck, no hugs at the finish line, are we starting to chip away at cycling’s human appeal?

Following UCI rules that have come into force for the 2021 season, both Letizia Borghesi and Michael Schaer were disqualified from the Tour of Flanders for dropping bottles outside of the designated litter-zones. 

With their new regulations on the disposal of wrappers and waste, the UCI has good intentions: it hopes to clean up cycling’s green credentials, with many big races having faced scrutiny recently over their environmental impact.

It’s true, riders need to become responsible and aware of the impact their waste has on the areas that they’re racing through. But should bidons be classed as ‘litter’, in the same category as gel wrappers or pieces of tinfoil? To many fans, they are important momentos that can have a lasting impact.

Related – Absolutely Tucked

As a twelve year old, I scoured the Tour of Britain team buses with my friends, trying to get a glimpse inside the life of professional bike riders. When we were watching the race, if one of us was given a water bottle, be it from a rider as they cooled down or if they threw it to the side of the road in passing, it was special. Out of those five friends I was with that day, three of us went on to try and pursue careers in professional cycling.

Of course, this wasn’t solely due to being given a bottle from our favourite riders, but those moments have stuck with me to this day and they inspired me as I grew up. In which other sport can we get so close to our idols and interact with them on a personal level? I looked up to many of the riders I watched that day and to come home with a bidon, with my own little piece of the race, it only confirmed my love for the sport.

Many professional riders have shared a similar sentiment on their social media following the strict enforcement of the rules at De Ronde. Alex Dowsett explained how, when he gave a bottle to a young fan, it led to a connection with a Haemophilia charity. Micheal Schaer wrote that when he was a child watching the 1997 Tour de France, he was given a bottle from a pro. He used that bottle with pride everyday, and it served as a reminder of his dream.

The decision to take away these moments is a huge loss for cycling. 

It seems that in the creation of new regulations, the UCI isn’t considering the fan perspective. They’re forgetting the importance of making the sport appealing to spectators. Recently, due to the pandemic, they also have advised riders against hugging at the finish line when celebrating (despite all riders being covid tested, in the same bubble, and racing shoulder to shoulder for hours before.)

The raw emotion that comes out of riders when they secure a big win can often be as enthralling as the race itself. Cycling is an arduous and cruel sport, which makes the victories even sweeter.

When Kasper Asgreen took the victory at the Tour of Flanders, seeing him thank his teammates and witness the euphoria of his team staff who had played their part in a Monument win, gave the race win meaning. 

That feeling, be it the delight of winning or the disappointment of losing, gives a glimpse of the human side of the sport and an insight into the people behind the glasses and helmets. If  we want to see automated branded robots riding in procession to determine who has the highest power output, we could stick to watching Zwift races. Riders should be able to show that sentiment, without fear of repercussions or punishment.

The UCI needs to give more credit to the public, we don’t watch cycling because we always want to do the same thing as the professionals. Everyone is well aware of the global pandemic: just because riders hug after races, it doesn’t mean that fans will do it because they have seen cyclists do it on TV.

Similarly, the UCI recently decided to ban the supertuck position, to discourage amateur cyclists from copying. But just because we have watched a rider do it in the Tour de France, it doesn’t mean we’re going to try and replicate it on a Sunday club ride. We watch riders race on the wrong side of the road, but we don’t try to copy that at home.

Isn’t one of the main reasons we watch races to admire the superhuman nature of professional cyclists? We know that we can’t do what they do – that’s what makes it so captivating. The skill required to descend at such speeds sitting on the top tube is part of what makes professional cyclists, well... professionals. Watching Nibali finesse corners and expertly pick lines down mountain passes is breathtaking and inspiring, but far from tempting.

It goes without saying that rider safety is extremely important and that protecting the environment should be everyone’s paramount concern. And of course, taking the necessary steps to socially distance during a pandemic is imperative, but the UCI needs to be careful with these constant, blanket regulations. 

We’re in danger of sucking the life out of our sport. Human emotion, stories and inspirational talent are a big part of what makes cycling fascinating. Keeping the interest of fans should also be on the list of priorities.

Cover image: Christopher Lanaway/SWpix.com

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