As if the hard-working soigneurs of the peloton don’t do enough already.
Their long shifts begin hours before a race starts, and end well into the evening. From prepping food bags, to massaging the legs of the peloton’s thoroughbreds, and organizing equipment and gear, they’re the multi-tasking tool every team needs.
Now they have another job: Garbage collector.
Or, perhaps even worse, bidon target.
Under a series of new rules introduced this month, cycling’s “litter zones” are firmly part of the race day landscape. Cycling wants to do rein in loose bottles as well as live up to its reputation as a “green” sport.
As a result, riders are no longer allowed to chuck their water bottles wherever they like — or toss them to fans — instead, they must ditch their trash and water bottles in designated areas, or risk fines, time penalties, and disqualification.
So what happens when the peloton roars into one of these “green zones?”
A barrage of wrappers, gel packages, aluminum foil, bags, and a wave of bottles is heaved out from the peloton. Race organizers are charged with monitoring and cleaning up these areas.
Also read: UCI updates water bottle rules
Rules also state that riders can ditch water bottles with team cars or when they spot a staffer from any team alongside the road at any point of the race.
So pity the poor soigneur who is passing up bottles or a mechanic holding a spare wheel. They’re quickly discovering that they are becoming bidon targets.
One sport director said every time riders see a team staffer, the peloton starts hucking their bottles in their general direction so they won’t get a penalty. Teams are now handing out plastic garbage bags to “swannies” so they can help pick up the refuse.
Welcome to the world of the unintended consequences of the UCI’s new safety and racing rules introduced in April.
It’s been about a month since the UCI rolled out its new safety and littering rules designed to spruce up the sport and make a very dangerous sport a bit safer.
It’s obviously taking the peloton a bit of time to change old habits.
Michael Schär was booted from the Tour of Flanders for the sin of tossing a water bottle to fans. The UCI backpedaled a bit following an uproar among riders and fans alike, but tossing bottles is still banned.
Also read: Michael Schär penalty too harsh?
Collecting bidons is akin to catching foul balls at a Major League Baseball game. Just like young fans bring their glove to Wrigley Field on the off chance of a catching a foul ball, kids (and adults) line the roads across Europe each summer eagerly hunting out and collecting for water bottles from the top pros.
So what’s happening since the ban?
Fans quickly realized that the best — and perhaps only — place to snag water bottles is in these defined “green zones.” So in the middle of a world pandemic, fans are crowding in around these designated zones and fighting over the errant bottle.
Bidon hunting (and yes, it's in a green zone) pic.twitter.com/5JPqJVjnAT
— the Inner Ring (@inrng) April 28, 2021
Sure, if fans are wearing face masks and they’re outdoors, the chance of infection is small to almost zero, but still. And with water bottles flying around between staffers from different teams handling them, again, far from ideal when everyone is trying to protect cycling’s “COVID-19 bubble.”
As one team manager said, for every problem the sport tries to solve, a new one is created.
Or, as ex-pro Chris Horner might say, it’s the “Butterfly Effect” playing out across the peloton.
There’s another wrinkle. With the stricter rules, riders are moving back and forth before the peloton twice — once to ferry up bottles, and a second time to bring back the empty ones. One sport director asked, what happens when it’s 90 degrees?
Riders inside the bunch are noticing something else.
After watching riders get the boot for tossing bottles, one WorldTour pro explained how some racers changed habits. Instead of using a long, overhand toss to clear the bottle from bunch, some are trying to ditch bottles on the sly right in the middle of the pack so they cannot be spotted by TV cameras or the commissaires.
That’s resulting in more bottles clanging around peloton, creating a potentially new safety hazard for the very problem the sport is trying to solve.
So what’s behind the UCI’s recent obsession with litter, trash, and water bottles?
Part of it is image. For a sport that tries to market itself as a clean sport, it’s not a good look to see hundreds of cyclists tossing plastic bottles and wrappers across the beautiful rural landscapes of Europe and beyond.
No one wants to see pro athletes littering. Problem solved.
Safety is another key issue. Water bottles bouncing around the peloton or kids chasing bottles onto the race course is dangerous, and the new rules correctly try to lower the risk.
Errant water bottles in the bunch can be very dangerous. Just ask Geraint Thomas, who crashed out of last year’s Giro d’Italia after a water bottle bounced out of a cage during a bumpy neutral start in stage 3.
Another motivation? Money.
No, not recycling fees organizers might see if they haul all the trash to the dump. Instead, it’s the public money local and regional governments spend to underwrite race budgets across Europe.
Organizers might make a lion’s share of their revenue from TV rights, VIP zones, publicity caravans, and advertising sponsors, but an important portion comes from the cities, towns, counties and provinces that pay millions of euros each summer to host stages or the big opening weekends.
And more and more of these local governments are promoting “green” issues, and more green political parties are winning elected offices across Europe.
Cycling’s major race organizers are very sensitive to these political undercurrents, and reject any suggestion that cycling is anything less than “green,” despite the amount of garbage the publicity caravan might produce or how much CO2 emissions might be pumped out by the dozens and dozens of race vehicles, team buses, and mechanic’s trucks in the race caravan.
What the sport doesn’t want is some local politician to start a bandwagon suggesting that professional cycling is not “green” enough, and does not warrant public money.
That’s one unintended consequence the sport is hoping to avoid.
— Ben Atkins (@benatkins_uk) April 25, 2021
And then there’s the “super tuck.”
In the never-ending quest for speed and efficiency, riders discovered the “super tuck” position of hunching down on the top tube in the past decade. Most accounts peg Matej Mohorič as one of the first to use it during a race when he deployed it during the U23 worlds in Florence in 2013, though some raced in variations of it over the years.
Chris Froome pushed it into the mainstream during the 2016 Tour de France when he pedaled while descending in the “super tuck” to win stage 8 in Bagnères-de-Luchon in the Pyrénées.
After that, just about everyone in the bunch started to use it.
Now it’s banned.
Why? No one is quite sure.
As far as anyone can tell, there is no documented record of an elite WorldTour pro crashing while in the “super tuck” position.
The rational is that it creates a potentially unstable riding position as well as sets a bad example for young riders. Anyone’s who’s tried it realizes it takes a bit getting used to, and it’s not something that most weekend warriors or developing riders should even try.
Old habits are hard to break.
Richard Carapaz was disqualified from Liège-Bastogne-Liège for slipping into the barred tuck for a few fleeting moments, but the TV images captured his mishap, and the jury DQ’d him after the race.
Race juries ejected or disqualified riders from other races for safety infractions of taking hands off the handlebars and slipping into a TT-like position with elbows on the top of the bars.
Like in track cycling, officials want racers to keep their hands on the handlebars.
Yet when you talk to riders inside the peloton, they all tell you the same thing — the real safety problem in elite pro cycling isn’t riders using the “super tuck” or tossing bottles to fans.
Instead, they offer a laundry list of much more dangerous risks, ranging from bollards and parked cars left on the road course, to dangerous descents and unmarked traffic furniture. Don’t even get them started on TV motorcycles or dangerous finales.
Fabio Jakobsen nearly died last year, not only because a rider barged him into the fences, but because those fences collapsed, and he struck the finish line post at high speed.
Riders say their complaints have long fallen on deaf ears.
Riders created a breakaway union last year aptly called “The Riders Union,” and more than 200 WorldTour pros have signed on.
Talk about unintended consequences.