If you’ve been following this year’s Tour de France, you might’ve noticed each team’s domestiques grabbing bags from their soigneurs at the side of the road at certain points on a stage, then dishing out the contents to their teammates.
To get you up to speed with this unglamorous but vital component of bike racing, we’ll be covering:
- What Makes A Good Musette Bag?
- What’s In A Pro Cyclist’s Musette Bag?
- The Importance – And Danger – Of “Feed Zones”
- X Best Musette Bags For 2022
Ready for the lowdown on the humble musette bag?
Let’s dive in!
What Makes A Good Musette Bag?
Musette bags are typically simple canvas shoulder bags. They usually have one shoulder strap and no fastenings.
This design means they’re lightweight, easy for the cyclist to grab from the soigneur stood at the side of the road, and don’t have any fiddly zips or clasps for the riders to navigate while steaming along in the peloton.
Named for the French term for a farm horse’s nose bag – une musette – the humble canvas sack has been a staple of the Tour de France since the 1950s, when an increasing sense of professionalism within the peloton saw the custom of stopping at a roadside cafe for a meal fall out of favor.
What’s In A Pro Cyclist’s Musette Bag?
Refueling mid-race is absolutely essential for a pro cyclist.
Not only does a cyclist need to replenish their bidons to keep hydrated, they also need to ensure they keep their energy reserves up throughout the whole race. If a rider spends five or more hours in the saddle on a Tour de France stage, this means taking on food during the race.
Lucien Van Impe‘s horror show at Alpe d’Huez during the 1977 Tour is an infamous cautionary tale of the dangers of forgetting to refuel. At the foot of the climb, he was several minutes clear of his rivals and had one hand grasping the Tour de France title – but suddenly realized he’d forgotten to eat and “had nothing left in the tank”.
His rivals were taking chunks out his lead with each of the climb’s iconic hairpins. Van Impe was ultimately knocked off his bike by a support vehicle as it tried to clear out of the shrinking gap to the chasing pack – but by that point, his fate was already sealed.
And only last week, Tadej Pogačar similarly cracked on the punishing slopes of the Col du Granon, losing the yellow jersey in the process – and told reporters he blamed himself for failing to eat enough after the Col du Galibier climb earlier in the stage.
The fuel of choice for cyclists has evolved throughout the Tour’s history. Back in 1914, the snack of choice was reportedly Peruvian coca leaves soaked in port – which they (unsurprisingly) found possessed “extraordinary stimulating qualities”.
Another dubious feature of twentieth-century Tour musette bags was the infamous “atom bottle” passed up to the leaders as they approached the final kilometers. Each team had its own “special formula”, but it typically included industrial-strength espresso, some kind of booze – and allegedly a strong dose of amphetamines.
These days, musette bags filled with coca leaves and atom bottles are (hopefully) a thing of the past. A typical musette bag for a modern Tour de France will include:
- Water bottles (bidons)
- Isotonic energy drinks
- Energy bars/gels (often provided by a sponsor)
- Special requests – some cyclists have individual preferences, such as a can of Coke, sandwiches, or even painkillers if they’ve suffered a crash or are struggling with tendonitis.
Want to know more? Check out our Complete Guide To A Healthy Cycling Diet here!
The Importance – And Danger – Of “Feed Zones”
Soigneurs are only allowed to hand over musette bags to their riders in specific areas designated by Tour organizers: the “feed zones”.
At these spots, each team’s soigneurs will stand at the right of the road (handoffs from the left are forbidden at Le Tour) with musette bags hanging from an outstretched arm, ready for the riders to grab as they hurtle past.
There are several key factors in a smooth musette bag handoff.
Positioning on the road is vital. The soigneurs will often be up before sunrise to stake out the safest spot for the handoff: a wide, straight stretch of road with good visibility before and after the handover point is ideal.
During the handoff itself, the soigneur has to hold the musette bag at just the right height – the rider should be able to grab the bag at the widest point of the handle without stretching up or down.
Finally, the soigneur has to track the rider’s movement with their arm as they grab the musette bag. This makes the handoff smoother, reducing the chance of the rider being knocked off balance, and also reduces the amount that the musette bag swings once in the cyclist’s hand.
But even with practice and preparation between rider and soigneur, feed zones represent a major hazard.
As the peloton passes through, stray bottles falling from a hastily-grabbed musette bag scuttling across the road are a common sight. And with almost 200 riders trundling through, one misjudged swerve or lunge for a musette bag can be amplified as it ripples back through the field, causing carnage as the back of the pack comes through.
And while the wary cyclist can avoid the worst of the chaos in the feed zone itself by sticking to the left-hand side of the road, clumsily-discarded musette bags in the miles after feed zones can still represent a major hazard. Musettes have a particular knack for getting caught in a front wheel, sending the rider flying over the handlebars.