What Is A Bidon In Cycling?

Anyone who has watched or been to a Tour de France stage will have seen the cyclists casually throwing their water bottles to the roadside. These simple containers are collected by excited fans, as they instantly become collector’s items.

To the non-cyclist, these water bottles may not seem particularly interesting or regarded as rubbish. But, to the Tour de France fans, these water bottles are something that they will fight their own mothers for.

The water bottle in question is called a bidon, and even though its purpose is to simply carry water, the bidon has a rich history. It has gone through an evolution that makes it essential for cyclists and desirable to fans.

In this article, we will cover:

  • The Official Bidon Definition
  • The History Of The Bidon
  • Rules On Bidon Use In The Tour de France
  • Bidon Pollution

Are you ready to learn all about one of the main staples of cycling?

What Is A Bidon In Cycling

The Official Bidon Definition

Like most things in the cycling world, bidon is a French word. It comes from the old Norse word ‘bida,’ meaning container or vessel. French people also used the word bidon for belly or ‘a load of bull’.

The History Of The Bidon

A cyclist needs to stay hydrated. During a race, such as the Tour de France, cyclists need to take on about 6.7 liters of fluid every day.

In the early days of the Tour de France, riders carried leather satchels on their handlebars. These were loaded with glass bottles full of water. As you can imagine, this imbalanced weight upset the bikes’ handling somewhat, and if there was a crash, riders were left without water.

Just after World War One, cyclists began to carry bidons. They started out as aluminum bottles sealed with a cork. Their shape was very similar to the ones we use today.

Riders would carry two bidons next to each other in aluminum handlebar-mounted cages. These cages had spring-loaded levers that opened and closed them.

What Is A Bidon In Cycling 2

The rider would flick a lever to remove the bottle to have a drink on the move. Once they had had enough water, they would put the bidon back in the cage and flick the lever the other way to secure it.

Other than upsetting the bike’s weight, the issue with placing bidons on the handlebars was that it wasn’t very aerodynamic.

One of the best Tour de France riders, René Vietto, came up with an excellent solution. In 1939, Vietto mounted one bottle on his handlebars and another on the bike’s down tube.

His new bidon placement resulted in a lower center of gravity, improving his bike’s handling. It wasn’t long before other Tour de France riders adopted Vietto’s idea. By the late 1950s, all professional riders had followed suit.

In addition to this new way of mounting the bottles, the aluminum water bottles were replaced with squeezable plastic versions.

By the 1960s, riders stopped mounting their water bottles to the handlebars altogether. Instead, they continued with just the down tube mounting. Later on, people developed a better understanding of hydration in sport; therefore, many cyclists added a seat tube cage to carry more water.

What Is A Bidon In Cycling 3

Cyclists continue to use plastic bottles, as they have many more advantages compared to aluminum versions. Plastic bidons are less expensive to make and easy to wash. They are also easier to use, as you can squeeze the water into your mouth for faster hydration.

In 1986 the Coca-Cola water bottle became a familiar sight in the cycling world. This is because the company became the Tour de France’s official drinks supplier after it took over from the French brand Perrier.

These days cycling teams have their’s or their sponsor’s logos printed onto their bottles.

Rules On Bidon Use In The Tour de France

The Sticky Bidon

In 2011, bidon cycling strategies were shrouded in controversy. Not the actual drinking from them, but when soigneurs passed them to riders from the moving support car.

Riders were found to be holding onto the bottle while it was still in the soigneur’s hand, essentially giving them a little tow. Therefore the UCI had to review its rules on passing bidons from moving vehicles.

What Is A Bidon In Cycling 4

The Aero Bidon

The design hasn’t changed much since those early aluminum versions. Of course, they are now made from squeezy plastic but still a similar shape and size.

So, why don’t tour de France riders drink from more streamlined bottles? The reason is that since 2013, the UCI rules have prohibited the use of anything extra that will give riders an aerodynamic advantage.

The rule states:

“Any device added or blended into the structure, that is destined to decrease, or which has the effect of decreasing, resistance to air penetration or artificially to accelerate propulsion, such as a protective screen, fuselage form fairing or the like, shall be prohibited.”

The UCI added bidons to this rule, as they were increasingly becoming a way of improving performance through aerodynamics.

In 2011 Fränk Schleck took this concept a step further. He wore a Camelbak inflated with air to improve the aerodynamics of his body, rather than his bike, getting around the rule. But this was also understandably frowned upon.

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But does a bidon make that much of a difference when it comes to aerodynamics? Cycling teams spend a lot of money on reducing drag by carefully shaping the frame, handlebars, etc., all to be thwarted by a cheap bidon.

However, some people say that adding a bidon to your bike actually improves a bike’s aerodynamics. It can potentially divert the airflow around the rear wheel instead of into it.

Many people regard bidons as part of cycling and that they should be incorporated into the bike frame design. The gains are minimal and are unlikely to make a difference in who wins a race.

The UCI states:

there must be a space between the bottle and the tube to which it is attached.” 

The idea behind this rule is to ensure that frame designers don’t integrate a bidon into the frame.

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Bidon Pollution

Even though Tour de France fans clamber over each other to get their hero’s bidons, many are not found.

As riders raced through the picturesque French countryside and alpine landscapes, they would toss their bidons to the side of the road. Even though the rule book states that doing so is strictly forbidden.

The pollution doesn’t just come from bidons. Food wrappers and energy gel tubes are jettisoned from the peloton all the way around the Tour. This is made worse by the caravan that proceeds ahead of the peloton.

The caravan is a procession of vehicles loaded with snacks, keyrings, hats, and t-shirts. These are thrown from the vehicles to the crowds in towns the Tour passes through. You can still find these items in bushes and streams many weeks after the race is over.

In 2018 the UCI passed a rule that would disqualify any rider found throwing bottles where they shouldn’t. In fact, it wasn’t even a new rule, but one they decided to enforce.

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Strangely, this rule caused an uproar from some teams. Their argument was that riders throw their bidons for the fans because they love them so much.

For a cycling race such as the Tour de France, 9,000 bidons are produced and cast away. This equates to one metric ton of plastic just for one race. 

As we have already discussed, the discarded bidons are often picked up by eager fans. However, not all of them are found, even after the official cleanup crew passes through behind the racers.

Often, the bidons end up in bushes and rivers, so the cleanup team has no chance of finding all of them as they quickly pass through.

So maybe the original aluminum bidons were a better solution for hydrating Tour de France riders in the long term?

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Now You Know All About The Bidon

You may use the single or double bidon cycling strategy, but there is no doubt you own more than one. Hydration is an essential part of cycling, especially if you go on long rides or ride in warm weather.

Many cyclists fill their water bottles with other things than water. For example, they may mix in electrolytes or fill them with energy drinks.

If you want to try different drinks during your rides, you need to gradually introduce them to your body. If you go all-in with an energy drink for a long ride, you may get an upset stomach.

Therefore, start with small amounts on shorter rides to allow your stomach to get used to it.

If you have found this article interesting and want to read more about enhancing your cycling performance, you may check out the blogs below:

One of BikeTips' regular content creators, Tom lives in the French Alps. When he isn't writing, he can be found charging downhill on a mountain bike or snowboard. Tom's other passion is fitness, which goes a long way to help him make the most of the Alpine lifestyle.

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