Dr Hutch column: How to solve pro cycling's litter problem

The Doc searches for a solution to pro racing’s litter problem that gives the fans the momentos they crave without turning wildlife into wired life

Dr Hutch
(Image credit: Getty)

One of cycling’s most venerable traditions is littering. There are those that say the way bottles, wrappers, rain jackets, hats, musettes,  and unwanted luncheon items spray out of a racing peloton, inspired the US Air  Force to fire missile-decoy flares in all directions from AC-130 gunships. And you have to say there might be something in that. It’s almost unheard of for a  racing cyclist to be brought down by an insurgent surface-to-air missile. 

Pro racers aren’t the only litter distributors, I’d have to say. In happier times the London-Cambridge ride goes through my village, leaving a trail of gel wrappers behind it. I and the rest of the village have to spend the next fortnight fighting off the resulting plague of over-caffeinated hedgehogs. 

The UCI has decided that 2021 is the year they enforce a stricter littering code  – riders are now allowed to throw rubbish only in designated zones, where the UCI wombles collect and recycle it. 

But we have a problem. In a sort of instant version of archaeology, one person’s litter is another person’s valuable treasure. When Michael Schär of AG2R Citroën lobbed a bottle in the direction of some spectators at the Tour of Flanders, he found himself disqualified for littering. 

Cycling fans love bottles. Kids and adults gather up the dented and scuffed items, bear them home and proudly display them. As fur starts to grow in that authentic inch of energy drink left at the bottom, they invite friends round to see them, and the friends (at least the non-cycling ones) have hushed conversations about whether the time has come for some sort of intervention. 

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So the question is whether, as claimed by many, littering is a meaningless concept, since the fans pick everything up? When Schär was DQ’d, several riders posted photos or videos of children rapturously receiving bottles from riders,  and it would be a shame to see that stop.  Not even the UCI wants to stamp out happiness in children. 

But even in non-Covid times, very few races are lined with fans – go and watch a  domestic under-23 race, or a junior event.  Or kilometres 50 though 100 of any stage of the UAE Tour. A bottle chucked there will stay where it lands.  

And a lot of litter isn’t collectable. Even excitable children don’t usually want to make a collection of empty gel wrappers just because they’ve been sucked by an obscure domestique for a  Pro-Continental team no one has ever heard of. 

Another issue is that using spectators to gather up litter suffers from the same problem as using a colander to bail a  boat. They might take the riders’ rubbish,  but they’ll leave their own. I once rode down Alp d’Huez the morning after a Tour stage. There wasn’t a bottle to be seen, but otherwise the debris field looked like Glastonbury Festival on the Monday morning. 

If we’re so confident that spectators will clear everything up, one possibility is that we could just let riders do what they like, and disqualify retrospectively any teams whose litter is still there the following morning? 

This would seem to have the potential to satisfy everyone. But I’d worry that  devious, black-hearted children would  appeal for bottles from teams or riders  they don’t support, probably for reasons  of French nationalism, (“Monsieur Geraint, s’il vous plait, ici, ici!”), then plant them in the ditches. 

The only other option I can think of is that anyone who wants a bottle is to go and spectate at litter zones, where they can count on an absolute hail of bottles.  Some will even be full at that point. And if there’s one thing that will impress your friends more than getting a bottle, surely it’s being knocked out cold by one and waking up covered in energy drink. And, depending on how long you were out for, some fur. 

Cycling fans with a nose for souvenirs like to make good use of the drinks that they find.

How to…be a cyclist’s cat

If you’re a cat lucky enough to live with a cyclist, there are a number of things you can do to help them.

The first is to remember that cat hair is not known as “nature’s Teflon lubricant” for nothing. Make sure to leave a thick coating of cat hair on all moving parts of a bike, especially the chain. Don’t worry if you get unsightly black marks on your fur, you can rub them off later, preferably against a nice white surface.

But a warning – do not be tempted to apply hair to a chain while your owner is riding the bike on an indoor trainer, even if the sweating and swearing suggests they need all the help they can get. Cats and indoor trainers mix very badly.

Cyclists love nothing more than a single bit of cat litter dropped into a cycling shoe. The more difficult this was for you to achieve, the more delighted your owner will be when it rolls out of the insole and starts to drill a hole in their toe halfway through a race.

Cycling clothing is an excellent place to sleep – it’s warm and comfortable, and it’s especially good at retaining yet more cat hair. Your owner will appreciate this when they turn up to a club run, and any of their rivals with cat allergies are reduced to snivelling uselessness.

Acts of cycling stupidity

If I tell you that Cycling Weekly’s news and features editor, Vern Pitt, keeps his energy drink in a very similar container to his washing powder, your long experience of this particular box’s format should enable you to see the direction this story is going. However, undeterred by a surprisingly floral smell, or by the fact that when he shook the bottle to dissolve the powder it was “unusually foamy”, he made up some “drink” and headed out for a ride.

When the time came for a drink, all of his previous observations snapped into focus. The generous swig foamed up beautifully into the most disgusting shock to the system you could imagine. But, looking on the bright side, no one can accuse him of not riding clean.

This column originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.

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