As with every other professional sport, cyclists also need assistance sometimes. The question arises, though, how much outside help is considered acceptable and when normal aid becomes cheating. The ‘sticky bottle’ trick seems to lay perfectly somewhere in between.
The sticky bottle is an exhausted cyclist’s best friend. When the rider finds himself dropped from the peloton, the team manager speeds up the car to get alongside them. As soon as the rider is within reach, the manager hands them a water bottle from the open window. And now comes the fated moment…
While the handover is in process, both sides ‘stick’ to the bottle tightly so the rider can gain some extra push from the car’s momentum. The trick is called a sticky bottle because both persons’ hands look completely glued to the bottle.
Obviously, the practice is nothing unknown to the judges. Should the handoff take place for a little bit longer than acceptable, a quick toot of the horn from the race organisers warns riders to take the bottle and put their hands back on the handlebars.
If the assistance exceeds an unwritten limit that might be up to two seconds, the rider can be punished. The penalties vary significantly from light pecuniary fines to disqualification from the race, which makes the entire matter confusing for both the riders and race commissaires. UCI sets the initial fine for a car tow as low as 30 CHF. For a prolonged tow, it is 50 CHF. For riders earning six-figure salaries and teams with multi-million budgets, these penalties represent but a toothless threat.
On the other hand, the sanctions for similar behaviour might grow remarkably serious. For example, Romain Bardet was disqualified from the Paris-Nice race in 2017 after he got caught on camera while being towed by the team’s car. The most infamous case took place in 2015 when Italian Vincenzo Nibali was expelled from the Vuelta after holding onto a car during the race. Watching the video from the incident, it’s easy to realize that in Nibali’s case, the sticky bottle took unprecedentedly long, which gave him an undisputable margin against the rest of the peloton. Nibali looked like he had been propelled by a rocket engine, leaving all the riders behind by a distance the judges could not miss. You can check it yourself on the footage of the event.
Sometimes, riders draft off their team car or hold onto it while retrieving food or receiving medical attention. Another controversy might occur when the serviceman in a team car provides maintenance to the rider’s bike while pulling him alongside the vehicle. All these examples are ways to bend the rules without breaking them. Unless the rider gains a visible advantage over other racers before a sprint or a similar deciding event, these tricks are likely to remain part of the game.