I came across this bottle of Chilean ‘Bicycle’ wine in a local shop last week, and picked it up out of curiosity since I was surprised, given the forensic scrutiny to which the sport is currently subject with regard to doping, to learn that the Tour de France has an ‘Official Wine’. In some respects this should not be surprising as the Tour has pioneered the commercialisation of sport, and as Robert Penn observes of the first velodrome racers of the late 19th and early 20th century, ‘Cyclists were the highest earners in sport: in fact, modern professional sports marketing effectively began with them’ (Penn 2011: 159). Moreover, alcohol has a close relationship with cycle racing as it has long been common for riders to use alcohol as a performance-enhancing drink, as well as an anaesthetic to help them endure the pain and cold of multi-stage races. For example, the classic documentaries La Course en Tete (Santoni, 1974), Stars and Water Carriers (Leth, 1974) and Vive le Tour (Malle 1962) all include sequences in which thirsty riders raid cafés during the race, stuffing their jerseys with bottles of champagne, wine, beer, or, as former racer Jean Bobet chuckles on the voiceover commentary to Louis Malle’s film, ‘Even water, if there’s nothing better’.

This ritual is no doubt partly a matter of machismo, as road racing is traditionally an exceptionally macho sport, and partly a matter of national cultural traditions (best epitomised by the sequence in Santoni’s film in which Belgian racer Eddy Merckx is shown sharing a glass of red wine with his infant child at the dinner table). However it is also testament to the intimate historical relationship between cycle racing and alcohol (along with other drugs and stimulants ranging from cocaine through to strychnine), an inter-relationship that was behind British rider Tom Simpson’s fatal heart attack near the summit of a baking Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour, his death brought on by a combination of amphetamines, alcohol and dehydration.

It has become increasingly evident over the past couple of years that systematic drug-taking is endemic across international sport, but in this respect too, cycle racing appears to have been at the forefront since,  from the beginning of the sport, the combined pressures of professionalisation and impossibly tough races, have invited athletes and their coaches to experiment with substances that will enable the riders to cope. As Jacques Anquetil, winner of five Tours, observed in a column he wrote for the periodical France Dimanche after his retirement, ‘If you want to accuse me of having doped, it’s not difficult. All you have to do is look at my thighs and my buttocks – they’re veritable pin cushions. You have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who races 235 days a year in all weathers can keep going without stimulants’ (Howard 2011: 240-241)

The fact that it is not French but Chilean wine – albeit from a  vineyard whose name makes punning reference to the wine expert as well as to the dedicated sports fan – is initially surprising, but on second thoughts, it is entirely appropriate given the global nature of contemporary commercial sport.

‘À votre santé!’



Paul Howard (2011) Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape: The Remarkable Life of Jacques Anquetil (Edinburgh and London: Mainstream Publishing)

Robert Penn (2011) It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels (London: Penguin)