Puking and pedalling – a tale of alcohol & cycling

Alcohol and cycling advert, perfect matchThe habit of cycling is almost impossible to break, until that it is, it comes to one of my other great habits: alcohol. You don’t need me to tell you cycling and alcohol do not mix. If your brain, girlfriend or local policeman do not tell you, then your body certainly will. It’s no coincidence that as I’ve wet my whistle with festive cheer, my cycling (and blog writing) have dried up.

Riding drunk

Hello, my name is Human Cyclist and it shames me to say it, but yes, I’ve cycled drunk on one or two occasions in my more youthful, brainless years. Why? Because I’m an idiot. So please hear this confession and don’t ban me for life or stick me on the Oprah Show. Let me repent pro cyclist style and become an evangelist for sober cycling. Illuminating book available in all good bookshops soon!

Riding ‘off the wagon’, as you might call it, or ‘pissed’ to put it quite simply, comes with many a warped mind trick. Lactate becomes something only other people suffer. You feel nothing but greatness, such is the power of alcohol to isolate your brain and deceive you. You are a superhero. Of course, you’re not actually riding faster, it’s just that everything else has become so slow.

Not only is pain numbed but your senses suffer too. You are a danger to yourself and others. Imagine cycling whilst wearing somebody else’s prescription glasses. Add to that five pairs of gloves on your hands whilst inside your head a movie is playing, the one where you win the Tour de France, again.

Alcohol limits and cycling

Warm beer. I'll just pretend to drink in case it's urine
Warm beer. I’ll just pretend to drink in case it’s urine
How much is too much? Cycling whilst drunk is illegal in the UK. Well sort of. Laws concerning cycling and drinking are about as clear as a chocolate liqueur. It seems you cannot be charged with drunk cycling. There’s ‘riding whilst unfit’, a charge many of us would plead guilty to each and every winter. Alternatively, there is ‘drunk in charge of a carriage’, for which you actually have to be caught pushing (rather than riding) the bike whilst high on the hops. The term ‘push bikes’ now makes sense.

Interestingly there is no alcoholic limit when cycling and you cannot be breathalysed. It’s a question of whether you’re under the influence of booze and if you’re fit to ride (or push!) your bike. Oh and don’t forget the consequences too. Death. Serious injury. Broken bike. Or a fine of up to £1,000 or up to a month in prison (turbo trainer not supplied).

“I don’t have a drinking problem ‘cept when I can’t get a drink.”
Tom Waits

Riding with a hangover

I am really, really enjoying this
I am really, really enjoying this
If God gave us Saturday nights to enjoy ourselves then maybe it was the devil that cursed the cyclist with Sunday morning rides. We’ve all been there. The battle begins with a desperate search for the strength to leave whatever it is you maybe lying on. Bed, sofa, floor, park bench, random person whose name you can’t quite remember.

Should you do the impossible and beat your malaise, then you’ll need to remember what coordination is as you wrestle with your stretchy cycling gear. Lycra and hangovers don’t mix. Dressing gowns. That’s the only suitable hangover attire I know. And last night’s clothes of course.

Rubbing cold chamois cream on your nether regions is questionable at the best of times let alone when it’s 50/50 whether you’re going to vomit all over your shiny carbon shoes. Dressed and unimpressed, next come the mental checks. Am I still drunk? How do you clip into these pedals again? Where am I going? Never do we ask the only question that matters. What the hell am I doing?

Eventually you make it out of the door, minus many an important item. Phone, drink, food. This is the self-sabotage of riding with a hangover. The brain knows you’re not fit to cycle and so has done all it can to bring you home as soon as possible.

Thick head, thick legs

Why we think cycling will help with our hangover I’m not so sure. You hear your mother’s voice as you slowly roll away, ‘A bit of fresh air, it’ll do you good’. Off you go, vowing not to commit the sin of junk miles after the mountain of junk food you ate the night before. Not that your legs are listening. Before long you’re cruising along the high street at nine-mph scanning the shops for the source of the fried chicken scent that seems to be drafting you.

Pushing on, you work your way up to a dizzying 70 rpm cadence. Sweat forms easy. Legs stiff and weak, two burnt out matchsticks. Your stomach grumbles its discontent. Depending on how rough you feel there’s one of two things that can happen. Sink or swim. Roll or ride. Puke or pedal.

Occasionally I will shake myself out of the torpor but only if another cyclist overtakes me and shows me who’s boss. My inner-chimp won’t allow such things, no matter how hungover I am. Roar! Alternatively, and much more common, I’ll perform an abrupt U-turn and roll home feeling worse than when I set off, my dressing gown still warm when I fall into it.

The booze blues

Tommy Simpson on his way to oblivion
Tommy Simpson on his way to oblivion
The physical impairment of alcohol I can handle, just. The mental side is another story. Lethargy. I am a sloth. Statues expend more energy than I. Paranoia. These tyres will never grip this road. Wow, that car passed close. What car? Depression. What is the point of this? Really? Ugh.I.Am.Never.Drinking.Again. Hair of the dog you say?

“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.” 
Charles Bukowski

The science bit

A little Google research tells you what you already know so I won’t don a white coat and go into lecture mode. Alcohol and exercise do not mix. They are not a cocktail for success. Dehydration, an inability to convert glucose into energy, toxic liver poisoning. What’s more, booze is laden with calories so it’s likely you’ll set off somewhat shy of your race weight, especially after soaking up the booze with that ill advised dog meat kebab.

Ethanol not electrolyte

My kind of race. To the bottom of the glass.
My kind of race. To the bottom of the glass.
It is inconceivable to think pro cyclists once drank all sorts of booze back in those black and white helmet free days. Riders were drinking during the Tour de France right up until the 1960s. They only stopped when a law was introduced banning stimulants. Not that this stopped all of them. When one time world champion Tommy Simpson collapsed and died on Mount Ventoux, he was reportedly found with brandy in his blood (amongst other things).

Back then, riders often turned to the booze to numb themselves to the arduous rigours of the Tour. Understandable I’d say. Take Abdelkader Zaaf who drank wine handed out by spectators lining the route of the great race. The Algerian was perhaps typical of cyclists back in the 1950s when they drank anything they could to slake their thirst in the hot and humid conditions. This was a time before words such as electrolyte and dehydration had been invented for marketing campaigns.

After much zigzagging, the devout Muslim was found napping under a tree on the side of the road. When awoken, he jumped back on his bike and set off once again, only this time in the wrong direction. Zaaf never did reach the finish, only an ambulance. A sad story but not without reward. Zaaf had a wine named after him and was a minor celebrity riding criteriums. Such was his infamy that no doubt he never bought a drink again when in the company of fans. 

Cyclists anonymous

So what about you? Are you a member of cyclists anonymous? Do you slip a sneaky shot of whisky in your bidon to pep you up for that frosty winter morning ride? Got a taste for mojito energy gels? Your round yeah?

Images courtesy of 1) digboston.com 2) Unknown 3) Getty images 4) Unknown


4 thoughts on “Puking and pedalling – a tale of alcohol & cycling

  1. was just thinking of Louis Malle’s Tour de France film from the early sixties when reading this, the depiction of cafe raids made necessary by the limit on drinks the teams could give out, riders swiping glass bottles of beer and brandy from tables and stuffing their jersey pockets. Not great for many reasons but not sure we haven’t lost more than just the bathwater but a lot of the baby in our more puritan age


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