Initially, “Beer in the Bidon” was to be a single, definitive posting, an authoritative ranking of the single best variety of the single best and most important cycling performance beverage yet devised by the hand of man: beer. “Beer?” you ask. That’s right, beer (and say hello to your mother for me). Or, to put it another way, liquid guns. Packed full of easily accessible calories from simple carbohydrates (the simple starches of barley and wheat—and corn and rice, depending on what you are drinking—made simpler still by various degrees of malting, releasing the sugars), presented in readily available liquid form, recently vindicated as a recovery drink, a net hydrator in single servings, chalked full of testosterone and awesome, and oh-so-delicious, Our Heavenly Beverage turns out to be the ideal—in fact the ONLY—“sports drink” of choice for the hard-souled, hard-assed, hardman of our time.
But as it turns out, much as the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix require a vastly different set of skills and equipment than the slopes of the Tourmalet, so too do the variations and nuances of each ride—undertaken by a particular individual in unique conditions—explode the notion of a single, dominating mélange of malt and hops. Whereas this project’s failures have reflected poor beer choices—PBR, as you might imagine, served me poorly in the wallowing heat of Idaho’s desert foothills—its successes have come at the confluence of quality beverages and wise situational decision-making. There are certainly superior cycling beers—the GC contenders of the beverage world—but as with any day on any Grand Tour, any number of ales, lagers, and stouts have a good chance to take the day. Consequently, “Beer in the Bidon” has morphed from a single post into a series—a guidebook, if you will, for the careful application of all that is right and good in the world (beer) to all that is right and good in the world (cycling).
Taste in beer, of course, like preference of hood angle or pedal float, varies infinitely within a limited acceptable range, and far be it from me to set draconian rules for pairing your ride and your beer. But because your favorite beer may not always be the best beer for cycling domination, I have taken the liberty to provide a few guidelines for choosing a beverage that will put you at the top of your game on a given day and a given ride.
Begin by asking yourself: why am I drinking this beer? There is only one answer: domination. But there are many aspects to domination that must be balanced against each other. Physical domination, of course, is paramount. Here, there are three main things to consider:
- Calories. You want them. Beer has them. In general, beers with more calories will serve you better on the bike.
- Alcohol. Unfortunately, many high-calorie beers also have a high percentage ABV (alcohol by volume). Alcohol is not necessarily your enemy—anyone caught drinking Sharp’s on a bike must be beaten severely about the head and shoulders and ridiculed to the point of submission—but it bears remembering that alcohol and lactic acid are chemically and in some ways physiologically very similar. A little bit of alcohol can take just the tiniest edge off of the pain—either physically or mentally—but too much and you will first lose your desire to win, then your focus, and eventually your bike handling skills. The trick is to find a beer that balances high calories (150-200 per 12 oz) with relatively low ABV (4-5% is pretty ideal, but anything below 6% will usually do). Chimay, for all its meaning in the cycling world, is at 9% not for the bidon. Brown Ales and Amber Ales typically have the best calorie-to-ABV ratios, but at 209 calories and 5.6% ABV, it’s tough to beat Anchor Porter here. Each individual will have a different tolerance, however, and, of course, different tastes. Watch out for IPAs; they are tasty and refreshing but often too fruity and alcoholic to be effective as performance beverages.
- Awesomeness. Though highly subjective, it is important to drink a beer that makes you feel good. Heavily carbonated beers, while nice for sitting around the BBQ after dominating your morning metric century, generally suck on the bike. Nitrogenated beers like Guinness tend to go down easy and stay down easy, as often does witbier. One tip here is to pour your beer with a thick head a good 15 or 20 minutes before you get on the bike and leave the top of the bidon open so the beer can breathe a bit. It’ll be on your bike; I guarantee it won’t be flat.
There is a second type of domination to consider when choosing your beer, however, and that is mental domination. Here there are two types:
- Self-domination (sometimes known as Rule #5). This has as much to do with when to put beer in your bidon as it does with which beer to choose. A Velominatus—even an unorthodox one—does not drink beer with every ride. Quite the contrary, only certain particularly challenging, unpleasant, or important rides, be they training rides, group rides, or races, merit the unleashing of the liquid guns. Your beer should not make your ride casual; rather, it should demonstrate your confidence that you are a fucking badass who is not afraid to put a little bit of depressant in his body while tackling Mont Ventoux in the rain. When you feel the hurt, your beer will help you hurt the hurt back. As a general rule, beer should not accompany rides under an hour unless they are uphill time trials, in which case they should be shotgunned at the starting line, the empties handed nonchalantly to the starter when he begins his countdown. Heartier beers tend to support harder men, but again, conditions, tolerance, and taste affect these decisions.
- Dominating others. Sipping on a Stove Pipe Porter while mashing the big ring sends a very clear message that a Bud Light simply does not send. No showboating here; this should be subtle and nonchalant, and is typically best accomplished with a darker beer in a clear bidon.
Within the rubrics of physical and mental domination, there are also a few things to consider when it comes time to actually choose your beer on the day of your ride. Again, these are guidelines, built from experience, not hard and fast rules.
- Weather. For a wide variety of reasons, the best time to drink beer is when you are riding in bad weather. In general, the colder it is, the darker your beer should be. My best pairing so far has been the Sierra Nevada Porter in 40º rain on the Tour de Blast. Hefty, dark, high calorie beer is often served between 40º and 50º, and cool temperatures make it possible to take in your liquid guns slowly over time, which is most effective. As it gets warmer, so too should your beer get somewhat lighter and your drinking of it get faster. Below 55º, consider primarily stouts and porters. Between 55º and 70º, look to your brown and amber ales, and then move into lagers (if you like them), summer ales (Deschutes Twighlight is a good choice here), and some pale ales for temperatures between 70º and 85º. When it is over 85º, consider leaving the beer at home. Otherwise, I suggest either a pilsner, consumed quickly early in the ride, or, most effective in the heat, a witbier, brought dangerously close to freezing and removed from the ice box as the last thing you do before you get on your bike. Beltian White from Harvest Moon Brewery in Belt, Montana (also known as Montana Cream Soda) is the new boss for me in the heat.
- The ride. So many factors are in play here, but there are really only two that matter: road conditions and elevation change. Road conditions involve both safety and your beer’s performance. If the road is going to be pretty rough, consider a nitrogenated beer that won’t foam as violently. If it is wet, gravelly, bumpy, steep, or otherwise treacherous, bear in mind the effects of even a moderate amount of alcohol on your bike handling skills and go for a low ABV. As for climbing, think about where the climb is on the ride. If you have 5K at 7% in the first 10K on a warm day, you’re going to want to make sure you have a beer that sits well in the stomach. If you have 50K before your first big hill, well then it’s not an issue now, is it?
- What do I feel like drinking today? If you don’t ask this question when choosing your beer, you have missed the point, douchenozzle.
And with that, here is the report from the first round of testing. May your bidons flow with the nectar of the gods and your guns rejoice in their lubrication with Voigtian feats of strength.
Field Test Update, 8/15/10
I am happy to report that after a few missteps the field testing is going very well. It began inauspiciously on a San Francisco Twin Peaks double with a Guinness in a mason jar jammed into my downtube cage back in April. The Guinness was the right choice—it’s the obvious choice to begin such an experiment with—but with the chatter from my ill-conceived titanium cyclocross fork on the urban descent inching the half-empty glass container toward my handlebars, I had visions of the whole project ending quite suddenly in a tragic, bloody, beery mess of glass shards, bent Zondas and broken bones. Happily, I am a superior bicycle handler, true Velominatus, and lucky sonofabitch not afraid to run a few of my former city’s well-intended stop signs, and I was able to reach down and snag the wayward vessel before it tumbled while ignoring other sensible actions, like braking. So we are up and running.
Beer: Guinness Stout (126 Calories [per 12oz]; ~4.2% ABV]; 10g Carbohydrates)
Ride: San Francisco Twin Peaks Double (30K, ~400m vertical)
Weather: Foggy, Windy, 50 degrees. Fucking San Francisco.
Pair Rating: 7
Pros: NO2 instead of CO2; easy to accommodate the recommended serving temperature; cache as a hearty beer; taste; awesomeness
Cons: Relatively low calories; it was in a fucking mason jar
Comments: To me, Guinness was the obvious beer to start the testing. Billed as a beer “for strength” and “for health,” it has often been touted as liquid bread. In my opinion, its relatively low alcohol content is a benefit, as is its smooth taste both warm and cold. I was surprised to discover that Guinness has relatively few calories compared to some other brews (including Bud Heavy, although that beer is not for bikes). The mason jar presented a problem both in that it nearly chattered out of my cage and killed me and in that it prevented a slow, sipping intake. Fortunately—and here is where Guinness really shines as a riding beverage—as a nitrogenated beer rather than a carbonated one, Guinness is much easier on the stomach and thus a very good beer for a rough and tumble urban ride with steep climbs, lots of stop and go, and in this case large gulps from a mason jar. Overall, it is a solid all-around beer for all types of cool to warm weather riding.
Beer: Newcastle (150 Calories; 4.7% ABV; 15g Carbohydrates)
Ride: Truckee to Tahoe City and back (56K, rolling, at around 6,000 feet above sea level)
Weather: Sunny, 55º
Pair Rating: 8
Pros: Smooth, nutty flavor; historic brewery with ties to the English working class
Cons: Imported in clear bottles; does not wear warm weather well; distributed in the U.S. by Heineken
Comments: A classic example of a great beer not necessarily holding up as a perfect cycling beer, although between the quality of the ride and my love of “the dog,” things did go pretty well. The snow banks lining the road kept me and the beer at a reasonable temperature, so the warm Newcastle problem was really not a problem (though it could be). There was the slight hint of skunk that often accompanies clear bottles, but nothing I couldn’t mask by turning the screws a little bit up to 35kph and breathing through my mouth. The only drawback really was that I realized on the ride that two California beers—the Boont Amber and one of my new favorites, Lagunitas Censored Copper Ale—could have complemented the ride better.
Beer: Sierra Nevada Porter (194 Calories; 5.6% ABV; 18g Carbohydrates…plus bacon)
Ride: Tour de Blast
Weather: Shitty. 50º and raining at the bottom; 38º and raining at the top.
Pair Rating: 10 (though I’m pretty sure the bacon pushed it up to 11)
Pros: Hefty, hearty, smoky, and fantastic; high calories and very high carbs; just made for bad weather
Cons: As a porter with 40 IBU (international bitterness units), this beer would not warm well at all. Sort of a Good Cadel/Bad Cadel kind of beer. I caught it a Good Cadel day. It’s also on the high end of ABV, so drinking it fast or without other fluid/food intake might not be the best plan.
Comments: Beer. Bacon. 1000m of climbing in the fucking rain. This was a winner. When I Schlecked my chain crossing a bridge and had to dig into some Rule #5 to catch Marko and Jim on the next section of the climb, the Sierra Nevada Porter was right there in my legs to get the job done. Bye Jim. Bye Marko.
Beer: Pabst Blue Ribbon (153 Calories; 5% ABV; 12g Carbs)
Ride: Bogus Basin Hill Climb (60K out and back; ~1300m vertical)
Weather: Oddly Humid, 75º-95º, just before a storm
Pair Rating: 3 (with a fair amount of charity)
Pros: It’s cheap; surprisingly good calorie to alcohol ratio (though I suspect there isn’t much good stuff in it); affiliation with working class American; cache with the hipsters
Cons: Well, it’s just not that good. It warms badly and is heavily carbonated. Also, it has cache with the hipsters.
Comments: Fail. I don’t necessarily have anything against PBR except that it has somehow gained a reputation as better than other cheap beers, which it is not. And to be fair, this was perhaps a day when I should have left the beer at home. But still, fail.
Beer: Deschutes Organic Green Lakes Amber Ale (145 Calories; 5.2%ABV; 45IBU)
Ride: Beartooth Pass (23k w/4,600+ft of climbing, at altitude)
Weather: Sunny and 50º at the start; sunny and 35º with a vicious wind at the finish
Pair Rating: 6 (could be higher with a fresh bottle)
Pros: A good beer, brewed organically in a part of the country where they brew good beer and hard men.
Cons: This particular bottle had gone through much distress (heating and cooling); at 45IBU, it’s a little bitter and doesn’t warm very well.
Comments: My friend’s girlfriend accidentally spilled half of it before the start of the time trial, which on any other ride would have been a problem, but I sucked wind so hard for so long that I would have had a hard time finishing the whole thing anyway. No beer in the world could have protected me from the Beartooth.