When choosing a bike bottle, do what the pros do

When choosing a bike bottle, do what the pros do

Bike bottles may appear as insignificant pieces of equipment, yet their influence on the bike’s overall performance can be surprising. In this article, we cover what to look for when shopping for a bottle, how bike bottles affect cycling aerodynamics and what to do about it, and, finally, share some tricks on using bike bottles most effectively in a race scenario.

What to look for in a bike bottle for road cycling

Many riders overlook the significance of a bike bottle, considering it a basic piece of equipment. While many individuals opt for free, used bottles, intentionally selecting one might be worthwhile.

  • Aerodynamics: Readers of our trilogy on aerodynamics know that round shapes are poison for good aero performance. Typical bottles and cages are round, and even if modern bikes can be assumed to be designed with water bottles in mind, it’s almost always a penalty and likely not using bottles is the fastest (see below) Then again, being dehydrated is a sure way to lose even more than a couple of watts…
  • Weight: A little lighter does never hurt, especially if it doesn’t come at a much-increased cost.
  • Liquid flow: How fast and easily water comes out of the bottle may be important for some scenarios, especially in high-speed events such as criteriums or cyclocross, where there is little time to take a sip.
  • Color: It all boils down to personal preference, but it’s worth noting that light-colored bottles clearly show dirt, impurities, and mold, especially if a sugary energy drink is left inside for too long (ugh!). These things may not be as visible on a black bottle. Further, it has been suggested that light-colored bottles take a bit longer to heat up in the sun. Additionally, Clear bottles have the benefit of allowing you to see the liquid level, but the yellowish color of some liquids may not be the most appealing.
  • Size: Standard sizes range from about 500 mL to almost 1000 mL. The ideal size depends on the type of event and how often you can refill. See some tips about races below.
  • Grip: Bottles falling out the cages are a nuisance while general riding, a big danger in the peloton and can become really painful in a bike race if you can’t refuel for a while. To ensure the best compatibility, it may be advisable to choose a bottle cage that matches the brand of the bottle.
  • Insulation: Some manufacturers claim improved insulation capabilities. Beyond special insulated vacuum bottles for hot tea and winter riding, the simple wrapping of some insulation material adds weight and volume. Yet, just has a minimal effect (s. test in the video below).
  • Valve type: There are two main types of mechanisms used for dispensing liquids: the “push/pull” method, where the valve must be manually opened or closed, and the squeeze membrane method, where the valve opens when pressure is applied to the bottle. While the squeeze membrane method may seem more convenient, it actually requires more force to dispense the liquid and is often more difficult to clean, as many riders have found.

Test results of the most common bike bottles show a clear winner

Tobias from the Rides of Japan YouTube channel released an entertaining video where he thoroughly tested the most common bike bottles. While he doesn’t declare a winner, we do: The Elite Fly bottle. It is by far the lightest, offers the fastest liquid flow and combined with Elite’s own premium bottle cages, it seems to be one of the best setups available nowadays. The only downside is that it may not be very long-lasting due to its lightweight construction. Full video below, an entertaining watch.

Brilliant, entertaining YouTube video of Rides of Japan, which tested most bottles. (7 minutes)

In the test were three squeeze valve type bottles: Polar Breakaway Insulated, TacX Shanti 500, and Camelpak Podium Chill Insulated 21 oz, as well as three with a push-pull mechanism: Elity Fly Tex 750 mL, TacX Shiva 750 and Specialist Purist MoFlo 22 oz. Besides the video, there is also a Google Sheet if you like to dive into the details.

The Elite Fly bottle is 30% lighter and provides a 70% faster liquid flow compared to most competitors. When paired with the right bottle cage, it creates an exceptional combination that is widely used by the pro peloton.

The Elite Fly Tex is significantly lighter than its closest competitor, the TacX Shiva, weighing only 70% as much. It has a liquid flow rate over 50% higher than its competitors and is the easiest to squeeze. However, it should be noted that it may not fit as securely in some bottle cages (Elite bottle cage was not tested).

Consider the robustness, insulation and environmental impact of a bike bottle

The downside of the Elite Fly bottle is its lack of robustness due to its lightweight construction. Using a more robust bottle for general training rides or maybe even longer bike-packing or ultra-endurance events may be advisable. Many other options are available, but one classic example is the Tacx Shiva bottle. This bottle is often given away for free with custom printing.

Some bottles also offer a protection cap which is especially useful when riding through dirt, even though it makes drinking and handling a little more tricky. As such, the Elite Fly also offers an MTB version with a simple, removable plastic cap.

Another offering is bottles with thermal insulation wrappers, but they seem to only add bulk and do not provide significant improvement. For most cyclists, having an extra 250 ml of liquid is more beneficial than having a slightly colder drink. A dedicated vacuum bottle may be an option for those who ride during the colder months of the year. For example, the Camelbak Forge Flow is a truly vacuum-insulated, stainless steel thermos bottle. It keeps drinks warm, is designed for one-hand operation, and is robust enough to fit well in common bottle cages.

The plastic in bike bottles takes hundreds of years to decompose. The biodegradable Elite Jet bottle is treated with a special additive, so it decomposes in months. This could be a good option for disposable race bottles.

Finally, some companies have claims about the environmental impact of their bottle and the plastic used. It’s not always easy to verify, but it’s certainly a point to consider. Within the Elite range, the new Elite Jet bottle is said to be made from biodegradable material, which decomposes in a couple of months instead of hundreds of years. Maybe a good option if you often use a throw-away bottle in races?

Strategies to improve the aerodynamics of bike bottles

In a recent Performance Process podcast by the Escape Collective, JP Ballard from Swissside, one of the leading aero consulting and wheel manufacturing companies, shared numerous aerodynamic hacks on the bike. Besides many things, he also spoke about the negative effect of the round bike bottles on common road frames or, in his own words: “a round bottle on a down tube is a terrible thing.” According to his numbers, it adds around 7 to 8 watts of drag penalty at 45 km/h, which is about half at 35 km/h. Still, don’t forget the wind may hit you faster than you think.

“A round bottle on a downtube is a terrible thing,” said JP Ballard from @SwissSide on a recent podcast by @EscapeCollective. They can add 7-8 watts of aerodynamic drag penalty at 45 km/h and maybe about half that at 35 km/h.

For road and TT bike frames round bottles have a considerable aero drag penalty

In a triathlon context, Aerocoach has published some testing data of bike bottles on a TT bike that indicate similar aerodynamic drag penalties. Of note, in triathlon, the fastest options are behind the saddle and between the arms, but of course, this is not allowed in UCI-sanctioned road races.

Gravel bike racers may not need to worry about round bike bottle aerodynamics

Gravel racers may not have to worry too much about round bottles on their frame, potentially even quite the contrary. The aerodynamics of aero gravel bikes, with their wide downtubes that match the wide tires, differ from those of road bikes. Therefore, a round bottle placed behind the downtube can be concealed better and may even have a positive aerodynamic effect, or at the very least, not a very negative one. In the video below, the data from Dylan Johnsons’ experiment in the wind tunnel, where he saw a beneficial effect of large, 1-liter bottles on his Factor Ostro Gravel bike.

Use special aero bike bottles whenever practically possible

Recently, some bike bottles, such as the Cannondale Gripper Aero for the Cannondale SuperSix EVO, have been specifically designed to optimize aerodynamics when combined with a bike frame. If you happen to have such a frame, in all likelihood, that’s your fastest option. Remember, aerodynamics beats weight by far in almost any scenario but the steepest mountain top finals. The Cannondale Gripper Aero bottle design is indeed intriguing and may be copied by others in the future. Unfortunately, its availability currently is a challenge.

Round bottles on a downtube can negatively impact aerodynamic performance on most road bikes. Whenever possible, opt for aero bottles. The Cannondale Gripper Aero is a great choice for road cycling. The Elite Chrono CX is a classic option for individual time trial racing and possibly even short criterium racing.

For time trial purposes, non-round, thin and elongated bottles exist. They are very aero, but beware: They are not practical for general riding, as they are difficult to grab, slot into the holder, and can’t be free-standing. If your TT bike doesn’t have an integrated solution already, the Elite Crono CX bottle and cage combination is one of the most used setups.

Choose rather 2 smaller bike bottles than a big one

Generally, use 2 small bottles at 550 ml rather than one big one. They sit more stable and add flexibility. This setup is also potentially more advantageous from an aerodynamic point of view, but, as always, without testing, it is hard to say. You may want to opt for bigger bottles for longer events without support, especially if you consider using one bottle with only water as a shower and cooling option.

Race day tips to go fastest with bike bottles

As amateur cyclists, we rarely have the advantage of teammates or support vehicles to provide us with a constant supply of cold drinks. Therefore, managing our fluid intake becomes a crucial factor in our performance, especially during Grand Fondos. Access to hydration can be limited, and feed stations may not always be well-organized, making it even more important for us to plan ahead and bring enough fluids to keep ourselves hydrated during the ride.

Start your race with a bottle in the jersey pocket

If you want to limit your stops at feed stations, bringing enough food is usually not the challenge, but liquid is, especially on a hot day. One strategy is to start with 3 bottles and have one as a throw-away. You race the beginning with an additional bike bottle in the jersey, dispose of one at the first feed and just go on. This can be especially useful if the first feed is at a critical place where you want to stay in a fast group and not stop.

Pro tip: Stash an extra water bottle in your jersey for the Grand Fondo. Dispose of it (no littering!) before the first big climb to make sure you have enough fluids for the whole ride. It’s a good way to cut down on stops, especially when it’s hot out.

Moreover, you may even benefit from a significant aero benefit if you place it in the middle pocket of your jersey, as Dylan Johnson explains in the following short clip. He saw savings of over 3 watts when testing in the wind tunnel:

Use a water bike bottle to keep you cool

On a hot day, overheating can significantly affect your cycling performance. When the body gets too hot, it starts to limit our capabilities. It’s important to remember that about 75% of all the energy expended while cycling turns into heat, whereas only 25% actually goes into moving the bike forward. To cool yourself during the ride, it’s a smart idea to bring a bottle of water and use it to shower yourself to take advantage of the cooling effect of evaporation. Keeping your head and face cool is crucial to maintaining your body’s performance. Additionally, cooling down your back and crotch area, where the major veins are located, can be very effective.

Over 75% of the energy you expend while cycling is turned into heat, which your body needs to get rid of. Once you start overheating, your body automatically limits performance. Therefore, prioritize staying cool, especially before you get too hot!

Particularly before getting to the hard section of a route, such as, for example, a deciding climb, it can be a very good idea to prioritize your cooling while you are maybe still cruising in the pack. If you start with a body temperature just a half degree lower than your competitors, you can work that little longer on that climb. Give it a try! You might be surprised at how effective it is. Remember, prioritizing your body’s performance is always more important than worrying about carrying a few extra grams.

Many Grand Fondos start with a climb to separate the field. It may be obvious, but you can have an empty bottle on your bike and fill it up later at the feed. Another minor, marginal gain.

Make sure your bottle cage secures the bike bottle well

Most bike bottles have somewhat of a standard shape, so all bottle cages should be compatible with all bike bottles. Yet, in practice, this is not always the case, as some combinations work better than others. A lost bike bottle is often frustrating and a sure way to slow you down massively. For example, in many race situations, you will also have no ability to get it back. So it is wise to ensure the bottle and holder work well together.

From the picture above, it’s noticeable that even griptape is used in the pro peloton. However, this can significantly reduce the lifespan of your bottle. Pairing the bottle with a holder from the same manufacturer ensures best compatibility. For example, the Elite T-Race Carbon a super, lightweight bottle cage works well with Elite Fly bottles, but not so with most others.

You will find many different shapes and styles of bottle cages on the market, which only differ in design and weight difference, which is probably not very relevant. Similarly, whether the material is plastic or carbon may not matter all that much. Just carbon may look and feel a little higher quality and match your carbon frame.

Dispose of your bottle before the final sprint

As mentioned earlier, using round, non-aero bottles can increase the drag by 7-8 watts when cycling at a speed of 45 km/h. During the final phase of a race, especially during a sprint, the speed is likely even higher, increasing the penalty to 10 watts or more. Therefore, it is worthwhile to dispose of your bottles before the final lap of the crit or any other flat stage. At those higher speeds, they can greatly impact your performance.

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