The Fat Cyclist Explains: Bottle and Cage Serendipity

05.17.2011 | 10:02 am

A Note from Fatty: Today, I am happy to present the fourth installment of “The Fat Cyclist Explains,” the series in which I answer questions that you would have wondered about, if only those questions had occurred to you. Previous episodes of this series are here, here, and here, but are not required reading. In fact, they have nothing to do with the topic at hand. Honestly, I’m just linking to them to increase my page views for the day, in a desperate bid for self-validation.

And now, let’s make with the explainification, already!

Yesterday, I was surprised to receive an email I had sent myself. The fact that I was surprised shouldn’t be much of a surprise to you, considering that few people — including myself — rarely spell my first name correctly, which means that a certain is probably getting a ton of email that he probably wishes he weren’t.

Anyway, here’s the email I received.

Dear Fatty,

Like most cyclists, I have a lot of bike bottles — probably fifteen or so. The thing is, very few are by the same maker, so they’re all slightly different from each other.

Furthermore — like most cyclists — I have a few bikes, each with two bottle cages. On each bike I have a different brand of bottle cage.

As I took bottle brush in hand for my annual spring bottle cleaning yesterday, it occurred to me that it’s actually kind of amazing that all these bottles — made by various different bottle manufacturers — fit in all my bottle cages, which are all also made by completely diffferent bottle cage manufacturers!

And then I got to thinking and it occurred to me that all of these bottle cages screwed right on to all my bikes’ bottle cage mounts. Wow. I mean seriously, wow.

Until now, I had never taken the time to consider how awesome it is that all these different bottle, cage, and bike manufacturers have come up with a system where products from competing companies work so well together.

Could you explain how and why this system came to be?

Thanks for your wisdom,


Thanks for your note, Duane. I must admit, until reading it (and shortly before that, writing it), I had never considered the beautiful way in which bikes, bottles, and bike bottle mounts work seamlessly together, regardless of which component of the whole system is purchased from which manufacturer. I mean, consider the wide variety of bottles:


And the mind-boggling variety of cages:


It’s amazing that any of the bottles work with any of the cages. And yet, most all of the cages work with most all of the bottles. So I became fascinated with Duane’s question, and have spent hour upon hour researching it.

I am pleased to now present you with the electrifyingly educational answer to your question.

Early Days

You’ll be astounded — as I was — to learn that until 1946, it never occurred to anyone to affix a water bottle to a bike. Indeed, it wasn’t until the previous year (1945) that anyone even used a bottle to carry their beverages at all. Instead, most people rode along the rough-paved (or often, unpaved) streets while holding a tin cup full of water in one hand. Or, during the Great Depression, during which time tin cups were difficult to come by due to the fact that hobos had commandeered all tin cup supply chains, many cyclists would simply either begin their ride with a mouthful of water held in puffed cheeks, or perhaps try to ride with both hands held together in a cup shape, holding as much water as they could.

This method was, in most cases, only marginally successful.

Then, in 1945, a young lad — whose name is unfortunately lost to history — was riding a tandem biycle one day with his mother. As stoker, his job was to hold both tin cups (they were from a wealthy family and could afford a tin cup for each person therein), while his mother steered the ungainly and heavy (bicycles were made of solid core iron back in these days and could weigh upwards of 240 pounds) bicycle.

Sadly, the bicycle hit one of numerous potholes, jostling the two cups of water and spilling half of each.

Quickly, the bright young lad (the word “boy” had not yet been invented in 1945) poured the remaining contents from one cup into the other, then turned the empty cup over on top of the full cup, creating an improvisational lidded container.

Thus, in one moment inspired by need, the lad had invented water bottles for bikes, but lids in general (most people don’t know that lids did not exist before 1945).

From this prototype quickly (like, in two days) evolved the bottle industry, including screw-top lids (the impetus behind the invention for this particular device is not suitable for children to read) and bite valves (even more disturbing than screw-top lids).

And then, in 1946, Thomas Edison invented the bike bottle cage, quite by accident. Having — as a prank — built a bicycle frame out of strong magnets, his iron bike bottle (until 1982, all bike bottles were made of one metal or another) stuck fast to it. Always the opportunist, Edison shouted, “Eureka!” as if he had done this on purpose.

And the rest is history.

Innovation and Fragmentation

The years immediately following the invention of the bottle and the bottle cage were heady years indeed. Piggybacking on the post WWII prosperity, the bicycle industry — and all its attendant accessories — presented a huge opportunity for the big manufacturer and the lone inventor, alike.

It must be said that the first commercially-available bike bottles and cages were not especially convenient to use. Following the lead of Edison, Trecke Bicycle Company created a bicycle with a bottle that was formed as part of the bicycle frame itself. While this was certainly an improvement over the tin cup approach, it was not without its difficulties. Specifically, when the thirsty rider wanted to get a drink, she would need to tip the bicycle upside down in order to pour the contents out of the bike.

This was not as easy as it sounds.

Before long (approximately 24 years), inventors came up with the idea of having the bottle be detachable from the frame, so that the water container — as opposed to the entire bike — could be raised to one’s mouth and tipped back.

Once people realized the value of this innovation — having the bottle be both attachable and detachable at will — things went a little crazy, and dozens of products could suddenly be found on the market (albeit, for some, quite briefly), all utilizing to some degree the startling innovation that a bicycle could passively carry a beverage almost indefinitely.

For example, there was the Little Brown Jug Cage, a bottle cage designed to hold an earthenware corked jug, which in turn would hold up to 3/4 gallon of any desired liquid. This product was on sale for a fairly short period of time, due to the high incidence of bicycle crashes riders tended to suffer while riding with a Little Brown Jug Cage. Mistakenly, consumer advocate agencies blamed the size and awkwardness of the jug and cage for the number and frequency of these wrecks, instead of considering the contents of the jug itself.

A more popular cage size, thanks in part to its more-manageable size and in part to the ubiquity of school lunch programs, was the half-pint milk carton cage. The surge in the popularity of this cage ended quickly, however, due to non-cage-related problems. Specifically, the tendency of the milk to sour while sitting outside for the whole day. Further, there was the not-insignificant problem of trying to open a milk carton while riding a bike. We can only speculate as to how many people have suffered horrible, crippling accidents while trying to accomplish this fiendishly difficult task while simultaneously piloting their bikes.

Then, in a brilliant marketing move in 1964, the Coca Cola corporation created a bottle cage holder designed specifically to hold its signature bottle shape. Thanks to the indentation in the middle of the bottle, the specially-designed cage was able to hold the bottle more firmly.

Were it not for the fact that riding a bike with a bottle of Coca Cola was guaranteed to shake the bottle up so much that it was guaranteed to spray 40 feet into the air upon being opened, we may all still be using this bottle and cage style today.

Still, bottle and bottle cage makers everywhere took note of Coca Cola’s bottle/cage interdependency and started making bike bottles and cages that were designed to work together, as a system.

The problem was, there were too many systems.

Bottles that would appear similar at first glance would be too thick to fit in one cage, and too thin to fit in another. Cages required bike mounts that were proprietary, as well.

As one particularly egregious example, Gary Fisher created a bottle (and associated cage) that was slightly thicker and longer than any other bottle so it held three more ounces of fluid than the more-common 26-ounce bike.

This bottle — which Fisher called “The 29er” — developed a loyal following, but illustrated the fundamental (and growing) problem behind bike-mounted hydration: there were just too many systems.

Standardization and Process

There were many people who did not see this fragmentation of an industry as a problem. Indeed, some said it was good for the industry. “Let everyone make and bring to market whatever they want,” said these people. “Those products that are good will survive and gain popularity, resulting in a de-facto standard that can nevertheless continually evolve and improve with future development. In the end, market forces will ensure the availability of the best products; growing pangs are just a necessary part of that.”

Fortunately for all of us, these voices were drowned out. Instead, a much more sensible and orderly solution was arrived at. An official solution was settled upon. Indeed, so official was the solution that it was spoken of only in the passive voice.

Specifically, it was deemed necessary to create a governing body overseeing all things bicycle-related. Thus, Union Bottle Internationale (UBI) — was formed.

The objective of UBI — a small (only 98 employees) team of professionals, most of whom are retired government employees with plenty of experience with committees, memos, and regulations — was simple and clear: to institute a sensible set of standards and processes to ensure that everyone would have a uniformly excellent bike mount / cage / bottle experience.

The UBI immediately went to work, forming fourteen committees, each with overlapping (and to untrained eyes, often contradictory and / or redundant) goals. Some would later question the fact that none of these committees included actual cyclists, bicycle manufacturers, or people who had every used a bottle or bottle cage in their lifetime, but that is because some people are nincompoops and do not understand the intricate dance of regulatory bodies and how difficult it is to negotiate with other committees and take their needs into account.

Some people argued that the UBI should have maybe just asked cyclists what they’d like, document it, present that information to bottle, bike, and cage manufacturers, and then get out of the way. But those people are, as recently made clear, nincompoops.

In a relatively short period of time (seven years), UBI arrived at its first spec for mounts, bottles, and cages. The 483-page document, called The Liquid and Viscous Matter Containment Regulatory Specifications, was regarded by all members of the UBI to be very thorough and official-sounding. To make a (very) long story short, it had concluded that:

  • Bottles were to be glass orbs with a radius of 0.47 cubits
  • The glass orbs were to be stoppered with rubber bungs, or in the case of a severe rubber shortage, with cork.
  • The orbs were to be contained in canvas bags, woven from raw, undyed yak wool.
  • Each canvas bag shall contain two orbs.
  • The bags are to be affixed beneath the seat using a system of wire and straps
  • The two allowable beverages to be contained in the orbs are mineral water or whey

The reactions to this specification were mixed, ranging from confusion to extreme confusion to bafflement. Especially over the whey. And the yak wool.

Compounding this problem was the fact that during this seven year period, the bicycle bottle industry had, on its own, pretty much settled on the bike bottle / cage / mounting system you frequently see on bikes today. Which is to say, there was tacit agreement that there should be some commonality between bottle diameter, and that mounting screws should be a certain distance apart.

This kind of thinking, of course, was pure folly, and the UBI immediately went to work prohibiting this ridiculous, non-regulated, non-evaluated, and definitely non-standardized system. Indeed, they went so far as to create an “Approved by the UBI” logo, which was to be affixed to all glass orbs of the appropriate dimensions, approved yak orb bags, and approved containers of whey.

Surprisingly, most people didn’t care about whether the UBI put a logo on their bottles or not, and went about their business, continuing to use the (highly illegal) bottle cage system you often see on outlaw bikes throughout the world.

Harmony and Lawfulness Prevail

In 1987, the UBI reconvened to make revisions to the The Liquid and Viscous Matter Containment Regulatory Specifications. This (new and revised) publication is 793 pages long, and holds the Guinness World Record for being the “longest book ever written that can be condensed into a single sentence without data loss.” Specifically, the specification specifies that the existing bottle / cage / mount setup is acceptable, with two crucial caveats:

  1. No bottle, cage, or mount can use any material or technology that did not exist or have popular acceptance before 1974.
  2. All bottles, cages, and mounting systems must demonstrate compatibility with all existing bottles, cages, and mounts.

The first point was pretty much expected. The second, however, proved to be a difficult nut to crack. This is due to the fact that there are thousands of different bottles, cages, and mounts, which in turn leads to approximately 10,000,000,000,000,017 combinations of the three, with that number rising at an alarming rate each day.

Luckily, the UBI is up to the task.

In order to ensure that everything works with everything, the UBI now requires every bottle, cage, and bike frame manufacturer to submit samples of their product to their Testing Facility, which then rigorously tests that new product against every existing product.

[Interesting Factoid: The UBI Testing Facility is a popular tourist destination, due in part to the fact that it now covers over 40% of the landmass of France and is the world's leading employer of college graduates with Philosophy degrees.]

The UBI is justifiably proud of its Testing Facility, which — upon completion of the 48 page application — the manufacturer can expect a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or — most frequently — a “thumb vaguely and noncommittally waggled in the air” within a few short years.

Thus, Duane, thanks to the tireless efforts of the UBI, you can purchase a bike, bottle, and bottle cage from three completely different manufacturers, confident that they will work elegantly and perfectly together.

Or, if they don’t, you can always drill a new hole in the cage to make it fit the frame, or buy different bottles, or something.


  1. Comment by centurion | 05.17.2011 | 10:35 am

    People buy water bottles?

  2. Comment by Franky | 05.17.2011 | 10:40 am

    I’m always baffled by the wealth of knowledge you possess to enlighten us common folk everyday. Thank you!

  3. Comment by muskyhunter | 05.17.2011 | 10:48 am

    You obviously have too much time on your hands (mindl, LOL!

  4. Comment by Ben | 05.17.2011 | 10:50 am


  5. Comment by Scott R | 05.17.2011 | 11:03 am

    I’m curious whether it took longer to create this post than it would have actually taken to research a real answer.

    But hey, you got to use ‘cubits’. That probably made it worth it.

  6. Comment by Bobby | 05.17.2011 | 11:04 am

    Am I the only one that pictured the UBI’s system looking a lot like truck nutz? (

    I sure hope not. – FC

  7. Comment by briebecca | 05.17.2011 | 11:06 am

    Today’s weight??

    164. Thanks for the reminder, just posted it on the sidebar. – FC

  8. Comment by Geo | 05.17.2011 | 11:51 am

    It’s blatantly obvious that the children of the original UBI members who religiously followed the faith of their fathers have become…triathletes.

    The wild ones add straws.

  9. Comment by Clydesteve | 05.17.2011 | 11:53 am

    Dear Duane,

    You dork! didn’t you know this? Fatty needs to get away from his research desk. I think it is too close to the chilled food research storage locker.

  10. Comment by George | 05.17.2011 | 12:01 pm

    I knew this was going to be good after reading:
    “And now, let’s make with the explainification, already!”

    Thanks – you continue to expand my vocabulary and intelligence immensely.

  11. Comment by Mikeonhisbike | 05.17.2011 | 12:09 pm

    I’ve always wondered what Philosophy majors did for work after they graduated. Thanks.

  12. Comment by John D | 05.17.2011 | 12:10 pm

    Fatty, you’re a genius!


  13. Comment by Mark J. | 05.17.2011 | 12:20 pm

    I would like to see your bibliography sir…

    That’s private. – FC

  14. Comment by skippy | 05.17.2011 | 12:33 pm

    Wonderful description of the item we most take for granted !
    At Piombino i was presented with a local bottle of wine which i promptly stuck in the front bidon holder .
    Cycling away on a smooth surface i promptly forgot about it but whilst riding with one of the racers to the sign on podium i started to hear these annoying rattles as we went over cobbles . When i started to look around for the cause Silvo pointed out that it was the wine bottle causing the ruckus . He then wanted to see if we could find it’s twin to add to the musical effect .

  15. Comment by Dirty Steve | 05.17.2011 | 1:11 pm

    You are right, that was an interesting factoid.

  16. Comment by MattC | 05.17.2011 | 1:31 pm

    I saw a prototype bottle/cage system from Sparkletts a while back…apparently it was meant for LOOOONNNNGGG rides where no refill was available. However it never made it to the market due to multiple ‘issues’. The major difficulty was trying to lift the 5 gal bottle out of your frame w/out crashing (the engineering team suggested simply using a very long straw tie-wrapped to your frame). A secondary problem was that your bike weighed 97lbs more when you added the cast-iron cage and a full bottle, and also your crank width needed to be extended to approx 27″ apart so you could pedal without hitting the bottle (said crank-width was on the fast track to become the new UCI Time-Trial standard btw). And also they found that most frames simply folded when even small bumps were hit on a descent (but their fault-analysis team blamed those crashes on rider error, not the bottle-system).

    I just hate it when good ideas get scrapped due to a few insignificant details.

  17. Comment by TimD | 05.17.2011 | 1:34 pm

    The other acceptable receptacle for liquids is of course the aerodynamic bladder system worn against the body.

  18. Comment by LidsB2 | 05.17.2011 | 1:46 pm

    Why did you begin to round to whole pounds as of the 11th? New scale? KLEP (Keyboard Life Extension Program)? Please tell me…I must know.

    I decided on that date that since by my own rules I am required to round up to the nearest pound to be able to claim 158 pounds on the final weigh-in (i.e., 158.2 is too heavy), I may as well start with that math now. – FC

  19. Comment by blinddrew | 05.17.2011 | 2:15 pm

    Nice read, but the parody is painfully accurate…

  20. Comment by rokrider | 05.17.2011 | 3:01 pm

    Just goes to prove, you’re never too old to learn something new… Now, where the hell did I put my keys?

  21. Comment by Susan | 05.17.2011 | 4:39 pm

    Hey, I resemble that comment you made about government workers. Oh, wait, no I don’t. I’m one of the few government employee’s who actually works & avoids meetings, conferences, and the other stuff. This is a great lesson on bottles/cages/and yak wool…

  22. Comment by MikeL | 05.17.2011 | 7:06 pm

    Susan @4;39.
    Do I dare ask where you were when you typed your comment? ;) I will admit to be a fed and I have been known to check Fatty out during the day.

  23. Comment by Laura Laker | 05.18.2011 | 3:42 am

    Brilliant, a gripping bike bottle story! I mistakenly bought a metal water bottle, thinking it was less likely to leak harmful plastics into my water. It promptly rattled out of my bottle cage and its plastic lid shattered on the road. That’ll teach me.

  24. Comment by Dave T | 05.18.2011 | 8:34 am

    I think you need to create a wikipedia page with this.

  25. Comment by Dr. Lammler | 05.18.2011 | 9:38 am

    You mean I don’t need to tip my bike upside down to get a drink of liquid?

  26. Comment by Pat in Littleton | 05.18.2011 | 10:06 am

    OK great story. but are there deeper issues at hand, like the UBI is a metaphor for the dreaded UCI? The story about the (pick one of the following), Radios, Aero bikes, stickers, and so forth. Do you have any unresolved issues that need to be addressed?

  27. Pingback by Fat Cyclist » Blog Archive » Not All Blog Posts Are Epic | 05.18.2011 | 11:03 am

    [...] « The Fat Cyclist Explains: Bottle and Cage Serendipity [...]

  28. Comment by Zeeeter | 05.18.2011 | 11:30 am

    I read this on Tuesday, found it witty, pithy and actually quite interesting as I didn’t actually know much about bottles and cages. My problem (and why I didn’t respond immediately yesterday) was that it was written on a Tuesday. I just couldn’t come up with some witty repartee on a Tuesday. Or on a Wednesday apparently! My swiftness and witty retortfulness (not sure that’s really a valid word) mandated for participation in repartee was noticeably absent. Must be the weather, it’s raining and cold in Cali.

    On a totally unrelated note my Davis fundraising total is gradually climbing towards $1000 and will be matched by my company up to another $1000 so that’s good for a Tuesday. Or a Wednesday.

  29. Comment by Dave | 05.18.2011 | 11:36 am

    I laughed, I cried, I learned something important. Thanks for the history lesson. Oh by the way the post was long and weird but that’s what we expect from you.

  30. Comment by Dan | 05.18.2011 | 11:38 am

    I am blown away by your in depth knowledge and reporting of such a monumental topic!

  31. Comment by Obstinate Roadie | 05.18.2011 | 11:55 am

    Wow, that was long.

  32. Comment by hughes | 05.18.2011 | 12:19 pm

    i don’t have enough time to comment on your post. but if i did, i’d tell you it was funny.

  33. Comment by Brandon S. | 05.18.2011 | 2:07 pm

    Funny and very convincing. I could see you telling this story around a campfire with brats.

  34. Comment by Tobias Mackenstein | 05.18.2011 | 2:46 pm

    As of this post, I will be following this. Quite a great piece of work!

  35. Comment by aussie kev | 05.18.2011 | 3:36 pm

    UBI — classic

    Allez cadel

  36. Comment by Kevin | 05.18.2011 | 5:57 pm

    Seriously funny.. Just too long…

  37. Comment by Joe in San Diego | 05.18.2011 | 6:43 pm

    “The two allowable beverages to be contained in the orbs are mineral water or whey”

    Sounds like code words for the clear and the cream. You know, professional cycling nutrients.

  38. Comment by Daniel | 05.18.2011 | 8:29 pm


  39. Comment by KanyonKris | 05.18.2011 | 9:34 pm

    Bravo. Works on so many levels.

  40. Comment by wannabe | 05.18.2011 | 10:10 pm

    I read one paragraph, and scrolled to the comment section.

  41. Comment by Momeek | 05.19.2011 | 12:13 am

    Very strange that the French sounding ‘UBI’ would use ‘bottle’ instead of ‘bidon’, although the acronym still works for both.

  42. Comment by egonlou | 05.19.2011 | 7:02 am


  43. Comment by TheMayor1 | 05.19.2011 | 8:21 am

    Long – Yes. Too long – I think not. A great diversion from life for awhile.

    Still laughing over the Yak wool and whey. Good to hear that this formerly useless byproduct of the cheese making process is finally finding a useful way to advance the sport of cycling.

  44. Comment by D | 05.19.2011 | 10:10 am

    Now only if we can get H2O that weighs nothing;)

  45. Comment by Clancy | 05.19.2011 | 11:50 am

    OK, I admit… I started reading this Tuesday, didn’t see where it was going and gave up w/o finishing. I read the follow up post yesterday, but being hard-headed as I am, I specifically did NOT finish this post or read the 26 comments. But curiosity finally won (that, and there still is no Thursday post) – and I just read it all and the comments.

    It was worth it, and I do see what you were doing there. Nice. Now, if I could just get the visual of two yak-wool-bagged glass orbs hanging under a saddle out of my mind…

  46. Comment by David | 05.19.2011 | 12:21 pm

    It’s like your talking about bottles, but not talking about bottles… Hmmmm….


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