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 firstname.lastname@example.org is probably getting a ton of email that he probably wishes he weren’t.
Anyway, here’s the email I received.
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.
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:
- No bottle, cage, or mount can use any material or technology that did not exist or have popular acceptance before 1974.
- 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.