Got the minerals: Vittel, the peloton’s drink of choice

Vittel, a spa town in eastern France, is the finish for stage 4 and the start for stage 5, which attacks the Vosges mountains for the first of three mountain-top finishes in the 2017 Tour.

Outside France, Vittel is better known as a brand of mineral water than as a resort with thermal baths. Nestlé, which owns the brand and is a sponsoring partner of the Tour, advertises the product as part of “an athlete’s essential hydration” and claims its calcium content promotes bone growth. 

The spa was essentially founded, and promoted, by a lawyer named Louis Bouloumié. A man of republican ideals who had resigned an official post under King Louis-Philippe because of his anti-monarchist views, he supported the losing candidate in France’s presidential election of 1848. 

When its winner, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, further secured his power by a coup d’état in 1851 (beginning a period of dictatorship Karl Marx famously memorialised in “The Eighteenth Brumaire”), Bouloumié found himself seriously out of favour: first blacklisted, then imprisoned and finally exiled for a year.

Tour de France 2013 – Stage 9. Daniel Martin treats himself to a cool-down after his stage victory.

He studied biology in Barcelona, and when he was permitted to return to France, he sought cures for his kidney and liver problems with several stays in Vittel and the nearby town of Contrexéville. 

A firm convert to the revitalising properties of “mineralised water”, he bought the rights to the natural fountain of Gérémony and established it as the “grand source” of Vittel’s health-giving water. No fewer than three of his descendants have served, for decades, as mayors of Vittel, up to as recently as 2001.

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Not all Tour riders, however, have been such enthusiastic fans of mineral water as Monsieur Bouloumié. The most celebrated sceptic was Jacques Anquetil, who, in a debate with a government minister on French TV, said that only a fool would imagine a professional rider could finish the gruelling Bordeaux-Paris race on water alone.

Tour de France 2013, Stage 15. Laurens Ten Dam enjoying some mineral content on Ventoux.

He did not mean, of course, that he preferred champagne or Cognac — although this was certainly true when he was not actually in the saddle: Maître Jacques knew how to enjoy the finer things of life. He meant that mineral water was for washing down amphetamine pills: speed, for speed.

“Leave me in peace,” he protested. “Everybody takes dope.”

The former American pro Tyler Hamilton would have to agree. He started his career as a “pan y agua” rider — his term for a cyclist who competes clean, only eating bread and drinking water. The phrase has also given rise to the Spanish term “paniagua”, meaning a servant of such low status that he works only for board and lodging. Hamilton, as we know, was soon no longer content to be that kind of domestique to Lance Armstrong, and changed his diet accordingly.

23rd July 2014 – Tour de France 2014 – Stage 17 (ST GAUDENS to ST LARY) – Thibaut Pinot drinks from a bottle of water as he is helped away at the finsih of stage 17 – Photo: Offside / L’Equipe.

There was a time, back in more innocent decades of the Tour de France, when riders took care about what water they drank, often preferring wine and beer, not because it had any performance-enhancing benefit (quite the reverse), but because you couldn’t trust the water from the tap in rural France. When I was a kid on family holidays in France in the early 1970s, that was still true. You drank mineral water, as a rule, to avoid getting a gippy tummy from drinking the mains version. 

In those days, carbonated mineral water was still known generically as “Vichy water”, after another famous French spa town, in the Auvergne region. It is not surprising, though, that Nestlé preferred to back Vittel, for Vichy had a significant branding problem — being best-known as the seat of the collaborationist government of Nazi-occupied France during World War II.

Tour de France 2014, Stage 5. Vincenzo Nibali washes away the mud after a gruelling stage.

There is a scene near the end of “Casablanca” in which Captain Renault (an unabashedly corrupt Vichy official in French Morocco, played by Claude Rains) opens a bottle of Vichy water — the camera pauses on the label so that we don’t miss it — and pours himself a glass. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) has just shot Major Strasser to prevent the Nazi officer from stopping the departure of the plane that Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) has boarded with Lazlo, the Czech resistance leader: 

“Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist,” says Renault, “but you’ve become a patriot.”

“Maybe,” Rick replies, “but it seemed like a good time to start.” 

“I think perhaps you’re right,” says Renault, dropping the bottle of Vichy water in a bin, and kicking it over. 

They watch Ilsa’s plane taking off. Then, Renault decides what to do about Rick, as the killer of Major Strasser. As his men arrive, Renault orders them to “round up the usual suspects”. Renault, too, has decided to become a patriot — and give the boot to his Vichy masters. 

One imagines that Louis Bouloumié, too, would have approved.

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