You might think that for sportspeople and athletes, coffee is primarily used for its caffeine content. However, for cyclists, the relationship with coffee is often more complex than that.
There is a unique and unusual relationship between the worlds of specialty coffee and cycling, and it is one that has grown rapidly in recent years.
To find out more about what links these two areas, where it started, and how people are bringing coffee and cycling closer together, I spoke to a few experts from across the world specialty coffee. Read on to learn more about the relationship between the two and why it exists.
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A Short History Of Coffee And Cycling
It all started in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Italian espresso machine manufacturer Fabbrica Apparecchiature Elettromeccaniche e Affini (or FAEMA), sponsored the eponymous Faema cycling team, which included Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx.
Merckx is widely recognised within the cycling community as the greatest cyclist of all time. His professional career spanned 13 years, during which he won a record 11 Grand Tours. He was a part of the Faema team for two years, from 1968 to 1970. Despite the fact that FAEMA had sponsored cycling teams before, Merckx was arguably the most popular rider that a coffee company had ever sponsored.
In 1983, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC/Fedecafe) created a cycling team (Café de Colombia). It was with this team that Colombian cyclist Luis Herrera became the first South American cyclist to win a Grand Tour in 1987.
Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, coffee companies (including Italian espresso machine manufacturer Saeco, coffee conglomerate Segafredo, and US coffee house chain Jittery Joe’s) continued to sponsor individual cyclists and teams.
Although the relationship between coffee and cycling seemed to really pick up in the latter half of the 20th century, it has always been about more than coffee companies sponsoring teams. Cafés and espresso bars have historically offered cyclists a place to briefly socialise and relax – a quick stop on a long ride – but they are also a key part of what is referred to as “the coffee ride”.
It’s difficult to find a specific definition of what the coffee ride is. For professional and competitive cyclists, it is similar to a recovery ride, where you work some of the toxins out of your muscles after a long or particularly tough ride.
However, for those whose who cycle as a hobby, the coffee ride might be as simple as friends cycling together between a few coffee shops, and sitting down to enjoy a good cup of coffee along the way.
Coffee & Cycling: A Unique Culture
To find out more about the link between cycling and coffee , I spoke to some passionate cyclists from across the specialty coffee sector.
Bas van den Heuvel is the owner of Il Magistrale Cycling Coffee in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. He tells me that this relationship is heavily rooted “in the element of a strong social community”.
Brian Megens is the owner of Fixed Gear Coffee in Maastricht, the Netherlands. He agrees with Bas, and adds that both cycling and coffee are inherently social worlds. He says: “Cycling has become more social, and [going for] coffee has always been a social outing.
“While you do get a performance boost from coffee, the culture is more rooted in sitting together and taking your time for a coffee before, during, and after a ride.”
Richard Frazier is the CMO at Workshop Coffee in London. He explains that there is a massive overlap between the two cultures as both are very much quality driven. “[In both worlds], there is an appreciation for something done well.
“In cycling, there are people who are drawn to the craft, precision, and intricacy of bike design. That same mentality and attention to detail sits across specialty coffee, from sourcing right through to brewing.”
Joshua Crane is the founder of The Coffee Ride in Boulder, Colorado. He notes that even within the world of cycling there are a number of different subcultures and subgroups, but he says that “coffee is the common denominator”.
“One of my favourite things about coffee is that it is a community driver,” Joshua says. “It breaks down barriers, no matter what kind of bike one rides. We can all connect and exchange stories over a cup of coffee.”
Social media has played an important role in developing this relationship. No matter the level of the rider or a consumer’s interest in specialty coffee, online platforms like Instagram and Facebook drive interest in both worlds.
The influence of social media might mean riders trying out a new café stop along their cycling route, or picking up a new bike because they saw an ad for it on Facebook. Brian explains that “coffee and the café stop can be a great ‘Instagram moment’” for cyclists, and agrees that social media “has definitely been a big influence”.
Is Coffee Attracting More Cyclists?
Cycling has increased in popularity over the past few years in line with a renewed consumer focus on health, fitness, and wellbeing. It became even more popular during the Covid-19 pandemic, when most public gyms around the world were forced to close for periods of weeks or months.
Both of these trends hold massive potential for coffee brands to attract more cycling customers.
Firstly, at cafes, there are plenty of ways to accommodate experienced cyclists but also attract the new group of riders that has emerged during the pandemic. Richard says that while it might depend on the space a café has available, coffee shops can start by “offering a safe place [for bikes], such as rails to lock their bike without having to worry about it”.
For larger coffee shops with an established community, Richard suggests something else. “In terms of cafes that have a large community of riders that gravitate toward them, having rides start and end at your café is a great way to create a loyal community of people that want to spend time in your space.”
Branding is important, too. To reach the wider cycling community, coffee businesses need to align themselves with values that are common among this new demographic. Brian, Bas, and Josh all think that there’s more to it than just slapping a cycling sticker on a coffee bag and calling it “specialty cycling coffee”.
Brian, for instance, stresses the importance of working with trusted coffee roasters who are transparent and offer traceability with their coffees. As most cyclists have a focus on health, wellbeing, fitness, and performance, they will likely look for organic coffees of higher quality; traceable coffee is more likely to appeal to them.
Bas adds that cycling-focused coffee companies often “look for ways to show caffeine levels on their bags, because more than often cyclists are particularly interested in the burst of energy that coffee offers”.
Finally – practice what you preach. Roasters and coffee shops looking to tap into this market should consider offering a bike delivery service. This doesn’t just showcase your commitment to sustainable and environmentally-friendly delivery methods, it also proves that you’re a business run for cyclists, by cyclists.
Josh says: “When I started, I figured: why not turn my passion for the bike and [extend] my newfound hobby (coffee roasting) to consumers across Boulder?” By showing customers that coffee and cycling can and do coexist, businesses are more likely to attract cyclists and coffee drinkers who were previously unaware of this connection.
The relationship between cycling and coffee is a unique one. Coffee is not just an important part of cycling’s modern history – today, many riders rely on it day-in, day-out to keep them going.
While it might seem niche to some, there is also a great amount of potential in the space where these two worlds overlap. For coffee shops along cycle routes, there is an opportunity to set their business apart. For competitive, entrepreneurial cyclists, there is the potential to express their love for coffee in a new and unusual way.
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