In a world of varied routes, changeable weather and unpredictable mechanical issues, coffee is the reliable, comforting constant.
There’s a long-standing, intrinsic and inextricable link between cycling and coffee. From the espresso machine manufacturer-sponsored teams of the nineteen-fifties and -sixties (see Eddy Merckx’s domination of the 1969 Tour de France as part of the Faema Espresso team), to the obligatory coffee bar that comes embedded in almost every newly opened cycling shop.
Where lycra goes, the sound, sight and smell of freshly ground coffee is rarely far behind.
For me, coffee is more than a menu option at a rest stop — it’s actually my day job. As Head of Retail at Workshop Coffee, I spend much of my week with direct access to some of the best and freshest coffee available, sipping vibrant, fruity Kenyan filters and savouring rich, well-rounded Colombian espresssos depending on the time of year. Consequently, I’m often asked questions like “what’s your favourite coffee?”, "what's the best coffee there is?" or “what’s the best coffee you’ve ever had?".
There's a panoply of reasons why that's a difficult question to answer. I could talk about the importance of freshness and harvest date or of working with the worlds best coffee farmers and producers to ensure quality. The importance of attention to detail and discipline when it comes to roasting and brewing warrants an article in itself, and entire books have been written on just how big a part water quality plays in optimising the flavour of our favourite hot beverage (coffee is around 98% water, by the way).
But even if the many hands involved in this busy mix – farmers, green coffee buyers, importers, roasters, baristas, equipment – work in synergy together to create what might, in theory, be the perfect cup of coffee, there's something that plays an equally important part in the enjoyment of the final product.
Coffee, like so many other experiences, is circumstantial.
The taste and enjoyment of that warm, sweet, velvety cappuccino is directly proportional to the effort exerted in obtaining it -- especially at this time of year.
It begins when the weekend alarm goes off earlier than it would on a weekday. It's still dark, the draw of the duvet is strong, but the roads are calling. You know if you're late, the group will be left standing in the cold, hands tucked firmly into their armpits as they to and fro from foot to foot in a bid to keep warm.
The rest stop, the light at the end of the tunnel, rears its head for the first time. You've planned it carefully. You know where it is, what they serve, how it will look. You've Googled it within an inch of its life to ensure it will cater to your inevitably famished needs.
Three and a half hours and around 100km roll beneath your wheels.
You've chatted. You've laughed. You've taken in the sights. You've attacked. You've done your time at the front.
You've found yourself breathless. You've felt the first hunger pang. You're down to your last few sips of water in the bidon. You've fallen back. You feel your head lull closer and closer toward the handlebars.
You've silenced your legs, but they cry out once again.
The coffee stop comes to the front your mind once again, only this time it doesn't leave. It sits there, insistently, pushing you forward and forcing you to keep those pedals turning.
As the roads become busier and the traffic lights more frequent, you feel the lanes give way to civilisation. It might be a church spire, it might be the tip of The Shard piercing the city sky – both provide the visual cue you need to power through the final leg: rest, food and a life-affirming cup of warm coffee are close enough to touch.
Almost close enough to taste.
The moment you pull up outside your final destination, the only thing that stops you continuing straight on into the cafe is the fact you're physically attached to your bike.
With the most basic levels of self-control exercised, you clip-clop to the counter and do your best not to simply sweep the contents of the display counter into your arms. Instead, you calmly – carefully – order the coffee you've been visualising for the last 25km.
This isn't limited to the colder, winter months. The hot days of summer might see cold, sweet beverages added to the repertoire, but a cup of coffee still remains. In a world of varied routes, changeable weather and unpredictable mechanical issues, coffee is the reliable, comforting constant.
Out on the bike, I'm not a coffee purist.
I appreciate good coffee where and when I'm lucky enough to plan or find it, but I also forgive all manner of sins for what those post-ride cups represent. The end. The result of a rest well-earned. The carrot at the end of the stick. The chance to excitedly relive the ride in the warmth of and comfort of a stool, as the caffeine and sugar of the inevitable pastry take hold.