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It’s a sunny day in Belgium, and the great hope of Belgian cycling stands outside, leaning artfully in a team T-shirt against the wall of a modern house. His tan lines are deep across his cheeks and neck. His smile is playful, his eyes coquettishly shut. Draped around his neck are a pair of tan Bang & Olufsen headphones.
Remco Evenepoel has a sponsor-correct beer in his hand, and – ever the showman – he raises it to his lips for the photographer.
But ah, my friends: they have both been betrayed by the shininess of Remco’s windows, and a reflection reveals the unthinkable.
The beer is not open.
Could it be that Remco Evenepoel does not like Maes 0.0%, the official non-alcoholic beer of Deceuninck-QuickStep?
Feeling a prickling of nervous energy that perhaps I was about to bust open one of the biggest stories of my career, I took a deep breath and prepared to dive into the long Instagram history of Maes 0.0% and Deceuninck-QuickStep for clues. What happened next will shock you.*
(*It won’t, but hopefully we have some fun along the way.)
Sponsors and shills
Cycling team sponsorship is a fragmented beast. Rather than a single brand keeping the lights on, squads are funded by a mixed bag of wealthy benefactors, equipment sponsors, value-in-kind partners and enthusiasts of the sport. In some cases – particularly Italian ProTeam ones – that leads to absurdly long team names and tightly cluttered jersey fronts. But when it comes to the way larger teams deliver a return on investment for their minor sponsors, there are other ways to hit the KPIs.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep squad is a particularly interesting example, having been responsible for some of the most giddy photo-shoots in the sport’s modern history. The team’s partnerships with bedding companies Latexco and Innergetic have birthed a vast catalogue of shots of some of the sport’s leading athletes snuggling into each other for a snooze, having pillow fights, or tastefully draping themselves over one another on a mattress.
Because of an enduring fascination with this partnership, I harboured hopes of taking an in-depth look at the story of those photoshoots, what the team and riders thought of the situation, and whether the brands got what they wanted from it. I even had a title for the article in my head – ‘Tom Boonen Has a Pillow’ – which was going to be a multi-thousand-word feature in the style of Gay Talese’s genre-defining Frank Sinatra profile.
Unfortunately the team weren’t as obliging as I’d hoped. Given I sent their press officer the following photo request, however, I don’t particularly blame them:
Luckily, there was another brand on Deceuninck-QuickStep’s long list of partners that was almost as interesting a case study: the team’s official non-alcoholic beer sponsor, Maes 0.0%.
Deceuninck-QuickStep isn’t unique in having an alcohol-free beer brand on the books – Bora-Hansgrohe does, too – but the Belgian squad is a lot more proactive in how it pushes it to the team’s fans, with regular Instagram posts highlighting the beer-adjacent beverage.
At first I thought this might be as a result of a direct correlation between the brewer’s investment in the team – after all, they’re a second-line sponsor, behind Deceuninck and QuickStep but next to Specialized in the hierarchy, and ahead even of pillow magnates Latexco.
But I began to wonder: do the riders actually like the stuff? Or does Maes 0.0% just have a very diligent marketing person with a direct line to the riders, pushing the partnership to its delirious breaking point? Does Remco’s downfall tell us anything about the beer?
To find out, let’s first learn a bit about the particular beer at the centre of the raging furore that is RemcoGate.
Maes 0.0% is a non-alcoholic beer – a fast-growing category in Europe – that promises some of the flavour of a full-strength beer without the hangover. It is a sub-brand of Belgium’s Alpen-Maes brewery, which in turn is owned by green-bottled Dutch juggernaut, Heineken.
Excuse the editorialising for a moment, but non-alcoholic beer is – generally speaking – not very good. Maes does not have Australian distribution, so I’m unable to confirm my heavy suspicions, but having tried most options in the category available locally, I’m inclined to think it’s a tepid beer-flavoured water that is wet and cold and little else.
That personal bias aside, reviews are objectively mixed. On the plus side, the beer won the 2018 World Beer Award for best light lager. On the negative side, it gets a lowly 1.88 out of five on RateBeer, with users repeatedly pointing out its flavour resemblance to wet cereal:
The truth likely lies somewhere between these two extremes of ‘world-beating light beer’ and “quite disgusting … not a beer … definitely not”, but I needed to know more.
Were there any clues to be gleaned from the beer’s highest profile ambassadors? Maybe! You tell me.
Three men, three cans of Maes 0.0%
A Dane with a thirst
When you’ve given 100%, you don’t want 0.0%
Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic…
The curious case of Yves Lampaert
So where does that leave us?
In this forensic examination of the drinking habits of the sport’s leading classics team, I was hoping to discover some untold truths, and to answer the questions that define our age. Questions like: is Maes 0.0% a good beer? Does the team it sponsors actually like drinking it? Does Remco Evenepoel, Belgian wunderkind and bicycle prodigy, understand the specifics of how to open a ring-pull can?
Some of those questions went unanswered, although not all.
Just as I was prepared to chalk this up as a great unsolved mystery of our times, I happened across the following, startling exhibit:
That’s right: Remco Evenepoel once had a beer, and on the evidence before me, appeared to drink it.
Whether this was the beer that turned him off Maes 0.0% for good, I cannot for now definitively say. Perhaps it was. On the flipside, perhaps Evenepoel has crates and crates of bad buzz-free beer in his expensive garage, and uses every spare waking moment to guzzle the stuff down.
I don’t know. But I do know one thing: I will pursue this story to the bitter, cornflake-flavoured end.