It’s a commonplace observation to note that the entire professional riding class is ‘fitter’ compared to thirty or forty years ago. The days when a professional rider would arrive at the start line of Paris – Nice with about ‘500 miles in my legs’ from the previous season are long gone.

Those early season training camps where riders jumped on a set of scales to be laughed at by team mates have also been consigned to history. As the principals of exercise physiology slowly established themselves in the professional peloton, so too have modern ideas about diet, nutrition and power output. The links between body weight, lean muscle mass and performance have become better understood in recent decades.

The truth is that there are technologies and information available to anyone with time and money that were unheard of by winners of the Tour de France 20 years ago.

There’s no doubt that Pro teams take every aspect of preparation much more seriously. In the same way that Premier League football teams will insist that a potential signing undergoes a medical examination, the same broad principals are being followed in the top tier of cycling.


Meals on wheels: Juan Antoni Flecha fuels up

Gone are the days when a rider needed to win a decent selection of races to sign a contract. Now, a rider with promising results will more than likely have to undergo a full medical, blood chemistry examined, VO2 max, power output and threshold tests are all carried out before a rider gets handed his new bike and kit. These days, results are not enough.

A taste of home
Predictably, there isn’t much by way of records when it comes to analysing historical data. Teams didn’t employ nutritionists and dieticians until relatively recently – in the mid 1990s – and the nutritional needs of a team were left to the hotel chefs where the teams stayed during races. To say that the quality of food served to teams was variable would be an understatement and, in the end, teams began to take matters into their own hands.

Italian teams who decamped to Belgium for a month during the Spring Classics season would often bring their own pasta and book their own hotels where they knew, from previous experience, that the kitchen and the staff were up to the task and understood the meal time needs of the team.


Tour riders certainly get their fill

The Ariostea team of the mid 1990s was one of the first to understand the importance of keeping the riders happy and healthy and one of the ways they did that was to bring enough Italian pasta (De Cecco, as it happened) in team vehicles to last the duration of the Belgian campaign. With almost 20 staff and riders for the Spring campaign, that was a lot of pasta. The fact that they stayed in a hotel run by Italians also helped…

Soul food
Almost inevitably, teams started to look at every aspect of nutrition and decided they couldn’t always trust the hygiene of some hotel kitchens and would bring not only food but also a chef. This year 8 of the Tour teams are bringing their own mobile kitchens; converted trucks tricked out with the latest kitchen equipment and wall to wall stainless steel.

No longer are teams at the mercy of no star hotel kitchens and cantankerous hotel staff, they have their own kitchens and chefs to hand any time a rider wants a snack rustled up.

But nutrition isn’t simply about calories in and calories out, or even the nutritional quality of food. There’s a psychological element when it comes to food for cyclists too. For Pro team riders, slurping down gels and energy drinks on daily basis, their palettes quickly become jaded.

Food is reduced to mere fuel, something that you have to put into your stomach to make sure that there’s always energy to power the muscles. The pleasure of eating has much of enjoyment leeched out of it and becomes mere grist for the intestinal mill.


Laying down the claw: Kristiansen checks on the fish

When the RadioShack Trek pro team installed a chef with the team for the first time, Levi Leipheimer was amazed: œWhen we sat down at the dinner table for a great meal it took our minds off the race and brought us together as a team. We had escaped the typical drudgery of eating for the sake of eating.”

It’s a common complaint and, considering the number of calories that a pro rider in a stage race has to consume, it’s understandable that you hear phrases like “the last thing I want to see or eat after riding hard for five hours for the fourth day in a row is some white bread, pasta and flavourless boiled chicken. It cracks me mentally.”

Bland food stuffs, easy to digest but quick to pall (chicken breast, boiled rice, pasta) are consumed in industrial quantities by bike riders, but the business of mealtimes should normally be a pleasure and a smart team will always find ways to produce something tasty that doesn’t ‘infringe’ the rules laid down by a Pro team nutritionist.

Carbs are kings
In the UK, influential coach Peter Keen was an early enthusiast and advocate of using whatever nutritional and diet strategies he felt were appropriate. Nutrition fell into that category of variables that could be described as ‘marginal gains’ and Keen’s strategy of looking for advantage in every area saw him encourage the use of dilute glucose polymer solutions (OK, ‘energy drinks’ if you must) in feeding bottles.

It was a step up from tap water, that’s for sure and since then energy food design has stepped up even further with greater knowledge of which type of carbohydrates work fastest, and how to maximise the amount of carbohydrate absorbed.

And yet, again, we are confronted with the brute facts of physiology. The best way to transfer the energy in food into the blood stream and thence to muscle fibres is if can pass quickly and easily from the wall of the intestine into the blood stream. Energy drinks that offer rapidly absorbed carbohydrates are possibly the greatest ergogenic aid endurance sport knows.

Old and new truths – Food facts

The truth is that the human body hasn’t changed much since the invention of the bicycle and neither has its nutritional needs. The nutritional composition of the contents of the average musette and race food haven’t really changed.

What has changed is our understanding of the importance of hydration and the best way to ingest calories while riding a bike.

Old-school nutrition

Alan Lim…and the Peace Race rice cakes
Ex-pro John Herety, now manager of the Rapha Condor team, was one of the few British riders to win a stage in the legendary Peace Race, a ferocious race in which the former Eastern Bloc nations used to knock lumps out of each other.

As its name suggests, it was supposedly about peace, love and understanding rather than global supremacy and the teams’ race food was supplied by the organisers. Herety, who trained as a chef before turning pro, recalled “In 1979, we were all given a supply of rice cakes before every stage, two slices of rice cake with a filling in the middle, either apple or sultanas – although I’m not sure if some of the East German teams got extra vitamins!

Anyway, I was reading Alan Lim’s book about race food and funnily enough there was a recipe for rice cakes, although his were seasoned and filled differently. The fact is though that we were eating rice cakes in races back then without having the nutritional science to explain why it was good to eat.” Some things never change.

The Feed Zone Cookbook

If you’re a cyclist who loves food… then you will love ‘The Feed Zone Cookbook’ by Biju Thomas and Allen Lim.

Lim, with his doctorate in ‘integrative physiology’ was instrumental in developing training and nutritional strategies for Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis as well as the Garmin and RadioShack teams.

Between Lim and chef Biju Thomas they have come up with a 317 page hardback crammed with real world advice, anecdotes, cooking tips, nutritional science basics and recipes that even the most baking-phobic rider will want to concoct.

There’s advice on pre- and post-ride meals as well as the best set of recipes for ‘portables’ to cram into your back pockets during rides.

Mouth watering – and it looks beautiful in the pictures!

Published by Velorpress, www.velopress.com

This article was first published in the July 5 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio and download from the Apple store.

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  • Brian

    Yep, totally agree with the above comments. All decent books on the subject right back to the 1970s, even a few earlier ones, talk about the very same thing and it’s not all about a steak at breakfast.

    There is actually nothing new at all. The trump card to being a good cyclist is pure natural talent followed by a proper training programme. Food, drink and diet is part of the remainder but it’s not the meal many make it out to be. Just eat a good balanced diet as a talented rider.

  • Ken Evans

    There is a lot of marketing hype in cycling food and drink, amateur riders can get caught up in fads and gimmicks, as recent revelations have revealed the famous pros sometimes get results from doping rather than eating. One of the major problems with racing is that all the travelling can make planning meals difficult, there are often delays and problems that cause disruptions. Different people have different tastes, and can bored with special diets. If you are riding a lot, you just burn through the calories anyway, so being selective isn’t really an issue. Another factor for amateur riders is that the branded cycling stuff can be expensive, and not be the best way to spend money, when other things could have a bigger effect.