What do the pros eat to fuel racing like this? Here are the results of the first four stages of the Tour de France:
Stage 1: 201 km won by Fernando Gaviria Quick-Step Floors in 4:23:32, 45.86 km/h (28.50 mph)
Stage 2: 182.5 km won by Peter Sagan BORA – Hansgrohe in 4:06:37, 44.51 km/h (27.66 mph)
Stage 3: 35.5 km won by BMC Racing Team in 38:46, 54.95 km/h (34.14 mph)
Stage 4: 195 km won by Fernando Gaviria Quick-Step Floors in 4:25:01, 44.15 km/h (27.43 mph)
A racer burns 3,500 to 4,000 calories on an average day in the Tour de France like these and 5,000 to 5,500 on a big day in the mountains.
Racers are using three different energy systems:
- Oxidative aerobic system. For almost the entire stage the racers are riding aerobically except for sprints or breaking away. The oxidative system produces energy from two different fuel sources: glucose and triglycerides.
- Glycolytic anaerobic system. When a rider launches a breakaway or tries to catch one quickly the glycolytic system kicks in. This system metabolizes glucose anaerobically to provide the energy. This system provides energy for very hard efforts of about 30 seconds to two minutes.
- ATP-PC system. During a sprint the ATP-PC system produces energy for maximal effort — a sprint up to about 300 meters. This energy system provides immediate energy through the breakdown of very limited high-energy phosphates.
The glucose is stored in the body as glycogen. Even the skinniest pro has enough body fat to provide triglycerides to fuel a stage; however, glycogen stores are limited. The body stores just enough for glycogen for 60 – 90 minutes of hard racing. Protein provides only about five percent of the energy.
The glucose comes from carbohydrates. Racers eat primarily carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (GI) for instant energy. GI measures how fast a food causes your blood glucose to rise. Glucose has a GI of 100 and fructose is 25. Sucrose (table sugar), which is made up of a combination of these two has a GI of 65. Maltodextrin has a GI of 110.
Fuel for the Stage
Racers typically eat two to three hours before the start. Most pro races are so long that they can get away with eating closer to the start time compared to when a typical racer should eat. Many times the pro races start with neutral sections that allow riders to ease into the race, which also allows time for the riders to digest breakfast. A typical pre-race breakfast is oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins, fruit, eggs, toast with peanut butter or Nutella (a chocolate-hazelnut spread) and coffee.
What’s in the Musette
Riders consume 300 or more calories per hour. They eat sports bars and gels as well as sports drinks provided by the team sponsors. Because they are racing 21 stages with only two rest days in the Tour, they also eat real food to provide variety and additional calories. During a stage they eat boiled potatoes (GI is 85), rice cakes from sushi rice (GI is 85), panini (small sandwiches) and cut-up fruit to provide an assortment of flavors. During cold stages, small ham and butter sandwiches are also available. Providing a lot of variety is the key to getting through three weeks of racing without bonking.
Fueling the Sprint
A rider is not allowed a feed from the team car in the last 20 km of a race. This is to keep the cars and riders apart when white line fever has kicked in. A rider plans ahead by keeping a gel or two, usually containing caffeine, in a jersey pocket. Sagan downs a gel with 7-10 kilometers to go.
Fueling the Time Trial
The team time trial was so short that glycogen stores weren’t depleted; however, fueling was still important. The riders had a gel with a high glycemic index 15 to 30 minutes before the start. You may also have seen a racer racers sip from a bottle during the TT. Even though the TT was too short to digest much fluid, simply rinsing a carb solution in the mouth improves performance!
This is the first of several columns on what regular roadies can learn during the Tour de France. Future columns will also cover how they deal with heat and how they recover, especially in the mountains.
My eBook Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food & Drink – Nutritional Insight from Pro Cycling Teams includes more information on what the pros eat for breakfast, on the bike, on the bus after a stage and for dinner. Although sports food products provide part of a racer’s on-the-bike diet they also eat real food. The 15-page Eating and Drinking Like the Pros has recipes to make your own drinks, gels and solid food that provide as much nutrition and taste better at a much lower cost than commercial products. It also has information on what to eat at a minimart.
My eBook Learning from the Pros: Tips from 35 Pros on How to be a Better Rider describes how the pros train; learning to train like them will bring better results — although you certainly don’t have to go as hard! — with less time on the bike. It describes race strategy and tactics and how to apply these to group rides. The 26-page Learning from the Pros also covers recovery, nutrition, weight management and the importance of the mental factors. It contains insights from Sir Dave Brailsford and Team Sky, Richie Porte, Chris Froome, Taylor Phinney, Jens Voigt, Marianne Vos, Evelyn Stevens, Pauline Ferrand-Prévand, and Lizzie Armistead.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.