Do you eat to ride, or ride to eat?
Twelve bowls of cereal with milk. Could you eat that for breakfast? How about seven pancakes with maple syrup? Or 22 eggs? I couldn’t eat that much food, much less eat that much and then ride my bike hard for hours. But that’s what the pros do — they eat about 1,800 calories for breakfast!
A pro burns 3,500 to 4,000 calories during an average stage in the Tour de France and 5,000 to 5,500 on a climbing stage. Off the bike pros move very little; however, their basal metabolism burns another 1,000 or so calories a day during a stage race.
The last two weeks I wrote about my tour from Winter Park, Colorado, to Kremmling, where I spent the night and then rode over Rabbit Ears pass to Steamboat Springs, where I helped my wife with an art show. Then I climbed back over Rabbit Ears to Kremmling, spent the night, and then pedaled back to Winter Park.
Leaving Steamboat on my way back to Winter Park I climbed the west side of Rabbit Ears pass, which climbs 2,600 ft. (790m) in 7 miles (11 km) averaging 6.5 to 7.5%. It’s very similar to the Category 1 Col d’Aspin in the Pyrenees, which is 12 kmat 6.5%.
While I wasn’t riding nearly as fast or hard as the pros raced, I was riding a loaded touring bike. The day that I climbed Rabbit Ears pass I was burning about 600 calories per hour and a total of about 4,500 calories that day.
What did I apply from a pro racer’s approach to nutrition to fuel my tour?
What lessons can you learn from the pros to fuel a hard ride?
Breakfast is big.
For breakfast the pros typically eat oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins, fruit, eggs, toast with peanut butter or Nutella (a chocolate-hazelnut spread) and coffee. They eat several hours before the stage begins so that they have time to digest all the food so that a) they aren’t trying to race and digest food at the same time and b) so that all the calories are ready to burn.
The morning I started my tour I had three pancakes with syrup and one egg over easy that totaled about 870 calories (see photo) — almost half what the pros eat! I ate a Sharky’s, my favorite café in Winter Park, where I’m a regular.
Each day on the tour I ate breakfast and got on my bike so that I could complete the day’s ride before the typical Colorado storm of lightning and rain that starts early afternoon. Since I didn’t sit around waiting to digest my breakfast, I rode for at least an hour at my digestion pace — even slower than a normal conversational endurance pace!
Fuel sources are important.
At race pace riders are burning almost exclusively glycogen (from carbohydrates) for energy. Glycogen stores are limited to just a few hours of hard riding.
I wasn’t racing on my tour and I was burning a mix of glycogen and fat. I’m not overweight — 170 lbs and 6’0” — but I have enough body fat to fuel a day on the bike.
Carbohydrates are key.
Because glycogen stores are limited, racers eat primarily carbohydrates before, during and after a stage.
So did I. For breakfast I ate either pancakes or a breakfast burrito, which is primarily beans, rice, peppers and eggs wrapped in a tortilla. On the bike I consumed bananas, breakfast bars, cookies and green (caffeinated) tea I’d sweetened with table sugar.
Riders eat a lot.
Even though they are racing hard, racers consume 300 or more calories an hour, about as much as the body can digest in an hour. So did I. I ate by my watch. Every hour I asked myself if I’d eaten at least 300 calories, primarily carbs, in the last hour. If not I dug a breakfast bar or some cookies out of my handlebar bag and ate.
Riders drink a lot.
We’re all familiar with domestiques dropping back to the team car and stuffing bottles in every available pocket to carry up to teammates. Depending on conditions, riders down 1-3 16 fl. oz. (0.5 L) bottles every hour. Rarely does a rider pour a bottle on his head.
One Tour de France telecast showed the director sportif before a hot stage instructing his riders to drink, not dump. Why? A cyclist’s engine isn’t very efficient. When a racer is burning 5,000 calories during a stage, only 20 – 40% (1,000 – 2,000 calories) generates forward motion. The remaining calories generate heat. Fluid you drink circulates through your core and carries heat to your skin, where it’s dissipated. Water you dump on yourself only cools you externally.
To keep eating and drinking hour after hour, racers have a lot of choices so that they can find something palatable.
On Stage 14 of the Tour de France the peloton raced 208.5 km over rolling terrain with three categorized climbs. After 3:20 of racing with about2:30 to go, the Cyclingnews live feed reported: “The peloton has also reached the feed zone and is also collecting their lunch in musettes. Riders are changing their bottles and seeing what the team soigneurs have prepared for lunch in the pocket-sized sandwiches [panini] and snacks. Most will keep any energy bars and gels for the finale of the stage.”
The panini, fruit and other snacks in the musettes provide sustained energy. The bars and gels provide quick energy for the final climb or sprint.
I expected the Steamboat-to-Kremmling stage to take me about 5 hours, including delays for road construction, and there was no place in between to re-provision. The photo shows what I started with that day:
- 2 bottles of sweetened caffeinated tea
- 2 sodas (more caffeine)
- 1 bottle water
- 2 bananas
- 8 cookies in a baggie
- 3 breakfast bars
- 1 turkey and cheese sandwich – stopping for lunch was my reward for getting to the top of Rabbit Ears pass
- 2 gels – I always carry a couple in case I start to bonk
Note that I ate almost all real food from the grocery store. Sports nutrition (bars, gels, drinks and tablets) provides no performance advantage! What I bought at the grocery store each night fueled me just as well as the much more expensive and generally less tasty sports nutrition.
Recovery is key.
The pros start eating and drinking as soon as they get on the team bus after each stage. Each bus is equipped with a small kitchen to cook rice, chicken and other tasty favorites.
As I rolled into the town where I was spending the night I stopped at a minimart and bought pretzels or cookies to snack on until dinner. For dinner I tried to find cafés serving a pasta dish or something similar, but if I couldn’t I’d order something else for dinner with a dry potato on the side.
Isn’t this a great sport – whether you eat to ride like the pros, or you ride to eat like me — you get to eat a lot!
Here’s some more detailed, targeted information about tailoring some of what the pros do to help you become a better rider (no matter what type of riding you do):
- Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food & Drink. 15 pages of detailed information from the peloton – only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their 15% discount). Coach John Hughes describes and analyzes pro nutrition in detail and then provides recipes so that you can make your own sports nutrition.
- Learning from the Pros: 35 tips on how to become a better rider is 26 pages packed with current information, available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their 15% discount). Whether you ride for good health, for better fitness or improved performance Coach John Hughes translates these tips from the masters of the sport into terms that you can use.
Coach Hughes posted pictures of his tour on https://www.facebook.com/john.hughes.5283
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.