Tom’s nutrition tip for long distance cyclists

June 3, 2008

A great deal of discussion, both enlightening and occluding, envelops the topic of nutrition for long distance cyclists but you can take it from me that it is a very good idea. There is a bit of a tendency for the discourse to become rather technical. Even the word “nutrition” borders on the esoteric. I think we can more usefully call it “eating and drinking” instead. And again my view is that both are highly advisable.

That advice, I suppose, is already in the domain of controversy. Some cyclists choose only to drink and shun eating. There are a good few magic potions on the market (if their sales blurbs are to be believed, enchantment has to be involved) purporting to be a good replacement for food. If you happen to dislike eating food then this approach – soluble pulverized energy bars, as far as I can tell – might be for you. But it seems a bit too much like watered-down baby food for me. We all make sacrifices for our sport but why should good food should be one of them?

So what then to eat? Breakfast! Pancakes with blueberries, waffles with strawberry compote, corn muffins, bagels with marmalade, English muffins with jelly, scrambled egg with home fries, corn flakes and toast, oatmeal and, with any or some combination of these, a big mug of coffee. The best long distance routes are designed to take you past a suitable diner, café or other eatery at least once every 25 miles. With luck and some planning you can have breakfast for breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, dinner, bedtime snack, midnight snack and middle-of-the-night snack. If the brevets you’ve been riding have been designed according to some criteria other than the locations of breakfast, have a word with your RBA to see if that can’t be fixed. Suggest a few of your favorite breakfast joints.

“Fast” “food” has some convenience advantages: there’s a lot of places selling that kind of substance and sometimes the service is indeed quite rapid. But there are serious risks. A lot of cycling can alter one’s tastes to a remarkable degree. I once had a yearning for a Coca-Cola soda-pop half way through a hot hard 600 and it tasted good to me under those conditions. More than once I’ve heard rumor of healthy civilized people having eaten a Hamburg sandwich from MacDonald’s on a long ride and reporting that tasted good and was very satisfying! So clearly we have to be extremely vigilant to avoid this kind of catastrophe. I find Shaw’s comment helpful: “You can get used to anything, so you must be careful what you get used to,” (and not just in regard to cycling). I recommend careful planning of the fast food strategy in advance, preferable during a period when you aren’t cycling for a few days, writing it down and swearing in front of all your acquaintances that you have the will power to stick to it.

My strategy for the fast food is of course, breakfast! Cycling mostly in North East USA, I can take advantage of Duncan’s Donuts. I read recently that the specific stem cell mutation responsible for the metastatic growth of this orange/pink phenomenon with the Hello Kitty logotype has been identified. Perhaps that knowledge will lead to their cultivation elsewhere.

But anyway, these establishments have bagels, cookies, pastries, muffins, etc. and can even quickly make you a “breakfast sandwich” from a bagel or croissant (très chic) with egg and, if you like, sausage, designed to be eaten with one hand. Let’s go over that one more time: they have sandwiches that contain breakfast, indeed are breakfast, that can be eaten while riding a bicycle. Splendid! Moreover, they also serve, and this is of considerable importance, a perfectly respectable cup of coffee (unlike that coffee retail pestilence with the green circular logo).

Here’s a suggested routine for a stop at Duncan’s:

1. Dismount (not required if you choose the drive-through).
2. Use the bathroom (wash your hands before eating).
3. Order food you can eat while riding.
4. Now this is the tricky part: order a medium cup of coffee in a large cup. The clerk may stumble over this request so I have taken to saying the order, as Shakespeare might have endorsed, three different ways one after the other. For example: “I’d like a medium-size coffee in a large cup, please.” [Pause to assess the degree of blank stare you engender.] “So that’s your largest cup but with just a medium coffee in it.” [Pause again, if necessary.] “So there’ll be lots of space above the coffee in the cup.” Once, the clerk and I needed the mediation of the duty supervisor but that was before I perfected the three-ways order.
5. Discard any food packaging and accessories you don’t want.
6. Move the water bottle in your seat-tube cage to a jersey pocket or your saddle-bag (fits neatly in the side pocket of a Carradice, I found).
7. Put the coffee in the freed-up cage. Check the lid is secure.
8. Put the food either between your teeth or in a pocket or handlebar bag.
9. Ride off.
10. Eat the food.
11. In three to eight minutes the coffee will be at the right temperature. By this point, only a very small amount will have splashed out of the cup, if any. You may want to alternate this step of the process with the previous one.

Warning: as far as Duncan is concerned, a cup of coffee has cream and sugar in it unless otherwise specified. This sometimes catches me out. On the last leg of a recent 300, I inadvertently got a cup of their so-called “regular” coffee. I chastised myself for carelessness, drank it, and a couple of miles later I regained my strength, stride and rode like a daemon to the finish. Moral: don’t be a snob – the most exalted of gelati also has cream and sugar in it.

Helpful tip for right-handed cup-holders: use a crank with triple chain-wheels. You can comfortably ride for miles on rolling terrain shifting the front derailleur with your left hand with a cup of coffee in your right. Lefties should be all set already.

Aside from breakfast, fruit is worth mentioning. It is the other pocketable convenience food and its a whole food without the value-add manufacturing, packaging, brand name and scientific-sounding marketing copy of the so-called energy bar. The banana is popular among cyclists, for good reason, but it is fragile when properly ripe for eating. Dented, it soon becomes unappetizing and there is the problem of the peel. In a jersey pocket it stands a fair chance, if you’re not careful, of festering there until the garment goes into the wash, or possibly even beyond that point. But tossing it into the hedgerow, regardless of its rapid biodegradability (which is exactly the problem of carrying it with you), is, ipso facto, littering. Don’t be a litter lout cyclist!

So I’d like to make a few of other suggestions you might not have thought of. First, for a refreshing astringency that foils the gallons of water you’re guzzling, a pomegranate is hard to beat. These stimulating and convenient rations are very durable in pocket or bag and the peel won’t turn to mush before the end of even a 1200. You might want to practice one-handed peeling using your teeth at home beforehand. Another excellent choice: succulent and delicious, bursting with energy and tropical goodness, is the pineapple. This handsome fruit tucked in a jersey pocket will garner envy and admiration from your fellow riders. Lastly, but I warn, this is not for the beginner cyclist, is the coconut. It can be opened with a firm bonk on the cap of a steering tube or top of a quill stem. Be careful where you place your cycle computer and cue sheet in case of dribbles. This maneuver, deftly executed, will bring you respect, awe even, especially from those drafting you at the time.

I mentioned coffee already. It is in the top three of the endurance sports drinks. It is good hot or cold, satisfying and stimulating – simply one of the best drinks ever invented. I’ve already mentioned the trick of putting one of Duncan’s large cups, filled with a medium coffee, in the bottle cage on your seat tube. But there is another technique not every one knows: filling a Camelbak with iced coffee. The Camelbak was designed for effective insulation to keep your beverage cool on a hot day. If you fill it with ice (which is cheap and widely available and is free on-tap at some stores and gas stations) and then top it up with chilled coffee then you’ll have a refreshing supply of iced coffee for your ride. The larger Camelbak models can keep you in iced coffee for several hours, long enough for a hot stretch between even remote breakfast stops or contrôles without putting a foot down.

Number one on the sports drinks list is of course water. It is does the job like nothing else, it is widely available and remarkably inexpensive if you can find my favorite variety which is named “Tap Water”. (The evil absurdity of brand-name water needs no repetition here.) Many people mix their food into their water with the afore-mentioned pulverized soluble substances. When I was a beginner brevet rider I experimented with these products. I admit their marketing can be really quite persuasive. But I found that they all had one crucial property in common: they are the only food I know that becomes less palatable with the miles, rapidly and dramatically so. On Boston-Montreal-Boston 2006 I was sick of whatever enchanted Perpetuum Mobile I was imbibing by the middle of the first day. By the second, the stuff was nauseating to me, all other foods conversely having become more attractive, some perilously so (I swear I could have eaten at Taco Bell without expecting a large sum of money in compensation).

The third in the triumvirate of perfect sports drinks is beer. That this beverage becomes profoundly attractive on a long ride has a solid biological basis. It is watery and cold (at least outside of the UK), which is a great start. It has lots of carbon dioxide in solution which stimulates the heart and blood flow. And the alcohol, if taken with some food (breakfast, preferably), enters into the glycolysis pathway towards its end thus efficiently producing adenosine triphosphate or ATP which is the chemical energy source your legs use to push the pedals. Alcohol actually yields cycling oomph with less digestive effort than does breakfast. In moderation and dissolved in sufficient volumes of water (as in beer) the negative effects of alcohol are, in my experience, not perceptible.

I’ve noted that some American riders are a bit surprised at the idea that beer is a sports drink, perhaps even a little taken aback. But it’s on tap at every stop on Paris-Breast-Paris for a reason. (I had one at every stop and made very satisfactory progress as a result!) In Germany they have a drink called radler which is available everywhere. It is half beer and half lemonade (the European kind of lemonade, which is a soda-pop much like 7-Up), giving it about the same alcohol content by weight as American lite beer. The word radler means cyclist! I don’t overdo it with the beer but a little bit helps me go a long way.

So there’s my contribution the complicated, ever evolving debate on nutrition for long distance cyclists: breakfast (preferably six times a day), fruit (pomegranate, pineapple and, for the advanced rider, coconut), coffee (medium in a large cup or iced by the half gallon in a Camelbak), water (of the variety paid for in your taxes), and beer. Zum Wohl!

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