The Calorie Revolution

Racing looks more intense these days and some data supports this, like the watts, a literal measure of energy used. This is in part sustained by a big increase in the amount of calories consumed during a race, intake has doubled over in recent years. It feels like a quiet revolution, certainly a significant change in habits.

Embed from Getty Images

Food for racing has changed over the years. A century ago riders were drinking wine and eating meat on the go. By the 1950s ravitaillements would see riders top up their bidons with water and, if they wanted, sugar cubes and soft drinks were on hand. The “Sunday in Hell” documentary from 1976 suggests the breakfast of champions was steak, certainly riders were filmed eating slabs of beef on the morning of Paris-Roubaix.

Carbohydrates took over. Pasta and rice are staples for breakfast and dinner alike. Perhaps another day maybe we can look at the history of race food but the story now is how riders have gone from dining to fuelling. Riders still get cakes and sandwiches in their musettes but they’re treats rather than staples. Today’s riders don’t eat, they fuel and barely have to chew as calories come from energy drinks and gels in sachets.

Only a few years ago the recommended amount for riding was 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, which works out at about 120-240 calories an hour (nerd bit: kilocalories, kcal, but everyone apart from lab chemists and physics boffins uses calories and kilocalories/kcal interchangeably). By the way that’s not some hand-me-down advice but from a sports science journal from 2016 and for long a consensus.

Now the calorie intake during racing is more like 400-500 calories per hour, taking up 120g of carbs per hour. This is a revolution rather than an incremental change: the amount of energy ingested has doubled in a short time.

400-500 calories an hour is a lot. A typical energy bar like a Powerbar is 200 calories, a Named energy gel is 70 calories. We can do some simple addition, round numbers for ease of illustration. On a big mountain stage or a one day Monument a rider can burn 6,000 calories. The body has roughly 2,000 calories in glycogen reserves. Eat 500 calories an hour for six hours and that’s 500 x 6 hours = 3,000 calories spent and so we’re at 2,000 stored + 3,000 eaten = 5,000 calories and not far short of the race expenditure, add breakfast or food just before the race, and the body able to tap into bodyfat reserves and you can cover the day’s efforts if you eat this much. Try the older suggested rate of 240 calories an hour and it’s 240 x 6 = 1,440 calories eaten and this comes up much shorter. Only it’s not so simple, the body isn’t a steam train where you can just shovel in more coal to up the pace, nor a car where you add fuel to keep the tank topped up.

The increased calorie consumption is not about gorging on foods, instead it’s about absorption and uptake. So no BBQs, no pizza, no handfuls of nuts or any other calorie-rich food can help much, it’s not even about more rice and pasta, the race staple now is monosaccharides consumed via gels, bars and bottles.

For endurance athletes the issue is one of uptake, the journey of the molecules from the gel packet to your muscles: it’s the rate of which calories can be ingested and supplied to the muscles and crucially oxidised. This is where the change comes with products that allow greater oxidisation of calories and also a greater willingness to slam more energy food down. It was previously thought that the body could only process so many calories in one go but research has shown if there’s a mix of monosaccharide sources, such as glucose and fructose, then the body can oxidise more, this isn’t new but it’s taken a while to become settled advice. It’s gone from the lab and nutrition journals to the peloton via various nutrition brands over the last few years with many companies now offering this kind of 2:1 mix of carbohydrate energy, often delivered with extra additives to further help absorption.

For older riders used to eating in their own time, even those who prided themselves on being able to burn fat, this has been a change and probably for young and old alike there’s a variability: rider who can cope with this intake has a performance advantage. Most pro teams have nutrition sponsors but it’s common for riders to get products from other companies if it suits them better, see Cycling Weekly for a conspiratorial-toned article about several teams using Maurten’s products.

As well as appetite, a limiting factor can be logistics. There are dedicated feed zones in a race and a rider can drop back to the team car but many teams often place helpers beside the road at other spots along the course, although this requires extra staff and a fleet of vehicles. Even if you think you see a bottle being handed up, it could contain a carb drink and look closely and you’ll often see energy gels or bars tied to the bottle, it’s one way to hand up all this extra energy. Chris Froome’s raid to the Jafferau in the 2018 Giro is a good example, his team placed several people on the Colle delle Finestre to hand up food and drink so could race with one bottle and be handed up gels when he’d need them rather than lugging a stash in his back pocket. He didn’t win the Giro because of this but it helped.

The flipside to all of this is the risk of having too much, taking gels and energy drinks even if you really don’t feel like it, so hunger and listening to the body’s not the thing and there’s the risk of overconsumption. Whatever the product, they don’t always go down well, especially in the heat and teams have had problems before. Thanks to a power meter and software it’s also possible to get a very good number for the daily calorie consumption for each rider each day in racing and training alike and so the intake before and after a race can be adjusted to suit. Similarly if a grand tour stage turned out to be a one of those days when nobody attacked, then a team can shrink portion sizes for dinner.

Some of this will be obvious to some readers, and over-simplified too. But it still feels like the increased calorie consumption in bike racing is something to note here, in the last few years riders have doubled the in-race amount of food consumed, partly coming off the back of research but also just through trying to see if it worked. But racers are not eating more, it’s a stretch to call it food as riders are taking on fuel in the form of sugars. All this is a contributing factor to the high energy racing we’ve seen in recent years but just that, a factor alongside shorter distances, different mentalities, smaller team sizes, more live TV and more.

115 thoughts on “The Calorie Revolution”

  1. “All this is a contributing factor to the high energy racing we’ve seen in recent years but just that, a factor alongside shorter distances, different mentalities, smaller team sizes, more live TV and more.”
    But has it made racing better, more popular, more X or Y? IMHO – NO!
    “Let them eat! Introduce a minimum body weight. Then they will be attractive to watch again, and they will last more than one month a year. One of our L’Eroica mantras is: “From heroic cycling to the sweet life,” when cyclists were good-looking sex symbols, not to be pitied, like anorexic models or patients suffering from a chronic illness, queuing up for a drip.”
    Bravo Brocci!!!! Riders don’t burn fat anymore because they simply don’t have any.

    • Lots of people say the racing today is more exciting than it was 5-10 years ago. I think the sight of Van der Poel, Van Aert, Pogačar and others making more moves from far out rather than sitting tucked behind a train has enthralled many. Now this isn’t all down to more gels, just that this is a part of the story.

        • It would be interesting to know how the redacted and interpellated filmed race coverage of yore can be compared to the full-time multi-moto plus 2 x heli hi-res coverage we’re treated to now. Sure, they occasionally miss a tow from a team car that gets a 30 minute penalty, but mostly we see everything.
          Take a 16mm camera with 100ft if film (a lot in those days for a hand-held) and you have 7 minutes run time which Johnny-on-a-moto must not waste, no, he wants action. The riders know this. He shouts ‘en marche’ and off the riders go, duelling and showing a tendon to get seen by the townload as the reels edited into maybe 90second segments get distributed round the country. The real race coverage comes on the newspapers whose correspondents all seek to outdo the persiflage of their rivals and so -the legends are made- off the page and in the newsreel commentaries.

          There is a lot to be said for plays and dramatisations on the radio because the pictures are so much better.
          -Is this what you mean, Larry, because you surely never saw it all in real time and first-hand? You’re being ironic..?

          • Romanticizing the past is a very easy trap to fall into. I don’t know how exciting bike racing was decades ago. What I know is that the performance standards are much better now than they were decades ago in any professional sport. There is no professional sport where the standards have fallen unless the sport has fallen out of favor. Some might not enjoy all the money, interests, franchising, sportswashing and so on that go into professional sport currently. However, all objective measures show that currently the standards athletes perform to is simply higher all over the place. That includes cycling. Advances in sports science, equipment, training, nutrition, tactics and so are all a reality. More money into any sports usually means larger training staff, more talented athletes being retained and marginal gains all over the place. An average professional team now would beat the best team from decades ago in any sport be it athletics, cycling, soccer, American football, volleyball, swimming, cricket, climbing, acrobatics or whatever. Excitement is subjective. The objective factors show sport is better than it’s ever been.

            But one can try to Make Cycling Great Again all they want.

            Larry, regarding your suggestions on how to make cycling better, none of them appear to me to have been critically thought out. It’s all let’s just go back to how things were. Let’s be real – that’s never going to happen. Most of the time, I don’t see how they could really improve the sport or solve any of it’s problems. It’s unrealistic to believe they could ever be implemented and it’s even more unrealistic to believe they would be an improvement.

          • @That MTB Guy
            “Objective factors” pretty much don’t exist in many sports, notably cycling. You can isolate some variables and decide that from your POV those are the *really* decisive ones, but it’s easy to show how often such decision is biased. And when something doesn’t fit with the sort of very general premises you present, it’s too easy to find any reason to dismiss that. Doping or whatever.
            For example, male pro cyclists in GTs are riding today less demanding courses and yet normally climb slower than 30 years ago or so. Very recently some of them might have been able to achieve this or that record time on a climb, but the aggregate is still inferior more often than not.

            That’s a small detail in the picture, given that cycling isn’t about going fast, it’s about winning races. Well, half a century back top cyclists were racing and winning more and on a broader set of race, even if they were facing each others, which means that if Merckx is winning, Gimondi or De Vlaeminck aren’t.

            (Just in case, spare the argument “they’re now winning less because they are all sooooo good” given that, if anything, nowadays we’ve apparently got a problem of too small a number of very top riders, plus, it is a Gaussian sort of thing, that is, if you have a vast set of winners who don’t repeat, it’s extremely probable that in them you’re observing the “fat belly”, so to speak, of the population distribution curve).

            We could also have a look to some women results in track & field, but, anyway, my point isn’t at all to show that “the past was great”, rather that it’s very hard to make a point in that sense or the contrary, even less so a general one, not to speak of trying to imagine “objective factors” of sort. And if sport was not about final performance but about the ability to produce an effort against circumstances? What would be worth Coppi’s Alpe d’Huez on that bike and road? Or are you suggesting that better paved roads is a factor which says much about a “better sport of cycling”? And, again, if sport wasn’t even that much about performance but about producing a spectacle or a valid narrative? How would you make that objective? And, look. It can be made, even. But we might get another handful of surprises.

          • It’s probably no surprise that cycling lost popularity relative to other sports, esp football, once TV came of age and people could see for themselves what was happening, rather than rely on the description of others. Same appears to be true of other “long form” sports, such as cricket and baseball.

          • @gabriele I guess I stand corrected. Maybe I assumed the performance level was all better, but it seems you have a counter example with the GC men and other valid objections. I might need to reevaluate my outlook in that sense. What I generally meant was that the objective part was progressing while the subjective part remains subjective. I did not mean that the objective parts are the important ones. I think we watch cycling for the subjective experience and enjoyment. There are many quantifiable thing in cycling. Excitement is indeed not one of them. I do want and watch for the spectacle and the narrative.

          • You cannot say seriously that the standard of performance has improved, when cycling has become much, much easier on the riders. Races are much shorter, and roads generally much better, and the bikes are much faster. Bad weather conditions cause races to stop, when clothing is much better. If you measure the “standard of performance” by how much hardship and adversity the riders have to ensure (which is very much my standard of performance), there is certainly no comparison and the riders of yore look like giants. Which by the way, also applies to the question of in-race feeding: when feeding was limited to one or two musette moments in the race (no food from the car, or from roadside staff outside designated zones), races had not only that extra adversity, but it became quite tactical and interesting to decide how much you ate for breakfast, what food you carried in the pocket at the start, and what you put in the musettes, all considering that attacking at the feed-zone was fair game, and left contenders with the hard choice of choosing between not chasing (and letting your opponent fly away) or not eating (and risking a hunger knock). I would gladly re-establish the “food only in designated areas” rule. (Some riders would perhaps whine, but who cares, this sport isn’t at all about rider comfort).

          • Sounds like you’d love gravel racing – long distances, bad road surfaces, heavier bikes (or at least, tyres), no team cars for feeding, having to decide whether to follow attacks in the feedzone etc.
            It is extraordinarily dull to watch though…

          • @That MTB Guy – don’t stand corrected by gabriele merely because he makes generalised assertions disguised as ‘objective’ questioning and uses classic misdirection plays as a substitute for reasoned argument. He waffles about 30 years ago “doping or whatever” without mentioning EPO at all. That’s not an argument which can be taken seriously.

            He has no counter to the evidence of the objective measures of the improvement in standards to which you refer. Therefore he is not correcting you, merely attempting to sow doubt in your mind in any way he can because his own cherry-picked worldview, not unlike Larry’s, cannot accept that things weren’t better back in the day. Larry is far less subtle about it but they both constantly do dogma first and evidence, if at all, second.

      • Larry T you are completely romanticising the past. Who knows how exciting the full racing coverage was when Eddy Merckx was racing compared to today? There’s no way you can truthfully say it was more exciting than today when every race that Eddy lined up at he won.

        Racing for sure is much more exciting today than the Froome years. Or, the post Lance years too.

        This is all subjective but I’ve never seen a group like van aert, pogacar, van der poel, Bernal, Vingegaard, etc. plus, for the first time in a long time the efforts look pretty believable.

    • You do know that the fat one burns for fuel during an endurance race isn’t the fat that is under one’s skin and can be roughly measured by how much of it one can grab between one’s fingers, don’t you?
      Anyway, it’s amusing how these days it’s not okay to comment on female athletes’ bodies – either approvingly of their mucles or disapprovingly of their skinniness – but apparently it is not only okay but commendable to mock male cyclists’ bodies 🙂

      In ski jumping there is a kind of minimum weight rule: the maximum ski length, which is 145% of the jumper’s height, is allowed only for those whose BMI is 21. For those whose BMI is lower, the skis are shorter. But while a jumper can be disqualified if his skis are too long, that is, if he misses his target at the weigh-in, no one is stopped from competing because he looks anorectic and has a very low BMI.
      What could be an equivalent policy in road cycling? Adding weights to the bikes? 🙂

      Besides, we venture on thin ice when we begin talking about how racing was better or more exciting back in the day. Things often become more exciting when we have to imagine what we cannot see or when what happened has already been transformed into a story or better yet a legend. And there no way watching a Tour stage or a classic live from start to finish can compete with the memory of how exciting a race one once saw was…
      But okay, you didn’t actually claim racing was better back in the day, you just said that the racing we “youngsters” find exciting actually isn’t any better than it was then 🙂

      • You can tell Sig. Brocci he’s full of it. I simply shared the opinion (one I happen to agree with) that he expressed long before there was an INRNG blog to argue on. I’ll never understand why so many assume change = progress but perhaps you have to be an old-fart to understand that? Or check with folks who were around at the start of the Dark Ages like Petrarch since I wasn’t there. I’m old, but not THAT old 🙂

      • BMI isn’t a good measure for what is healthy though (at best it’s a rough approximation). AFAIK science has some better ways to measure that nowadays.

        • It’s a quick and handy measure for the purpose of preventing ski jumpers to starve themselves in order to fly longer.
          And most importantly there can be no argument about how, say, a skinfold’s thickness should be measured. As things are now, the sport already has a long standing problem with measuring the jumping suits, because the bigger and richer teams find new ways to circumvent the regulations and to give their jumpers an advantage.
          The suits are made to fit tight when measured and to stretch between the legs in the flying position, which can in favorable wind conditions give the jump 1-2 m more length. In other words, they are sort of the opposite of cyclists’ skin suits 🙂

        • All good points. I started following the sport in the golden days of Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Maertens and Verbeeck, only they weren’t real golden days – at least not for watching day long on the TV. The sport was consumed by the TdF roadside in the village where one lived, or through the pages of L’Equipe or, in the UK, International Cycle Sport (Cycling Weekly being mostly about Alf or Eddie on the Boro). The reality was that much racing was long and passive.

          A final question, given that fueling and training are scientific and available to all, why aren’t the average pro riders closer to the best than they were? Merckx could ride away from a peloton but so can Evenepoel. It seems that exceptions still count.

          • I think perhaps the second tier riders are closer to the superstars than they used to be. It appears to me that the stars in the old days won a higher percentage of the races they entered than stars today. Look at how many second and third places Sagan got at his peak and WvA gets now, when clearly they were/are head-and-shoulders above the rest. And they regularly get nipped not by another superstar, but by some “just” very good rider who has a great day. Another example is Froome, who won multiple TdFs but was nothing too special outside that race.

            Remco is only 22, but he also only has 9 WT wins. He rides away from the peloton in very few races. Still, exceptions do count. All the sporting science and tech can’t negate amazing physiology and genetics.

    • I would imagine the pros consume less calories on training rides, and a greater part of those calories in a form they actually like.
      Anyway, there’s been a quite similar calorie revolution in long distance cross country skiing, too. Doubling the amount of carbohydrates and the 2:1 glucose/frutose are the norm there as well. (They’ve also copied the concept of pro teams instead of national teams…)
      Gels can be convenient, but one can simply mix one’s own and add some fruit juice and pour into one’s bottle. Make it quite thick, just so you can gulp down a mouthful and then have a drink from your other water bottle!

  2. I’m reminded of the complaint/story from the great Scottish mountaineer Hamish MacInnes recounting his climb of (I think the SW Face of) Everest. He ate so much–I can’t recall how many thousands of calories but the number 8000 sticks in my mind somehow–that he actually gained weight, which is–or was back then–kind of unheard of in high-altitude mountaineering.

    I can’t recall the book title, but it is worth a read for cycling fans who like the hardman element of sport; that guy could suffer with the best of them.

    • Too much sugar! Hi-energy antics to the camera on the plain, followed by the ‘crash’ an hour later on the climb. Any parent of young boys would recognise it! 🙂

      • Tadej did a lot of unneeded work before the plain. Why he didnt stay glued to Vinegaards wheel was baffling to me. Roglic was injured and the other guy had no chance to win the TDF.
        I think TP lost the tour because of stupid riding.

  3. This is a fascinating post. I hadn’t realized just how much of a fueling revolution had been going on in the time that I’ve been following pro cycling closely. I think a lot of this would have been fairly easy to figure out (and test and implement) years ago, but it took a while to really be adopted because of either traditionalism or inertia. Reminds me of how long it took for the idea that slightly fatter tires with significantly lower tire pressure are faster in real-world riding conditions, or how resistant riders were to narrower handlebars or more aero clothing.

    I suspect this is one more thing that favors very young pros. As mentioned, some rider’s metabolisms respond to his kind of fueling better than others. Youngsters are now cutting their teeth with this kind of fueling strategy, and those who don’t respond to it probably won’t make it. It’s a kind of selection of the fittest, with the ‘dinosaurs’ who thrived on the old fueling styles either hoping their bodies (and habits) can adapt, or they’re SOL.

      • Indeed. And don’t say GH too loud or you’ll need orthodontics. Teeth grinding while grinding uphill has always been popular, not to speak of the consequences of crashes, but all summed up today for all the wealth now streaming to the wallets of pro cyclists, a good deal of that might end up more than ever in their dentists’.

      • I was thinking that all this sugar must have some serious dental downsides. It’s probably not great for the liver and kidneys either but I doubt any permanent damage is being done.

        • I think the question if any permanent damage is being done can only really be answered in a couple of years, when today’s riders are 20-30y older and their bodies may still hooked to the addictive sugar thing.
          I doubt there exist any long term studies now, other than on non cycling mice 😉

          • Let’s stay away from “common knowledge” here. Sugar is not addictive. Eating lots of sugars during races isn’t going to fundamentally change one’s body unless one eats the same way all the time, and even then all that’s going to happen is the riders will get fat (just like regular humans do when they eat junk food whether they’re hungry or not).

            It’s funny to worry about permanent damage from eating more calories during races, when there are so many parts of professional cycling that clearly damage rider’s bodies right now. Osteoporosis, eating disorders, concussions, ED, and being hit by an automobiles are all well-known occupational hazards of legal cycling, and if we include the effects of PEDs then we take the long term risks to a new level.

            Dental cavities are one thing, but organ damage and more from eating too many gels is a bit much.

  4. I always found that the correct gel was really important. When you are eating lots its important you like it. And its important also that you do some training on them to train your stomach. When i first tried GELS they had some undesirable affects that after using them for a few weeks went away.
    When i did the melbourne to warranbol race which is about 270 km i took 12 gels and 4 bars in my pockets. About every 20 km plus a couple of extra. But way short of the amounts you say they now do.
    Even so the amount of caffine in these things meant i was wide awake until way into the night.

    • I had the same experience with gels. Because they are not so required with the riding I do now, I try to stick to more traditional on bike calories.
      Kudos for completing The Warny. I’ve had a few friends do it over the years, who mentioned how difficult it is.

    • There are a variety of different gels, chews, and drink mixes that are available with and without caffeine so one can to experiment to see which are more palatable for different situations. Also the gut can be trained to tolerate higher carb ingestion .On recent podcasts, Keegan Swenson and Matteo Jorgenson said they fuel at 120-130 gr/hr for their ultraendurance and WT races.
      I rode a 200 Km brevet on Saturday ingesting 100 gr/hr of carbs from a combination of gels, chews, drink mix, and cereal bars without any stomach distress riding at a good pace for my abilities and finished strong. Rode Unbound 200 earlier this year to a PR using a similar fueling strategy and my power profile was pretty flat for the duration. Developing my fueling strategy has been an integral part of my training.

  5. I just watched the GCN documentary “the weight of the peloton” which touches on this topic, and also explores the improvement in health of the riders (compared to yesteryear) now that many are being guided to fuel properly. It seems the days of riders starving themselves at the behest of their DS in order to lose weight or get lean, are quickly dwindling. And the cycling world is all the better for it.

  6. This is a really great post. Thank you. I’ve always been fascinated by sports by sport nutrition in an entirely amateur way. So 70kcals a gel and 500 kcals an hour = 7gels roughly or more than one every ten mins. That’s nuts. I’ve friends that ride on water with sugar and flavours mixed in, which is ok, and they eat gels and stroop waffles which is more than ok. But surely no human can ingest 7 gels an hour for more than an hour or two at best. This reminds me of the Mac Donald’s chicken nuggets challenge

  7. It is amazing how inefficient we are in terms of energy use. Two thirds of our kilojoule intake goes straight through us (food labelling reflects this fact) and then we are only able to convert 20-25% of what is assimilated into mechanical work. Simply put only about 6-7% of our kilojoule intake reaches the pedals.
    Yes human waste is exactly that … waste.

    • “Two thirds of our kilojoule intake goes straight through us …”
      Reference? I did a quick online search and the numbers I found were no where near that high, especially for concentrated carbohydrate sources.

      • It has been some time since I was delving into this so I can’t recall where I read it. However, I have a clear recollection that if a food item is labelled 800 kj (say) then the actual energy content is 2400 kj but only one third is assimilated.
        This was a surprise to me as I had always imagined that assimilation involved extracting the useful.

        • I’m certain this is false. Calorie counts on nutrition labels are sometimes off somewhat, but not by 67%! In one study I saw the discrepancy was up to 20% in a few cases, but they are largely accurate. And calories from carbs are absorbed very efficiently, at about a 98% rate. We can get into the weeds and talk about the calories used in digesting different kinds of food, but that won’t be meaningful unless a rider is eating something like a steak during a race.

          The key issue with energy absorption from what we consume is how digestible the food is. There’s a reason cows have five stomachs and chew their cud – it’s very hard to break down plant cell walls, and a great deal of the nutrients and some of the calories of raw plant-based foods are passed without being digested. Cooking or processing food makes the calories almost totally available, and it is digested with very little energy expended.

          • It appears that whatever it was that I read was overstated and oversimplified (ignores variation between food typye). Nevertheless, food labelling does reflect “available carbohydrates” only. Some are readily available and some need fermentation in the large intestine to be absorbed.
            As everyone already knew ripe bananas 🍌 score fairly high for available carbohydrates.

          • Carbs in the foods bike riders might eat (sugars, fruits, starches, or processed foods in general) are almost totally available. This calorie absorption takes place in the upper gut, happens quickly, and takes minimal energy. Fats are also readily digested and utilized and require even less energy for the body to process (but digested fats that are in excess of the body’s immediate needs are converted to storage and so don’t remain available for long). Proteins can take quite a bit of energy to digest and probably aren’t a great choice during a race.

            Fermentation occurs in the large intestine, is much slower, and applies to uncooked veggies and fiber. These kinds of food require substantial energy to break down and digest, and a lot of the released energy goes straight to the gut to fuel the process. Racing cyclists aren’t going to be depending on this fuel source, and at a certain point fiber and uncooked vegetables during performance events will be substantially counterproductive. That’s what makes bananas great – carbs and minimal fiber.

            It’s true that nutrition labels are only ballpark averages for many foods, based on outdated or limited experiments in general categories. How many available calories are in 200 gm of spinach? Well, which species of spinach? How is it prepared? Did you boil it and throw out the water? And what part of the spinach are you primarily eating, because the nutrition varies from stem to leaf? But none of that is relevant for these engineered foods and drinks that this post is referring to. In these, I expect that the calorie counts are going to be extremely accurate.

        • I think its the opposite way around. Calories of food are assessed by burning it and therefore assessing all of the energy in the food. However, our bodies do not turn food to ash, so we dont extract the same amount of calories shown on the packet

          • When we talk about “burning” calories in the body, we’re talking about a chemical process. Of course, literally burning something (i.e., with flame) is also a chemical reaction, but they’re not the same chemical reaction. You can chemically extract all the calories from food without the creation of ash. In food testing (i.e., when food is literally burned), the ‘ash’ content of food is the indigestible residue (mostly minerals).

  8. When learning about the increased carbohydrate intake these days, many amateurs will be tempted to take some of the wrong cues. I would argue that most amateurs will not reach the work load in kjs and not need such increased calorie intakes and would underestimate the gut training necessary to process these. In fact it may prevent them from properly training their fat metabolims. When planning an all day alpine raid I did however try to break down the ride into prolonged tempo/threshold stretches on major climbs compared to downhills (less easy to eat through fast switchbacks) and valley sections. Not sure it would have made any difference at my modest athletic abilities 🙂
    More importantly, though, I am curious as to what more lasting consequences are going to be in it over time for athletes as they cycle out of the pro ranks. I wonder whether athletes who follow gut training and such high carb intakes – which to me basically treat the human body like a science experiment – need to gradually walk that adaptation back after retiring from their career, just as athletes focusing on bulk vs. leanness would benefit from gradually reducing that bulk after an active career. I do not want to go on a tangent but I see some of the same unknowns for heavy use of ketone supplements.
    Having said that, I do not complain about the action packed racing these days even though to me it does not quite carry the mystique and adventure of racing in the past. Maybe I’m just getting old… 😉

    • “..which to me basically treat the human body like a science experiment .” is my (and plenty of others it seems) big gripe. Too much science/commerce and not enough sport. I might be in the minority but I don’t want to watch hedge-fund managers or lab rats in action.

        • Wikipedia is your friend, too 🙂 But since you are too lazy to look him up, the quip referred to the fact that he used to be a shipbroker, i.e. a guy who makes money sitting in an office in the City just like a fund manager.

          • Why so snarky, Esterrik? I wouldn’t bother to look up some obscure reference either, so that makes ne ‘lazy’?
            No wonder Larry feels like giving up on these comments, when he gets these responses all the time.

          • Snarky? Isn’t that in the eye of the beholder?! I certainly didn’t mean to be anything but friendly, amiable and goodöhumoured.
            Something is wrong with the world and with people if one cannot point out or remind that it usually takes less time to look up a reference one didn’t get than to write a comment and tell everybody that one didn’t get it without everyone or someone thinking that you’re being snarky.
            I can assure you that I have many faults but I’m not at offended if someone calls me lazy when I must admit I have been lazy.
            And if we get serious about this: I do think that it’s almost common courtesy to make a small effort to get the point when someone makes what is quite obviously intended to be a funny quip (and equally obvously not a snarky remark made with an intention to offend or to show someone his place).
            (Now if I had been Tovarisch who made the quip I would have been a bit disappointed and wondered why Larry had to come out and tell everybody that he didn’t know who Richardson was…)
            Last but not least: what do you think “one of our lot” feels like when we get the kind of responses Larry all too frequently wrote lately? I quite sincerely believe “our” responses have been more civilized, less snarky, less condescending and more balanced than his.
            But as our host has reminded us a million times already: this kind of discussion about whatever it is we are discussing now shouldn’t be happening in the first place. this is not what the comments section is for. there are too many commentators who get offended when they shouldn’t or, worse yet, pretend to get offended or get pretend on someone else’s behalf or who just like to be little drama queens.
            Since I’m no better than any of these commentators, I take the leave of absence which I already promised to take. (This was a direct question and I felt more or less obliged to reply.)

            Enjoy the rest of the season and look forward to the next!

        • Ok, but yet again what have you got against Kristen Faulkner? 😛
          Now, please don’t tell me a “Giromane” like you needs to wiki her, too.

          (Just following up with the joke, while we wait for the inrng special on the jobs of cyclists, from the very primary sector of Arnaud De Lie et al. to the full financial as in Faulkner’s case; by the way, I only recently discovered that Annemiek Van Vleuten is an epidemiologist ^___^ ).

  9. I’ve noticed that in my case, contrary to the current trend, regular food on top of the fueling gives me a significant performance improvement. I mean like stopping for a slice of pizza, fries or gulping down some mushroom or beans stew somewhere along the way.
    I ride (MTB) only once or twice a week. I enjoy long grueling rides with a lot steep climbing, challenging terrain and I usually ride until I hit the wall. Then rest a bit, fuel more and embrace the pain of continuing to push and climb until I need to head back due to time constraints. I often ride in the cold, rain, snow, gain altitude which are all factors that require additional calories.
    I tend to eat, drink and fuel a ton – more than what used to be recommended a decade ago for sure. When I do that, I feel much better, can do a lot more and hit the wall a lot later (and higher up the mountain). I’ve ridden with many people who have shared that if they consumed half of what I was consuming, they would simply puke half way into the ride. Seems that I have a “strong” stomach that can take a lot energy drinks, bars, gels and a lot of regular food on top of that and that’s a significant advantage. I can see how professional cyclists would benefit from something like that. What I’ve noticed though is that if I stick to just the “brand name” and supposedly sciency drinks, gels and bars, I don’t feel as good and can do less. When I add more “regular” food including counterintuitively some milk products (like salty yogurt based drinks), that seems to increase my uptake significantly and I feel and perform a lot better. I wonder whether there is a good explanation for that. It seems to me that the body does better when what goes into your stomach is more balanced, not just “pure energy”.
    Of course, it goes without saying that my highest possible level of performance is pretty pathetic compared to the average amateur mtb cross country weekend racer with good fitness levels, let alone a professional athlete.

    • Well, the article talks about combining different types of calorie-sources to be able to increase uptake; by diversifying your food you do something similar in a way, so maybe it’s worth further investigating this for sure…

  10. Hubert Opperman made his name as an endurance cyclist and he did it at a time of Hay diets and scarce knowledge if nutrition. He was keen on sweet fruits which I don’t see mentioned much (if at all) these days.
    The old timers really fascinate me with what they could do. One wonders how Mr Goullet fueled himself through those 6 day races and Madisons.

    • Riders didn’t & don’t have to ride all the time during 6-day races, so they would have ample time to eat in between. Sleep was more of an issue in the very old 6-day races, as they would sometimes be 6 days with (almost) 24 hours of racing each, and riders had to find ways to survive that on short naps.

      • My understanding of how the Madison came about was that the riders in 6 day races became so emaciated that the authorities would not let it continue … they had to team up and take turns.

  11. Energy and time. Energy will allow you to shrink space/time, in a sense (going faster), but don’t forget that for living beings passing time is also, and for a very significant part, the number of oxidation cycles your cells go through. So energy consumption might even shrink the time of your sporting career, too, just as, in the opposite direction, the reduction of calories income extends life duration in animals (whose lifespan is less dependant on sociocultural factors than in humans). Will it really work like that in cycling? Who knows, we’ll understand a bit more in a decade or so 😉

    • Kind of a scary warning actually. Worst part might be it might actually be accurate. Like the way a car’s engine works depends more on the mileage (and hot it was driven) than the year it came out of the factory.

      • Yep, and just as with the car other elements come into play (rubbers and plastics like in gaskets or so may grow older just out of passing years), but when the magnitude of a single element does change so much, it may have unexpected impacts. Generally speaking, I’d prefer if pro athletes were limited to eating… food. It would be a serious costraint on performance, but so what?

        By the way, and changing topic (I was thinking about the “food” aspect…), you were asking above about steps “back” which would make the sport better. Well, for example having ITTs on your normal race bike could be a “backward improvement” of sort (and there’s a serious debate on the subject, both on these pages and more generally in the sport). Leave the aero not fit for racing to hour record, for example… rather than the other way around!
        The industry, especially mass market one, plays a role in the sport which isn’t necessarily healthy, because they don’t have at all in mind as their very first priority a better sport of cycling – or a better bike-riding, either. Which is pretty blatant when you think about the imposition of disk brakes or other industry vehement campaigns in recent years etc.

        • Yep, the bike (and other biz) are very responsible for a whole lot of less-than-ideal developments in the sport which then spread down to the punters. So-called “nutrition” is one that really winds me up since every season for 20+ years we’d get one or two self-appointed experts on one of our cycling vacations who would then proceed to try to ruin the unmatched experience of eating/drinking in Italy for the rest of us. We’d stash their box of mylar-wrapped “food” in the support van and let ’em ride away while we sat down to lunch midday, saying “If you have trouble and need us for next hour or so, just call….I might put down my fork and come rescue you …or maybe not.” I didn’t much care about them, but they too-often tried to recruit others to join them,
          Then these same folks would arrive at the night’s hotel ravenous, demanding to be fed at an uncivilized time long before we were to sit down to dinner.
          Memories of these situations causes what I admit is an over-the-top response at the sight or mention of bars, gels, magic-drinks and the like to this day.

          • Occupational risks come in all shapes and forms 🙂
            I must admit I’m one of those cyclists who get impatient when the coffee break seems to go on and on – fifteen minutes in good company I can fully enjoy and twenty minutes I can bear, but any longer than that and I’m off on my own.
            Anyway, you should have told those serious riders of yours that Euro pros do not sit down for dinner until a good couple of hours after the stage has finished and handed him a can of Coke and a protein/carb drink 🙂

        • When I started watching road racing, TT bikes were a really strange thing. I indeed was thinking why bother with a different type of bike when if everybody raced their normal bike, it would be a level playing field as well. It seemed pointless to me. It still does.

    • This sounds analogue to the old myth that one shouldn’t exercise and raise one’s heart rate because the heart only has a fixed number of beats before it fails.

      • I guess that such a *myth* might be sort of what Sallustius (the later one) wrote about in “On gods and cosmos”. A figurative way to pose an interesting question: what’s the passing of time for a human (or living) being? By the way, have you ever wondered why female gametes don’t age as fast as most other cells? It was a mystery of sort until very recent years, although the possibility of human reproduction relies heavily on that. Hints came only from very recent researches, and it’s probably because they lack, guess what?, some specific structure related to energy consumption, which, by the way, confirmed what’s being discovered about the aging process in more general terms.

      • Hey, it isn’t such an old myth! I was told it as a cold hard fact by my neighbour way back when I was a middle-aged man in running shorts 🙂
        I did the maths and the result showed that so what if my HR is high for two hours every day? It is much lower than the sedentary average Joe’s during the rest of the day! My resting HR was 40 compared to his 60…

  12. Really interesting piece Inrng – I didn’t realise this.

    And really, from my own racing days (local – but still 2-4 hour races), I remember having stomach issues with too much energy drinks or gels. I wonder how this will play out over the next few years. But, once again, another excellent piece.

    Thanks Inrng

  13. MTB guy wrote “Larry, regarding your suggestions on how to make cycling better, none of them appear to me to have been critically thought out. It’s all let’s just go back to how things were. Let’s be real – that’s never going to happen. ”
    Thanks for pointing this out so I can ask the question (again) that nobody seems willing or able to answer which is WHAT problem in pro cycling did the World Tour scheme shoved down cycling’s throat by Verbruggen and Co FIX? That’s the basis of my argument to go back to how things were – what was wrong with how things were? The only things “wrong” I can think of is that rich guys couldn’t so easily buy their way into the big-time and perhaps the UCI’s bank accounts were lower than Heinie and Co liked.
    Too many act like the WT was handed down by Moses on stone tablets and all that can be done is tinker around the edges to fix things like the relegation soap-opera. The only reason “Heinie’s Folly” can’t be ditched is those who say “that’s never going to happen.”

    • Oh, you could not get that answer from me. I’m not a fan or supporter of the WT system. I just haven’t read (or read but didn’t understand) a reasonable sounding suggestion on an improvement. What I agree with is that the current state of affairs should not be viewed as holy or unavoidable. Truth is that to an outsider, road racing is full of strange quirks. At least that’s how I see it as a relative newcomer to viewing it.
      Everything could be ditched, but it should be replaced with something that’s a real improvement.
      If things go back, money would still be a valuable resource and a source of corruption. The organisation could technically go back. The world around it would not. Things will never be as they were. The MCGA attitude seems kind of naive and unreasonably conservative. Who knows, maybe I’m the one that’s naive and short-sightedly conservative (no irony).

  14. “Anyway, you should have told those serious riders of yours that Euro pros do not sit down for dinner until a good couple of hours after the stage has finished and handed him a can of Coke and a protein/carb drink 🙂”
    You missed the point, as usual. While we’d haul client’s “energy” products around if they wanted to stash them in the van, “engineered food” was not part of our philosophy. We offered cookies and water just-in-case someone might seeing black spots in the middle-of-nowhere, but the focus was cycling/eating/drinking…in Italy…things that IMHO are unmatched anywhere else in the world.
    A hearty breakfast, maybe even a cornetto with your cappuccino at a mid-morning stop, a proper lunch midday followed by maybe another espresso (or better, prosecco!) stop mid-afternoon allowed most of our clients to develop a hearty appetite for a sumptuous dinner each evening. I can’t count the times clients would rave about how much of such wonderful food they could enjoy each day…with no fear of weight-gain. For most it was truly “la dolce vita in bicicletta” which was written our our cycling jerseys,
    I didn’t care if someone wanted to eat one of their engineered food bars at any time, but got wound up if they tried to recruit others into the practice which was contrary to our entire philosophy.

    • Onca again, you miss the poinr simply because you are too fast to read whatever suits your notion of everyone else always missing the point 🙂
      You told us clients who stubbornly refused to enjoy the opportunity for lunch used to be a pain in the ass for you because they then returned hungry and couldn’t wait for dinner like everyone else. I then suggested you a strategy to meet those clients when they made their demand of food here and now. That’s all. One can find a Coke anywhere and you can call almost anything with milk in it a carb/protein drink. Two minutes and problem solved!
      I have to disappoint you by telling that I’m entirely familiar with and fully in approval of the concept of the kind of rides you are talking about 🙂

        • You won’t have to do that. But before I “give it a rest”, I must insist on assuring you that my intention was simply to correct Larry’s misinteropretation and to tell him that I was on the same side, so to speak.
          I wasn’t trying to turn this into another tiresome argument. I thought I was just trying to be to partake in normal human interaction in a perfectly frendly and amiable manner. Goes to show how mistaken one can be,
          See you all when I’m back on my road bike again – which is usually around the time the tour of Basque country starts 🙂

          • To take this derailment further afield but in a new direction, can I ask what you mean by constantly referring to “the punters”? In the US, a punter is a football player who kicks the ball on fourth down. My understanding is that in Britain a punter is a gambler or someone who frequents bookmakers (and so implies sports bettors in particular). I’ve also seen the suggestion that in some places a punter is the term for clients of prostitutes. Which do you mean, Larry?

          • Bookmakers’ or prostitutes’ clients are indeed called punters, but the word punter in British English can be used for a person who “buys or uses a particular product or service”.
            But there is a very definite smell to the word. Punters are more or less stupid, gullible fools who exist mainly to get separated from their money.

            PS Yes, I couldn’t stay away 🙂 And I must confess that I would have liked someone else to ask how the deleted deleted “my story” “tied into” an industry push for engineered food for the punters when my comment did no such thing.
            But now I’ll well and truly give it a rest and go out for a ride on my gravel…well, actually it’s a 10-year-old cyclocross bike with rim brakes…bike now that it has stopped raining for three days in a row.
            There’s water in my bottles and a cheese sandwich in my back pocket and when I come home, I’m happy with a big cup of cocoa and another cheese sandwich 🙂

          • @gastrogeorge That usage (generic man-on-the-street) doesn’t show up in any American or British dictionary, nor in any thesaurus I’ve consulted. It definitely doesn’t have that meaning in American english.

            I can see Eskerrik’s angle, that the word has morphed from the pathetic customer of prostitutes to the pathetic customer for any product, or perhaps from an inveterate gambler to a foolish, gullible customer who is easily separated from his money. In either case, it’s a term of contempt.

          • Most UK readers would recognise @gastrogeorge’s definition of a punter. I would argue in general usage it’s a colloquialism for a customer first and someone placing a bet second.

            On a 100+ mile ride a few years back I had one zipvit cola flavoured gel with about 1.5 hrs to go. Despite retiring to bed at 21:00, I was still awake at 01:30. Never again. Gels have their place in recreational riding but if I want caffeine I’ll get a coffee.

  15. Nice piece.
    I stopped racing a few years ago, and after running a bit I am coming back to riding the bike. I made one significant change; I only ride on water now. I love it. It’s so liberating just riding on “what’s in the tank”. I always hated gels, and even the thought of drinking energy drinks but you had to do it. I tried getting gels without caffeine, because I would seriously be shaking after races sometimes.

    That said I think racing has been much better the last few years than any time I remember since the mid nineties. But I often wonder if a gel-tolerant stomach is what makes standout riders these days.

  16. Reading the website of one company that makes gels etc it makes me wonder if we’re heading for a “science war” where teams with the biggest budgets get a headstart on the latest scientific advancement. The same company has a link up with no less then 4 universities and their head of research worked for over 30 years at AstraZeneca so Big Pharma meets pro-cycling. The company promotes caffeine before race starts so that might explain the jacked up behaviour sometimes at km 0, though the 50 km attack to the finish does bring back certain memories of, shall we say, other “fuelled” exploits by the likes of Landis. Let’s hope that there are no long term effects from this recent trend.

    • It should not be too complicated, you can spend 30 years in a big pharma firm but it looks like finding the right combination of water and monosaccharides (ie simple sugars), it’s not too much more complicated than mixing glucose and fructose in a 2:1 mix in water and going from there. Of course companies can mix in caffeine, swap glucose for maltodextrin, have flavourings, packaging etc but I suspect there’s a devoted DIY community if you look online, eg triathletes on youtube.

      I think the harder part could be just having the helpers by the road, it requires several staff and cars, all just so that a rider doesn’t feel weighed down by several gels and bars in their back pocket. During the Tour’s TV coverage I even spotted Jumbo-Visma team boss Richard Plugge by the road handing up bottles, the team owner himself doing this basic duty.

      • I completely agree that this isn’t necessarily the kind of research that can’t be done on the cheap, plus the metabolic variability and tolerance variance from rider to rider will probably require these programs be individualized through trial and error during training, which a bunch of university Ph.D.s won’t help with. Moreover, those academics will need to publish a fair bit of their findings if they’re going to stay employed at the university, so this info will get out there pretty quickly.

        Regarding the need for more support staff on the side of the road, it seems to me that a lot of this comes from the outdated idea that having a few ounces of extra gels/bars in one’s jersey is going to be a big impediment to winning. When you factor in the risk a rider takes every time they pull to the side to grab a bottle (I.e., possible crash, they drop the bottle, they get blocked from even getting close enough), then the weight penalty of carrying twice as many gels seems trivial. I suppose racing jerseys might need more/different pockets to keep stuff readily available and separate (assuming different gels/food for different parts of the race), but that’s pretty easy to solve.

      • Thanks for the comments (and blog post, of course). The second part, of the need for mass helpers, makes me think of the “just in time” system in manufacturing which means companies don’t have large stocks of materials, but get re-stocked just as existing stock runs out – thereby “just in time”. Which is a great way to save money but a bad idea when supply chain issues happen (as today). What happens when a rider misses a feed is then like not having the raw material to feed into a machine – it grinds to a halt. The need for mass helpers and cars raises the question of how many teams have the money and manpower to pull it off.

        • The way JIT works in industry is that you keep a buffer to survive minor supply chain issues, and a larger reserve for parts that are “line stoppers” (e.g. a missing dashboard switch can be fit in a car after the rest is finished, but a missing structural body part will stop production).
          One thing you probably want to do is to make sure that in case of a missed feed an alternative source is available (team car, team mates), and also have enough fuel that 1 missed feed isn’t a problem…

          BTW: the feeding helpers often include the soigneurs, mechanics, press officer, dietary consultant, VIP drivers & other full/part time staff, but there are also many who are just volunteers (family, fans, VIPs, …) who only get a small compensation at best.

  17. WRT big pharma and the research going in to nutrition it may be interesting to note that macro studies miss the micro elements of individuals responding differently to the same fuel (traditional or sports science led). There are two factors at play:
    1. The gut biomes of each athlete can vary massively. In can be that one person can absorb much more, both in the fuels derived from the saccharides, and other elements contained in food that link the pathways to cells using the energy and the repair mechanisms.
    2. The mental health and well-being that is gained from food, eating and feeling healthy. The body does not exist in isolation and the mind can have a very large impact on performance and wellbeing. We have seen this recently with riders being in demonstrably good form, but performance and results drop off. In many cases this would have had to be, pushed through or endured, sometimes leading to catastrophic failures, but the mindset seems to be moving away from that to take care of the athletes to bring them back to the same level (or higher if they learn from what went on) in the future.

    The last thought was that we may be going away from the new generation having careers lasting decades. The point has already been made about burnout and that is a very good description of what may go on. I hope not, but the human physiology may trump that hope.

    Very interesting and thought provoking article as always. Thank you.

    • “The body does not exist in isolation and the mind can have a very large impact on performance and wellbeing.”

      I spent some time with some sports academics – post-docs working under a fairly big-name professor in that field – and that was something that surprised me. They mentioned a few times that the mental factor /must/ be a large part of performance. For the research in the field on top-level athletes could find no reliable physiological differences between the very top of the field athletes, and the top-level athletes just below them. Indeed, sometimes the very top athletes had some physiological markers that were /worse/ than athletes who performed less well.

      The postulate – made in a number of papers – being that therefore the “mental governor” in athletes likely accounts for the final % or so in performance between top-level athletes and champions. Mostly it is speculated that this comes down to ability to push and suffer past levels that others can. I.e., that the difference of the champion is that they can extract more performance from the same physiology by mental means – their mental governor allowing them to get closer to the redline and stay there for longer. But we don’t know.

      One could also speculate there other mental processes at play. Affecting willingness to train, etc.

  18. Would recommend the book “More Fuel You” by Renee McGregor for some great insight into fueling strategies, the science and the personalisation of it – finding out what works for you, the individual.

  19. Punters, MAMILS, Joe and Jill Crankarm, the average cycling consumer – choose whatever term you like, OK? I’m getting the hint though, if I write the sky is blue one of you folks for sure is going to argue the point for no good reason and imply that I have some bias against other colors the sky might be instead while attacking me personally and claiming I post here for economic reasons, throwing in plenty of suggestions on how I should have run the business I no longer operate though of course they weren’t there for any of that, instead just throwing out keyboard excretions.
    I’m sorry this blog has degenerated into so much polarization and petty arguing and for any contribution to that, as small as I might consider it to be. Arrivederci!!

  20. ‘MAMILS’ and ‘Joe and Jill Crankarm’ are indeed euphemisms for the average cycling consumer; ‘punter’ isn’t. And the sky is celeste blu, of course. I’m surprised you of all people don’t realize that. 😉

    Hey Larry, lighten up! Life is too short to live it with so much hostility. You take yourself waaaay too seriously. Try reading comments here as if it’s friendly banter among friends.

  21. And for ultra endurance self supported races that are becoming so popular it’s another beast. Before my first Transcontinental race I used to train with a timer to get used at eating regularly. Beep – and you get some food and drink while still riding. After a while it becomes natural, but it takes time. Especially eating when it’s hot and drinking when it’s cold

  22. The difference is not how much is consumed during the race, the difference is how much is consumed when training.
    With the advancement in calorie intake they are training at a much higher intensity/volume without eating away at their bodies. This means recovery times become shorter, general health better and base level fitness much higher.
    Only a few years ago riders needed from de Omloop to E3 to get on form for Flanders and Roubaix. Or needed the entire first week of the Tour to get into shape for that same GT….
    Nowadays WvA, MvdP, Pogacar and others can just get stuck in from raceday 1. Without having to recover from training.

    • Highly interesting, if true.
      But do we know that the training intensity/volume/load is higher – or even that the riders consume as many carbs during training rides as they do during races?
      Do we even know how much longer it takes to recover when you train on 60 g/h and eat more afterwards compared to when you train on 120 g/h and eat less afterwards?
      Or do we indeed know that riders five or ten years ago were “eating away at their bodies” when they trained on what at the time was considered the maximum that could be absorbed?

    • Just read a biography of Beryl Burton, and it was interesting reading this blog alongside it. The biography mentions that she ate a /lot/. Always eating. Steaks pre-race, etc.

      The interesting thing here is that it mentioned that when she got older and started to lose performance from aging, she started to get obsessive about weight. She eat less, lost weight and perhaps – as speculated by competitors/friends (inc. her daughter) – lost further performance from that.

Comments are closed.