With riders burning up to 42 000 kilojoules per day on the Tour de
France as the race heads into the Alps this weekend, the right fuel
is essential to avoid the dreaded 'bonk'.
It's the equivalent of marathon runners 'hitting the wall', when
a lack of glycogen in their muscles results in severe fatigue.
The lack of power caused by a lack of food happened to Alberto
Contador, a favourite to win this year's Tour, in March during the
seventh stage of the Paris-Nice race.
"At 15km to go, my body was completely empty," remembers
Contador whose "bonk" cost him his minute-long lead and eventually
lost him the race.
"I was left without any strength. From that moment, the goal was
just to finish."
Typical Tour riders have 7% body fat
For Tour team Cervelo, who have 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre
as their leader, nutritionist Rob Child keeps an eye on his
athletes' diets to ensure the riders reach their peak on the
Having worked with a wide range of athletes, including Britain's
2003 world champion swimmer Katy Sexton, plus Sydney 2000 Olympic
gold medal-winning boxer Audley Harrison, Child is on his third
major race with Cervelo.
He says a typical rider will come into the Tour de France
carrying around 7% body fat - a slim woman is around 20% - which drops to about four by the end of three-week endurance race.
"If a stage has three big climbs, we'd expect riders to burn off
anything between 34 000 to 42 000 kilojoules per day," said Child. "But if you sit in the peloton all day with a heart rate of around 120 beats per minute, you may only burn off 1 260 kilojoules per hour. So of course it depends greatly on the stage and the
Armstrong tucks into rice and eggs
The battle to load up with enough kilojoules begins hours before
the race start, when riders tackle mountains of pasta, cereals,
eggs, rice and other energy-providing carbohydrates in varying
Seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong has been known to tuck
into rice and eggs, while Child says Cervelo's chef Willy Balmat -
who has cooked for Armstrong - specialises in omelettes and porridge
packed with fruit and nuts.
"A lot of eating on Tour has a long tradition. For example, the
chef may not be able to tell you why porridge is good for the
riders, but the science behind the tradition is solid enough," he
"It is tried and tested and you have to respect that. Most riders like as much sleep as possible, while others have a set routine, but they will all have eaten at least three hours before the race."
Alcohol on the menu
In the last few hours before the stage's start, Child tests the
riders urine to make sure they are hydrated enough and electrolyte
drinks, rich in minerals to counter the effects of sweating, are
When the racing begins each stage has a feeding section when
riders are handed 'musettes' - bags full of fuel in the shape of
small sandwiches, protein bars, gels, caffeine gels and bananas -
which the riders eat in the saddle.
The evening meal is when most riders prefer to load up on
carbohydrates, but, surprisingly, alcohol is on the menu. There are only a few things I don't like them eating," said Child. “Cheese is the main thing, because it's high in fat and takes a long time to digest, but the riders are pretty good generally.
"For example, a few of them were eating chocolate after a
mountain stage, but what is a few hundred kilojoules when they have
been burning off thousands?
"There is nothing wrong with a little wine and I don't think a
regimented regime helps, if you are too hard on them they might go
off the rails."
Evening meal most important for riders
Cervelo's New Zealander Hayden Roulston says it is all about
eating tried and tested food on Tour rather than experimenting.
"We all know our own bodies and know what to eat and when you
are on the bike, you eat as much as you want really," he said. "It's hard to say how much each rider burns, but you definitely chew through the kilojoules when you are doing between five and six hours in a bike.
"The evening meal is the most important meal for me. It's important to eat the same thing as you do all year around."
And when this year's race is over, what will Roulston tuck into
as his post-Tour treat? "Sushi, barbecues and lots of wine, that is the main stuff I am
missing most," grinned the Kiwi. – (Sapa, July 2009)
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