Nicolas Roche: ‘How to fuel for cycling: swap pre-made energy bars for Christmas pudding’

By | October 13, 2019

At Team Sunweb, we have a kitchen truck where our food is freshly prepared by our team chef and all of our meals are monitored by our team nutritionist and dietician at every race and training camp.

To make sure we are eating and drinking correctly during a stage race, we get weighed every morning.

After each stage of a race like the Tour de France I give the nutritionist the number of kilojoules or energy I’ve produced during the day and also the number of bars, gels or drinks I consumed and they do the calculations on a spreadsheet and either tell me to eat more or eat less at dinner that evening.

At first I found it hard to remember all of this and had to take a photo with my phone of the bars I’d put into my pocket at the start. But then, on top of that, I might take another few bars, gels or drinks at the feed zone and maybe get something else from the team car during the day too.

At dinner each evening, each riders food is individually weighed by the dietician so maybe you could have 200 grams of pasta, 150grams of steak and 200 grams of broccoli handed to you.

Weight and food are two of the biggest topics of conversation among racing cyclists and it’s probably no coincidence that some riders can go to extremes and develop an eating disorder.

To be honest, I probably focussed way too much on food and weight for a long time and there was a time when my friends hated coming out with me because I was obsessed about it.

There was a period in my life where all I talked about was food, whether I had eaten too much or too little the night before and how it might affect me the next day.

Thankfully, maturity and experience has made me realise that just because somebody else is following a certain diet, it’s not necessarily what I need for my body and I’m far more chilled about it nowadays. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat more.

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As a pro, the complicated battle is always between trying to improve your power and losing weight at the same time. Basically: the lighter you are, the easier it is to get up mountains.

But if you’re too light you will have no power and won’t be able to get up them anyway. I’ve known riders who looked like skeletons but had no power on the bike.

One of my old team doctors compared it to a car trying to get faster.

He reckoned that training is like fine-tuning the engine or adding a new exhaust or a spoiler but the easiest way to make the car go faster is to get rid of a few seats and the spare tyre, basically lighten the load.

It’s not the best example but most of the time losing a few kilos will make you go faster, especially uphill, once you don’t take it to extremes.

You need a lot of fuel for long spins or races and eating little and often is the cyclists motto. You should probably be drinking every 15 minutes or so and if you’re on a long spin, nibbling away at something as well.

Nowadays you can buy pre-made energy bars, gels and drinks in almost any shop, all specifically designed to fuel you for your chosen sport.

But you don’t have to buy expensive bars or drinks to get you through a spin.

When I was younger, bananas, apple tart, almond slices and fruit cake were the foods of choice on a training spin or at a race.

At the national championships in 2015 I forgot my energy bars and won the title on some mini muffins and cakes that I bought at a petrol station on the way to the race.

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Even now, my Auntie Carol makes me a Christmas pudding that I’ll cut into slices and wrap in tinfoil to bring with me out training. I’ll have a slice of that after two or three hours and it keeps me going for the rest of the spin. I’ll have it in my pocket on every long spin from December right through to April. My Sunweb team uses banana bread as a recovery food sometimes and I like that for training too.

Trends have changed over the years too regarding eating during training. When I was younger my Dad would lambast me for having a coffee stop mid-training.

“It’s unprofessional,” he’d say. “You’re supposed to be training to make your body tired, not giving it a rest halfway through. And you’re going to catch a cold.”

But sometimes, when my training is very intense and specialised, I find that freshening up by stopping for a coffee and a crostata for ten minutes actually helps me go deeper on the next interval and helps push my numbers as high as possible in the different zones.

If I have to do three 20 minute intervals, I might do two before the coffee stop and one afterwards. I often feel fresher and can work a bit harder on the last interval than I might have if I didn’t stop.

Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for any endurance sport and I would recommend carbo loading on the evening prior to the Project Series cycle and having a few more that morning.

If you do the short loop it will probably take between two and a half and three and a half hours and the long loop could take up to five hours so it’s going to be important to have some food in your back pocket too, although we will have two food stops along the way.

Personally I think nothing beats pasta off the bike but some riders don’t like it.

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For me, the after-race meal used to kill me. After eating so many gels or racing so hard, my stomach was never in the mood for eating pasta and vegetables on the team bus and it’s only through experience that I’ve learned that yoghurt and cereal is much better for me straight after a race.

Different teams have different diets and when I started at Ag2r the days alternated between pasta and chicken one day, rice and salmon the next.

At Saxo-Bank we had a Danish dietician in my first year there. He’d tell us how the eskimos survived on just fats and protein and that’s what our diet was based on. We had protein pancakes with hazelnut chocolate and coconut spread for breakfast. The food was amazing but I put on four kilos in a month of racing and had to ditch it for my normal routine.

Hydration is a big thing too. While most people drink in the hotter weather, a lot of times in we tend to forget to drink as much when it’s raining and cold. The last thing you want to do is swig from a cold bottle, but you’re probably sweating more because you have a rain jacket on.

Like training, nobody can tell you how much or how little to eat and it’s taken me years to figure out what suits me.

In general, the more you cycle the more you will figure out what foods work and don’t work for you, what flavours make you feel sick and what hits the spot.

The main thing is not to go hungry on the bike and not to eat too much off the bike. If you get that right, you’re on the right track. And if you get the chance, try those pancakes!

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