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With the Giro in full swing and Le Tour on the horizon, I thought I’d take a different path for this nutrition post. It’s one thing preparing your nutrition plan for a single day race. It’s tougher for a week-long stage race. But nutrition for the grand tours is something else. Optimising performance and recovery, and maintaining a healthy gut and immune system whilst constantly on the move for three weeks is a massive logistical challenge for teams and their support staff. Here’s a rundown on the nutrition factors and practical considerations that are required to keep the grand tour pros fuelled and hydrated.
Nutrition preparation leading in to a grand tour
The lead up to a grand tour is not particularly different to any other race. Most of the riders will have come off a lead up race in the week or so before a grand tour, then begin their final preparation. If they’re tapering and reducing the amount of riding in the few days beforehand then it may not be necessary to carbohydrate load as such, but simply maintain their normal daily amount of carbs (which for these guys will be high anyway) whilst reducing the amount being used up. If there’s a prologue on the first day of the tour then carbohydrate loading the day before isn’t going to help, but the focus would then be on eating carbs after it’s over in preparation for the first road stage the following day.
What do grand tour riders need nutritionally?
There have been a few studies where the amount of energy burnt by riders in the Tour de France has been measured – typical daily expenditures are around 20,000-25,000 kilojoules a day, but can be as high as 35,000kJ (around 8,000 calories). This will obviously vary depending on the size of the rider, the length and terrain of the stage, whether they’re riding in the break or trying to bring it back, or just sitting nicely tucked into the bunch. Failure to consume enough total energy isn’t an issue in a single day or even several days of stage racing, but over a couple of weeks this can have consequences to both physical and mental performance. It also increases the risk of illness, which can ruin a rider’s tour. Just ask Cadel about the 2010 Giro.
The amount of carbohydrate required by riders will also vary from day to day but will likely be up around 10-15 grams per kilogram of body weight. This is needed for maximising carb stores prior to the stage, optimising performance during it, then restoring the body’s stores to do it all again the next day.
There will also be an emphasis on high quality protein post-stage to maximise recovery of the muscle fibres that have been hammered during the day. It also helps to maximise the body’s adaptation to riding each day, so riders come into form in the second half of the tour.
But what makes the nutrition requirements of grand tour riding stand out is the requirement for not only energy, carbs and protein, but fibre, vitamins and minerals too. Three weeks of hard racing is long enough for a lack of these nutrients to start to have a significant impact on health and performance. You can eat all the white rice and pasta you like for the carbs, but a lack of fibre from wholegrains, fruit and veggies can mean that bowel function starts to be a real problem. Likewise a lack of vitamins and minerals after two weeks of hard racing can start to have an impact on the immune system.
Eating and drinking on the bike
Eating and drinking during a grand tour on the road theoretically shouldn’t be any different to a one day race of a similar length. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, research in the last five years suggests that there’s a benefit to be gained in longer races of very high quantities of carbohydrate, up to 90-100g an hour (from a combination of carbs that digest into glucose combined with fructose). I say grams per hour because the absorption of carbohydrate during exercise is not related to body weight. The often quoted 1gram per kg per hour is an outdated recommendation.
Depending on the way the stage develops these very high carb intakes aren’t always achievable, but teams are now aiming for this quantity. This serves to not only optimise performance but also helps maximise the energy consumed during the stage, meaning riders don’t have to eat quite as much off the bike.
Because they race so much throughout the year, this amount of eating and drinking during a stage should be a matter of routine for the PRO’s and their support staff. But after racing every day for two weeks straight it’s only natural that you’d start to get sick of eating the same gels, bars and sports drinks over and over again. Variety becomes really important, because if the riders start to eat less as the tour goes on then they’re going to struggle to perform in the final week.
So during stages of a grand tour there’s much more variety then what you’d expect to see at a one day club race. The usual sports drinks, gels and bars (and whatever else the sponsors provide) are accompanied by low fat cakes, a variety of home baked bars (sweet and savoury), sweet and savoury patties made with boiled sushi rice, baked potatoes with cheese, fresh and dried fruit, bread with peanut butter, jam or Nutella and sliced banana (and possibly Vegemite for the GreenEdge boys), and cans of soft drink.
Fluid too is obviously important, and the Tour and Vuelta in particular are well known for days of extreme heat. The quantity required for a team of nine cyclists means that sports drink powder is the only form that can be practically transported. Think about making up your own drinks for a race. Now imagine having to prepare between 150 and 400 bottles of sports drink from powder every morning for three weeks! You really have to feel for the poor soigneurs.
The most recent study of actual food and fluid intake during a grand tour was conducted in riders from Rabobank and HTC-Highroad in three stages of the 2009 Vuelta. They found the average carbohydrate intake was 64g an hour (ranging from 24-109g/hr), protein was 4g/hr and fat 2g/hr. Total energy consumed on the bike averaged around 6,300kJ in a stage.
Eating off the bike
The average grand tour stage takes around 4-6 hours. Then there’s warm up and cool downs, massages, team meetings, media commitments and sleep. This only leaves riders about eight hours in which to consume some 19,000kJ, or the equivalent of 6 slices of bread every hour!
Logistically this is a big challenge. Long transfers after a stage mean that the bus has to become a buffet on wheels. Recovery drinks with both protein and carbohydrate will kick things off immediately after a stage, but this will be backed up with other meals and snacks during transit. Team Sky and Garmin for example have a rice cooker on their buses, and the riders eat steamed rice with honey mixed through it, or with some lean protein foods such as a stir fry. It’s cheap, easy to prepare and provides a large amount of carbohydrate in a format that’s easy to eat and not too filling.
A lot of riders can lose their appetite after several days of hard racing, so foods that are familiar, well liked and easy to eat are really important. Once riders arrive at the hotel an abundance of snacks is made available to them. This can include fruit, energy bars, lollies and cakes. Rabobank have organised their chef to deliver freshly prepared pancakes to the rooms when riders arrive from their transfer. One year they also brought 9kg of wine gums with them to the Tour de France!
By far the biggest meal of the day during a grand tour is dinner. This doesn’t arrive until well after 8pm most days due to the late afternoon stage finishes and long transfer times. Previously the teams ate at their hotel buffets, but I’ve heard many nutritionists involved in cycling teams comment that the quality and quantity of food available can be very hit and miss for kitchens not used to catering to the needs of elite athletes. Plus there’s the competition between teams staying in the same hotel for the same buffet. So many of the bigger teams now use their own chefs who cook in a purpose built catering truck, giving them complete control over their food throughout the tour.
Many riders begin to experience gastrointestinal problems in the latter stages of a grand tour which further adds to their difficulty in consuming enough energy. Having their own chefs helps to produce food that’s easy to eat when you have minimal appetite, and also easy on the stomach.
Putting it all together – a mixture of science, logistics and gastronomics
Sports nutrition to optimise performance in grand tours has come a long way in the last ten years. Modern teams spend hours finely tuning their preparation, to ensure the right nutrients are consumed by riders at the right time. When you’re a part of the non-stop travelling circus that is a grand tour, the need for food variety, familiarity and gut friendliness are just as important as the energy, carbs and vitamins. Team nutritionists and sports dietitians work closely with the chefs and other team staff to ensure that the science of sports nutrition is implemented with athletes who are too tired to think for themselves, and in an environment that’s far from ideal.