The days of beginning a race with a large undercooked steak for breakfast are a long gone distance memory that live with the older generation of cyclists. Sports nutrition has come a long way and is one of the defining improvements in modern day athletic performance., Team Sky is known for thinking outside the box, not leaving things to chance, and put the concept of “marginal gains” into practise in cycling.
We spoke with James Morton, team Sky’s head of nutrition to find out how their riders prepare for the Tour de France, how they fuel during the race and how they recover to fight another gruelling day.
Preparation in the build up to the Tour starts a staggering six months in advanced. James explained the build-up to the big race.
“We have our pre-season training camps in Majorca (in January). The riders will turn up, and as you’d expect they’re not in their optimal condition, they’re not in their optimal body composition. We have to try and put together that six-month individual rider program, so that they turn up on day one of the Tour de France really ready to race in their peak condition.”
Inside team Sky’s kitchen is more than just a kitchen, a full size dining table and a professional quality coffee machine finish the light and airy atmosphere.
It’s fair to say that winning the Tour de France is Sky’s overriding goal for the season, and their nutritional strategy plays a huge part in this. Putting weight on Froome or making Stannard super skinny is clearly not ideal, and managing this balance is all in a day’s work for James.
To achieve an optimal body condition from a nutritional background there are three main goals the riders need to hit:
“Number one is fuelling and recovery from every training session we do,” explains Morton. “Number two is trying to promote training adaptation, so really we want to try and use nutrition to strategically maximise how the body and muscle responds to every single training session. And then of course, the number one is weight loss. To make sure that the power to weight ratio is really optimal when it comes to riding on day one of the race.”
Fresh food prepared on-site by a chef that’s worked in Michelin starred restaurants
As we found out protein is one area that is surprisingly constant for every rider on the team, no matter if you’re a hulking big classics rider or a light-weight climber.
“Every rider will have the same protein requirement according to their body mass. We will typically advise between two and 2.5 grammes per kilograme of their body mass every day, and we’d advise that every three to four hour periods.”
Morton explains, “On race day this is where fuelling is most important. Most cyclists will know what “hitting the wall” feels like at some point and it’s a case of experience to know when to eat so the dreaded “bonk” won’t hit. It’s the same for the professionals, we’ve seen riders loose huge amounts of times due to misjudging their intake of food. Froome had one such situation in 2014 on Alp d’Huez.”
Menus and memos on the wall for the team chef
Tour riders can burn an enormous amount of calories a day, between 5000-8000 calories on stage, which is of course dependent on the stages profile. But managing the right calories at the right time is again down to a specific set of perimeters that James helps calculate.
“Fuelling consistently day by day is our key goal. The last thing we want to do is over-fuel on a flatter stage, and we certainly don’t want to under-fuel on a mountain stage. It’s trying to educate the riders that every stage is different. One thing we might change day by day is the fuelling on the bike, and perhaps the recovery fuel after the race. It’s the frequency of fuelling that changes day by day. On a big mountain stage, we will be aiming for 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour. And that’s pretty much made up of three to four units of carbohydrate an hour, that can be a rice cake we make ourselves, a Science in Sport energy bar, a Science in Sport gel or our hydration carbohydrate drinks made by Science in sport.On a big mountain stage, they will fuel every 15 to 20 minutes.”
Tucked away in multiple cupboards are tubs upon tubs of SIS products
After listening to James explain the effort and energy that goes into Team Sky’s nutrition planning, it’s astonishing that you still see riders on the start line chomping on Haribo, and sneaking in the odd slice of cake from the Tours Village departs bakery. Professional cyclists are only human, but when it comes to the Tour de France, it’s no regular human task.