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6:45am, October 26, 2018: Some plain whole milk yogurt, some blueberries and raspberries, a sliced-up banana, a handful of chocolate granola, and two spoonfuls of chia seeds, all mixed up. My last proper meal for the next three days.
We’re rapidly approaching the end of 2018, and as is often the case around this time of year, the operating budget at CyclingTips HQ is a little tight. Too many filet mignon dinners at the Tour, too many shots of 20-year-old scotch, and just maybe a few too many four-star hotels all slowly take their toll on the company coffers, and if we don’t all keep a closer eye on the bottom line right now, our annual end-of-year staff blowout in Monaco might be put in jeopardy.
But I was insistent on covering the Philly Bike Expo again this year, for good reason: it’s rapidly becoming one of the premier venues in North America for checking out custom bikes, which we all know and love. But after arranging for flights and accommodations, there wasn’t much left over for food. And if you haven’t already gathered from listening to our podcasts, I eat a lot.
And so I came up with a really, really terrible idea.
As a tech editor, one thing that’s always been challenging to cover in any meaningful fashion is energy food. Does this one company’s formulation really help you go faster? Does alpha-L-polylactate really prevent that burning feeling in your muscles? Can some fancy recipe cooked up in a lab actually improve the way your body metabolizes stored energy?
Fair warning: I’m not going to answer any of those questions.
But in the interest of saving money, what I am going to do is eat nothing but cycling-branded energy bars until I get back home Sunday night, and tell you how it goes in a way that has nothing to do whatever with cycling. (This is all for you, Wade.)
To prepare for the endeavor, I gathered as many different brands and types of bars I already had in my kitchen. I solicited a handful of samples from a few of the more obscure brands suggested to me via Twitter, and bought the rest at my local grocery store. Total bill on my expense report: about US$20.
Ok, folks, need some help here. Looks like I've just committed myself to eating nothing but energy bars for roughly 2 1/2 days during an upcoming work trip. What are your tastiest favorites? Already have @EnduroBites, @pickybars, and @SkratchLabs on the list. What else?
— James Huang (@angryasian) October 5, 2018
My hope is that I can at least figure out which ones are more palatable than others, or maybe just easier on my stomach. But mostly, I just want to make it to Sunday.
4:14pm, Enduro Bites, lemon cranberry, 200cal: I figured I may as well start with something familiar. I got turned on to Enduro Bites a few years ago. It’s a fig-based recipe with just twelve ingredients, all of which I recognize and can pronounce. Like most energy bars, these don’t look particularly appealing. But I find that they actually taste pretty good, they’re easy to eat on the bike, and they’ve never upset my stomach.
Still, this is going to be a long three days.
4:19pm, Pro Bar, Superfruit Slam, 350cal: Go figure; I’m still hungry. Pro Bar is another energy bar I’m familiar with, although it’s been a while since I’ve had one. It’s more traditional in that it’s nut-and-grain based, but still with a relatively short (and recognizable) ingredient list, much of which is raw. It’s heartier than the Enduro Bites bar, with whole nuts and seeds embedded. Not too sweet, satisfyingly chewy. Probably not something I’d eat while riding, but a decent snack when “real” food isn’t available.
4:35pm, SIS Energy Bar, Blueberry, 120cal: Hey, don’t judge me for eating three energy bars in the span of twenty minutes; I didn’t eat lunch today. The first ingredient in this bar is concentrated grape juice, which makes it both very sweet and more grape-flavored than blueberry-flavored. Typical chewy energy bar texture, but with some crispy rice and soy bits tossed in. It’s basically a bunch of fruits and grains all mashed together, which doesn’t make for the most appealing-looking thing, but it tastes alright.
6:53pm: My Airbnb in Philadelphia is seemingly right smack in the middle of Chinatown, and all I smell is glorious take-out food. This is the universe punishing me.
8:08pm, Philly cheesesteak hoagie: Broken already. Got a tour of Drew Guldalian’s (Engin Cycles) workshop, and he asked me to stay for dinner. I didn’t want to be rude, right? And Wade, it was free. All good :)
8:20am, Saturday, Bobo’s Oat Bar, Cinnamon Raisin, 360cal: Seems more like I’m having a big rectangular cookie for breakfast than a typical energy bar. Pleasantly subtle taste and a familiar texture, but not much cinnamon or raisin flavor. Just ten ingredients. I’d eat one of these again.
8:34am, Jojé bar, Pancakes and Bacon, 280cal: Pancakes and bacon? Of course I’m going to have this in the morning. The texture is indeed sort of like an extra-dense pancake, and yep, there’s an air of maple syrup and bacon flavor. Very easy to chew, short-and-sweet ingredient list, lots of different flavors to choose from. I liked it.
12:09pm, Saturday, Skratch Labs, Parmesan and black pepper, 210cal: This is a new flavor that Skratch is playing with, and I hope it makes it to market. It’s far more savory than sweet (I’m already over the sugar at this point), and kind of reminds me of potato chips (in a good way). Crunchy and satisfying. Oddly tasty.
12:13pm, Saturday, Epic Bar, apple/uncured bacon, 140cal: This is basically just a hunk of meat, which is also why I love it so. Think of it as a much fancier version of a Slim Jim that you find at a gas station. My only wish is that this were two or three times bigger. And cheaper. These suckers are pricey.
12:20pm, Saturday: There’s a taco truck inside the venue at Philly Bike Expo. Surely no one can be expected to have this kind of willpower, right? Must. Stay. Strong.
3:28pm, Saturday, Picky Bars, Cookie Doughpness, 180 cal: I place Picky Bars in a similar category as Skratch, in the sense that the bars use a very limited list of recognizable ingredients. The texture is a mix of chewy and crunchy, which I liked, and although I’ve generally been happy with most of the Picky Bars flavors I’ve tried (Moroccan My World!!), this isn’t one of my favorites. Mildly sweet, generally agreeable, and definitely not overpowering, but if this is supposed to taste like cookie dough, I’m not sure what kind of cookie it is.
Our editor Caley Fretz really likes the name though:
4:28pm, Saturday: Free donut. Couldn’t say no.
5:29pm, Saturday: Stomach is unhappy. Go figure. Was it the donut? The steady stream of weird energy bars? Salvation in the form of Chinese take-out is just five floors below me…
6:56pm, Saturday, Chinese take-out from David’s Mai Lai Wah on 10th St.: Forgive me, readers, for I am a weak man with an apparently weak stomach. Besides, the place came very highly recommended by Benny, my Airbnb host. It was delicious. And only US$17. Maybe I’ll have more strength tomorrow. Because there are a bunch of energy bars left in my bag that need to be eaten in the name of editorial integrity (or what’s left of it at this point).
7:47pm, Saturday, Clif Bar Fruit Smoothie Filled Bar, Tart Cherry Berry, 230cal: Does this count as dessert? Sure. A relatively new line from Clif Bar, these have a grainy/oaty exterior with a creamy fruit filling. Quite sweet, strong berry flavor. Pretty tasty, actually. But I would have preferred an ice cream cone.
8:11am, Sunday, WCUP Sports Cake, Banana, 286cal: Time for breakfast. I like banana bread, so my hope is that this is reminiscent of that. And guess what: it is! Sort of. Texture is similar to a Bobo’s Oat Bar (not surprising given that oats is the main ingredient), and there’s indeed a subtle banana flavor (which, surprisingly, actually comes from dehydrated bananas). I think I’m even picking up a bit of walnut? Still nowhere as good as the real thing, but in this context, I’ll take it. Also worth noting that this thing has a comparatively short shelf life of just a couple of months, which I personally find reassuring.
8:19am, Sunday, GU Stroopwafel, Traditional Caramel, 150cal: Still hungry. Waffles are a typical breakfast food in America, so a stroopwafel should count as breakfast food, right? I know, I’m stretching it big-time. Cookie-like sides sandwiching a semi-gooey center, pleasantly chewy overall, sweet but not insanely so. A little crumbly. Feels like I’m eating candy for breakfast. Thumbs up.
8:23am, Sunday: Oh my god, I really need to brush my teeth now.
1:26pm, Sunday, R.e.d.d. energy bar, peanut butter, 240cal: Lots of extra stuff in this one (such as Yerba mate powder, “Betta Berries” antioxidant powder, some vegan protein blend, etc.), but it’s not nearly as weird to eat as I thought it might be. Pretty standard energy bar consistency, a bit of crunchiness, legit peanut butter flavor (likely due to the peanut flour). Not bad.
1:31pm, Sunday, Clif Builder’s protein bar, 270cal: Yep, still hungry after the R.e.d.d. bar. Strangely enough, this has fewer ingredients than a standard Clif Bar, which I’ve sometimes found to be overloaded with extraneous stuff. One layer of crunchy bits and another layer of chewier stuff, all covered in something resembling chocolate. Digging the mintiness, but the whole thing is quite dense. Desperately need to find some water.
1:43pm, Sunday, another Epic Bar, 120cal: I cracked this open not so much because I was still hungry, but more because I’m desperately craving salt. Nearly all of these energy bars primarily deliver some sort of sugar/carbohydrate (which makes sense), but I wish more of them would offer savory flavors.
4:08pm, Sunday, a burrito the size of my forearm: Am I actually home yet? No, so technically speaking, this work trip is still in progress. But I’m over it. Maybe I’ll have one more bar as “dessert”, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve paid my debt to society.
5:47pm, Sunday, Bonk Breaker Protein Bar, Double Fudge Brownie, 190cal: Bonus round. Let’s just say that this doesn’t look particularly appealing, and the texture is akin to PowerBars from decades gone by. But the strong cocoa taste is pretty good. Not my favorite.
Conclusion: While it does seem possible to survive on nothing but energy bars, I wouldn’t recommend it. Do they provide necessary, easily digestible calories for when you’re on the road? Sure, and the latest crop of simpler, more food-based options are vastly preferable — at least to me — than ones that seem like they were crafted in a lab instead of a kitchen. But either way, I’d still save the energy bars for riding only. As good as the best ones are, they still aren’t nearly as good as actual food.
What’s your favorite thing to eat during a ride? Does it even come in a wrapper? Leave your comments and suggestions in the section below. And whatever you do, don’t do what I just did.