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A lot’s been made of the eating habits of pros during Grand Tours in recent years. The introduction of team chefs and kitchen trucks a decade or so ago drastically altered both the style and substance of what riders have available to them. Twitter, YouTube and Instagram have taken a hidden, mundane part of Grand Tour life and transformed it into an art form, launching the media careers of some team chefs along the way.
We’ve previously written about the types of foods that are on the menu during a Grand Tour, but thanks to a recent research paper we’re now getting some insight into exactly how much the pros are eating, and the significance of that from a nutrition perspective.
The data here comes from Team Movistar at the 2015 Vuelta a España and was collected, analysed and published by a team of researchers from the University of Granada and the team itself. The paper includes data from all nine riders on the team, in a year Movistar had two riders in the overall top 10 (Nairo Quintana fourth, Alejandro Valverde seventh) and won the teams classification.
Here’s what’s particularly impressive about this dataset: not only did researchers track the food intake of all nine riders, but they literally weighed every food plate of every breakfast and dinner before it was eaten, and sat with the riders to determine how much of what was consumed. Likewise, food and gels were weighed before each stage and the remainder re-weighed to determine how much was eaten. They also recorded the number of bidons handed out to each rider.
The only part that relied on riders reporting their intake was the consumption of post-stage recovery snacks, from the completion of the stage until dinner time (recovery drinks were weighed though).
The researchers also used the riders’ power data to estimate the energy expended on the bike in each stage. Rather than taking the typical approach used in software of instantly converting kilojoules of power at the crank to calories of total energy expenditure (which assumes a gross mechanical efficiency of 23.9%), the researchers instead used a more scientifically validated figure of 20.7% when calculating energy expenditure.
From this, they found the average energy expenditure during a stage (so not including the energy expended for the rest of the day) was as low as 373kCal (1,560kJ) during the 7.4km team time trial, 1,090kCal (4,560kJ) during the 37.8km individual time trial, 3,107kCal (13,000kJ) during the flat stages, and up to 4,707kCal (19,700kJ) during the high mountain stages.
Coming back to the food, the riders ate an estimated 5,415kCal (22,650kJ), per day across the race duration, ranging from 4,760 to 6,375kCal/day (19,900kJ to 26,670kJ) between riders on the team. In terms of carbs, the average per rider per day was 872g, which equated to 12.5g per kg body weight and 65% of their total calories. The lowest carb intake of any individual rider was an average 11.3g/kg/day over the tour.
Protein intake was perhaps surprising, being very high at 230g per day (3.3g/kg/day). This may be more a reflection of the great job done by team chefs to make such appetising meals (about half of that came from breakfast and dinner alone), rather than a deliberate attempt to eat that much protein. I’m not aware of any sports nutritionists recommending that amount for cyclists, even in Grand Tours (Team Ineos/Sky, for example, has traditionally targeted 2-2.5g/kg/day).
Fat intake showed the most variation between riders, ranging from 60-175g per day, or 9-27% of calories.
A closer look at the data reveals more details about how those calories were eaten across the day. Eating before a stage was a big deal for these guys, getting in an average 199g of carbs, 47g of protein and 37g of fat at breakfast alone. On the bike, riders consumed an average of 91g of carbs per hour across all of the stages, with one rider as low as 66g/hr and the highest 119g/hr.
Overall, 43% of all the calories consumed each day were eaten and drunk on the bike, although this may be overestimated slightly if riders were throwing away half-drunk bidons or gel packets. Between the end of the stage and dinner time, focus clearly shifted towards protein for recovery. Riders got in a more modest 147g of carbs, but the 55g of protein was a good deal more than breakfast. But despite the large intake, an average of only 16g of fat was consumed during this time. Dinner followed a similar pattern to after the stage, with an average of 146g of carbs, 58g protein and 34g fat eaten each night.
Another interesting point from this research is that it’s probably the first to take weight and skinfold measurements of every rider on a team, before and after a Grand Tour. In this case the average rider dropped about 1kg throughout the Vuelta. Skinfolds also went down slightly (e.g. the sum of eight skinfolds went from 42.8mm pre-event to 38.3mm afterwards). Measurements of arm and thigh circumference tend to suggest that muscle mass was fairly well retained throughout the race though.
Overall, it appears that the amount the riders ate was quite appropriate for the demands of the Vuelta.
A final thought is to look at the variation between stages, since there are large differences in calorie expenditure depending on the particular stage — for example, from 373kCal (1,560kJ) to 4,707kCal (19,700kJ) in one stage. Whilst data was not available in this study on a stage-by-stage basis, some insight comes from Team Sky/Ineos following Chris Froome’s great escape on stage 19 of last year’s Giro.
The fuelling documents released by Sky via the BBC showed that Froome ate only 2,466kCal (10,320kJ) on stage 11, as part of a plan to underfuel on easier stages to reduce body fat and launch an assault on the GC later in the race. The carbohydrate intake was a modest 407g, or 5.8g/kg during that stage, and only 57g per hour on the bike, in what was a hilly but not mountainous stage. Protein consumed was 139g, or 2.0g/kg for the day.
In contrast, the day of the decisive stage 19 saw an almost tripling of Froome’s intake. Total energy intake was 6,663kCal (27,900kJ), with 1,305g of carbs eaten over the course of the day, including 96g/hr on the bike. That’s a whopping 18.9g/kg in total, although it was noted that 9g/kg of this was consumed after the stage, either due to a desire to refuel for the next day, or some over-excitement from pulling off a major coup in the GC.
Protein intake, however, remained similar to stage 11 at 143g of protein (2.1g/kg). This pattern of consistent protein intake and periodised carbs for the workload is common practice in modern sports nutrition, both in training and competition, although this is perhaps a more extreme example. It’s unclear from the Movistar data if the same degree of periodisation occurs across the peloton, or if Sky/Ineos (or indeed Froome) is an outlier here.
A couple of things stand out for me in this research. Firstly, all of the data collected from actual riders in Grand Tours show that the use of low-carb diets in the pro peloton (at least during competition) is a myth. Despite claims that various riders are eating low-carb in competition, I’ve yet to see any actual evidence to suggest this is the case.
Secondly, the protein intake of riders is generally quite high – there are currently no specific recommendations for these levels (i.e. more than 2g/kg/day), but the consensus amongst those planning nutrition for elite multi-day endurance events is that this volume of protein is probably beneficial. With the amount of calories required, it’s certainly not going to be detrimental.
It’s been intriguing to follow teams and their chefs on social media over the last decade, to get an insight into what riders are eating during a Grand Tour. But from these images you might be forgiven for thinking pro cyclists have ditched much of the carbs in favour of protein sources and veggies. Data like this reminds us that the stuff you see on social media is but a sneak peak at what riders are consuming throughout the three weeks.
A bowl of plain rice doesn’t make for a great Instagram post, and it’s easy to forget that for every bidon riders are drinking, a large proportion of them are full of carbohydrate. But thanks to the rare insight and scientific rigour of this research paper, we can see that for the pro cyclist, carbs are still king when it comes to the Grand Tours, with a healthy dose of protein on the side.
About the author
Alan McCubbin is an Accredited Sports Dietitian, Accredited Practicing Dietitian and past president of Sports Dietitians Australia. He recently completed his PhD in sports nutrition at Monash University. He is also the founder of Next Level Nutrition, an online sports nutrition consultancy through which he works with a range of athletes from recreational to Olympians.