Really, Really Fast Food: What the Tour de France Cyclists Are Eating

Really, Really Fast Food: What the Tour de France Cyclists Are Eating photo

Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara fuels up during the 2010 Tour de France.

Ah, the Tour de France. Those three weeks in July when whisper-thin men in Spandex pedal through scenic mountain villages, and the rest of us get hungry just watching them. A Tour de France cyclist can burn an unfathomable 8,000 calories a day—their bodies are basically calorie steam trains operating at full capacity. To keep the engines running, they’re eating from the time they wake up to the time they hit the sack, including while they’re on the bike.

Maybe you’ve seen the photos of riders popping mini doughnuts, sucking bananas out of the peel, housing whole sandwiches, all while cycling at breakneck speed. Most riders try to eat 200 calories per hour during the race, more if it’s a hard stage. Those calories need to be quick-digesting carbohydrates like fruit and refined grains. But you can’t always bike with a dozen doughnuts, so riders more often rely on things that can be smashed into the back pocket of a jersey. Energy bars and gels, sure, but this is the most elite event in the sport of cycling. Surely there’s a secret dietary weapon.

There is, and it’s rice cakes.

Not an uncommon sight: A rider holds onto a snack in his mouth, saving it for later. Photo: LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

Watch carefully and you’ll see riders eating what look like tiny burritos wrapped in foil. “We rely on them,” says Henrik Orre. Orre is the chef for Team Sky, Britain’s premier professional cycling team. He’s not talking about the store-bought cylinders of crumbling drywall. Orre, a former head chef at Stockholm’s Michelin-starred Mathias Dahlgren, makes his own dense, moist version out of cooked rice, cream cheese or almond butter, cinnamon, and a little agave. The mixture is pressed into a pan and chilled, then cut into squares and wrapped in tin foil.

“They’re the best thing to eat on the bike because you don’t have to chew much,” says Orre. “Just swallow it down with a bit of water and you’re fine.”

2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali reaches into his musette for a mid-race snack. Casual. Photo: LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

He has about a dozen flavors that he rotates. Apple and raisin is popular, almond butter and banana is another favorite. He makes a few kinds a day because every rider has his preference. They’ll grab a handful at the beginning of the race, then another five or six when they’re in the Feed Zone, which sounds like a section at a petting zoo but is actually high-stakes snack time. Midway through the day, a designated teammate gets a bag of food from the supply car and brings it to each of the riders, who re-stock their jersey pouches. This all has to happens in minutes, without anyone losing speed.

“They aim to eat one piece every half hour throughout a five or six hour ride,” says Orre. But in practice that’s not always possible.

“Sometimes you can eat two in ten minutes and then nothing for an hour,” says Luke Rowe, a rider on Team Sky. Rowe is what’s called a domestique—a cyclist who rides strategically to give the team leader the best chance to win. The 25-year-old Welshman helped teammate Chris Froome take the top spot at last year’s Tour de France and will attempt to do the same this year. Rowe gives at least some of the credit for his stellar performance to the Speculaas-flavored rice cakes. (Speculaas is a Dutch shortbread, made popular in the U.S. by Trader Joe’s Speculoos cookie butter.) “Speculaas is the number one,” he says. “Also Oreo.”

tour-de-france-food-burgerWhat is that, a little burger?! Photo: LIONEL BONAVENTURE,LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

Team Sky isn’t the only team to use the rice cake trick. Sean Fowler, chef for the Cannondale Pro team based out of Colorado, makes his with overcooked rice and a little egg added for protein. “I do a sweet and sour one, and one with bacon,” he says. “It’s absolutely the best fuel for them on the bike.”

tour-de-france-food-team-skyA selection of delicious energy gels and homemade rice cakes for Team Sky riders. Yum! Photo: Courtesy of Team Sky

If a Cannondale rider really wants a sandwich, they get one on gluten-free bread. Fowler has had the team on a “gluten-moderate” diet since 2009. He serves pasta only once or twice a week and makes his own gluten-free grains. “We’ve seen a definite improvement,” says Fowler. “And when you see a definite improvement, that’s a lot, because they’re at a level most of us can’t comprehend. To improve your digestion and your capacity to ingest more calories at this level is amazing.”

Fowler says they’re also experimenting with juicing as a way to get more calories in without the bulk.

It’s hard to fathom, but eating fatigue is an actual problem for riders who need to eat as much as possible for three weeks straight. “The stuff we eat on the bike gets boring pretty quick,” says Rowe. Sometimes it’s hard to get down another rice cake but… there are no buts. You have to do it. You have to eat it.”

To ease the burden of constant eating, team chefs try to make their other meals as interesting and delicious as possible. Orre’s breakfasts always include an oats-based porridge cooked with bananas and coconut oil, homemade spreads like almond butter and banana cream, omelets, smoothies, and in case you’d like some carbs with your carbs, rice and pasta. He does dinner buffet-style with one protein source like fish or chicken and no fewer than four carb-rich options. Dessert is yet another opportunity for carbohydrates. “A good dessert is rice pudding,” says Orre. “It’s got hidden carbs.”

tour-de-france-food-biscuitIs that a cookie, Alberto Contador? Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Last year’s Cannondale team had nine cyclists from eight different countries. The full team represents riders from the Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Australia, Ireland, Slovenia, Colombia, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. “Everyone has their customs,” says Fowler. “Lithuanians tend to like meat and potatoes. Italians can be real specific about eating their Italian flavors. Americans like the spicy stuff. Any time I do anything with spice like curry chicken, they’re on board for that.” Orre says the Brits on his team like heat in their food too, while the Spanish prefer “traditional middle European flavors” and rice instead of pasta.

Satisfying the global palate is hard enough without the added fun of doing it in a space-shuttle-sized kitchen on wheels. (Cycling chefs were cooking on trucks long before it was a fad.) Team Sky’s rig looks like a tour bus, sleek and black, with a kitchen in back and a dining area up front. The kitchen is full of gadgets, including a gleaming steel Team-Sky-branded espresso maker. “Coffee is universal,” says Orre. It’s impossible to stock three-weeks worth of food, so they shop in local markets along the way.

As Rowe heads into this year’s Tour de France, which begins July 2, he’s already thinking about off-season, which lasts just a month or two in the fall. “I’ll go back to Cardiff, watch some Rugby games, chill out with my mates, and enjoy life,” he says. He’ll drink a few pints, and no rice cake shall cross his lips.

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