Take it from a Pro: How to Fuel Yourself for Cycling

Did you know that Victoria is one of the Canada’s foremost producers of professional cyclists? You’ve probably heard of Olympic gold medalist and triathlete Simon Whitfield, and if you follow competitive cycling at all, you’ll definitely have heard of Ryder Hesjedal —the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour, the 2012 Giro D’Italia.


What makes Victoria such a great city for cycling? Temperate weather, great roads and scenery are the usual answers, but I think we would be remiss not to mention the great local, healthy food that’s grown right here on the island. Like any professional sport, nutrition is a big part of an athlete’s success, and if like me you’re taking furtive steps into the amateur world of cycling, what to eat can be one of the most confusing questions.


I talked to three of Victoria’s well-regarded competitive cyclists to hear their thoughts on fueling your two-cylinder, half horsepower motor.


Rob Britton — professional rider for US Team SmartStop

 Lead photo of Rob, courtesy Team SmartStop

Why is good nutrition so important to fitness?

“I think when you start out you learn pretty quickly that you can’t just get by on pizza, beers and coke! That being said a lot of people back then said all you should eat was pasta. At the end of the day there’s a lot of guidelines but really no secret formula that works for everyone. To this day far and away the BEST advice I’d ever received was, you have to eat food every day for the rest of your life, so you might as well make an effort to do it well. So that is more or less how I treat my nutrition.”


What is unique about the type of riding you do, and the nutrition needed for it?

“With stage racing it ranges anywhere from three days of a local race like the Victoria Cycling Fest all the way up to the 21 day Tour de France. It all comes down to day to day recovery, and the food you eat has a huge role to play in that. During these races the big thing is replacing your glycogen stores, and the easiest way to do that is to hit the carbs — pasta, rice, maybe even some good bread, but you also have to keep up with protein and nutrients of veggies.

An average day for something like the Amgen Tour of California might be something like: Breakfast: 2 cups of coffee, some eggs, a piece of bacon, and oats (warm or cold)

During the stage: 2-3 Prima bars, 4+ energy gels and a couple homemade savoury rice cakes if its a longer stage, plus 5-10+ bottles of electrolyte mix.

Post stage: rice with a little bacon and eggs, a recovery mix and lots of water.

In the evening: lots of rice, some meat (fish or chicken), lots of veggies or salad. I have a big sweet tooth so usually 1 or 2 pieces of dessert.


What’s your go-to for a typical training ride? What are your favorite snacks to bring, and why?

“Always eat and drink before you’re hungry. Too many people think if you do a long ride and skip on the eating you’ll lose weight. In reality you’re shooting yourself in the foot. If you’re riding your bike you gotta eat.

As I mentioned before I love real food. I almost never train with mass production bars and never gels. A friend of mine started the company Prima (read our article on them here!) and I’ve been lucky enough to have support from him and so I get to eat real bars when I train which is awesome, but that being said… I am an absolute fiend for a king size Snickers and a can of coke on a hard long ride!”


Steven Grandy — professional bike messenger, cat 1/2 racer for Broad Street Cycles


Why is good eating so important to fitness?

“Cycling is a logistical sport where tactics are played out between riders on the best logistical footing. Nutrition is an extension of that. Another way to look at it is that a race is essentially an emergency situation for your body, your body is burning more fuel than it can process and at times the body is in oxygen debt.”


Riders train their energy systems to work at a high capacity. The goal is to burn fat at a high rate as possible and retain muscle/liver glycogen for decisive moments. I think the first few years, I expected my body to respond primarily from training but I eventually broke through a plateau by taking my nutrition seriously.”


What is unique about the type of nutrition needed for the kind of riding you do?

“I think the high fatigue load from being constantly active demands close attention to nutrition and rest. If I deplete calories for a few days, recovery suffers. My strategy is to avoid eating foods that are counterproductive to recovery. So I avoid packaged foods, sugar, and alcohol.”


What’s your go-to for a typical training ride? What are your favorite snacks to bring, and why?

“For short rides less than an hour I usually drink water only, 500-700ml per hour. Then I aim to eat about 200 calories per hour of carbohydrate. New athletes make the mistake of over consuming food on rides; for example, you’ll find the seawall in Vancouver littered with gels from runners who have gone for a 30-45 minute jog. Your body has enough glycogen to manage a 40-minute run at high intensity. I would say that bananas are a common staple, but sometimes I make energy bars out of rice, cocoa powder, and cream cheese. Baked yams wrapped in tinfoil are a treat as well.”


Emile Fromet de Rosnay — Cat 1 road racer for Langlois Brown Racing (Vancouver); bronze medalist at Canadian Track Nationals.


Why is good eating so important to fitness?

“What you eat is key in competitive cycling because being healthy is the difference between being fast or not. Elite athletes need to make sacrifices, and for that reason, it’s not as glamorous a lifestyle as we think. Sometimes, success in sport comes down to how well you eat. But even elite athletes need to let go sometimes.”


You won two bronze medals in 2009 at the Canadian Track Cycling Championships — what is unique about nutrition for track cycling?

“Most endurance track cyclists like me are also road cyclists. What makes trackies different is how they train, but their diets don’t differ that much. That said, nutrition during track racing is different than for road racing. Track meets last several days (3 to 6) and you might be racing shorter races throughout the day. It can be disastrous to eat a heavy meal, but you need the calories. Additionally, even though you’re doing a lot of high intensity racing, you can’t eat too much sugar, otherwise your system will crash. That’s why I like to eat rice. My favourite is a burrito — mostly beans and rice without too much heavy protein or fat.”


What’s your go-to for a typical training ride? What are your favorite snacks to bring, and why?

“It depends on the type of ride. For long endurance rides (4-6 hours) that don’t involve high intensity, I avoid drink mix and stick to water, and eat solid foods like bananas, figs, dates, while avoiding high-fibre fruits like apricots. I also have a homemade energy bar that I call “the snack.” It’s easy to make and a lot cheaper than store-bought bars: it’s a solid mixture of crunchy natural peanut butter, honey, sea salt and quick oats, wrapped in cling film. Occasionally, I add chocolate chips. It tastes amazing after 2 hours when you start to get hungry.”


For easy rides less than 3 hours, I won’t even bring food, just water with a pinch of salt, maybe an energy bar just in case I get the “hunger knock”. For high-intensity workouts, it’s different. If a workout simply involves a warm-up, intervals and cool-down, and the whole thing lasts between 1 and 3 hours, I will use drink mix like Gatorade. I’ll also eat a banana or “the snack” on the way home while cooling down.


The long, hard rides (more than 3 hours that involve high-intensity) require everything. I will usually have one or two bottles with mix, and “the snack”, bananas or some other fruit. I will usually stop at the gas station, coffee shop or store to get water and extra food such as a banana, croissant, muffin, and/or a chocolate bar (Snickers is my favourite), and caffeinated pop or coffee. At that rate, I’m burning through more than 700+ calories per hour, so anything goes in my gullet.”


Quantity is an interesting issue. I avoid eating too much, especially sugar, because it will cause gastric distress; but not eating enough is also dangerous, especially in stage races. I actually have to train myself to eat more in race situations because I’ve been unable to eat enough and have paid for it by bonking (re: running out of fuel). The standard calorie guidelines are helpful: replace what you burn. But this doesn’t necessarily apply for endurance rides, since they are partly for burning fat (you want a calorie deficit). However, a strict guideline isn’t good since everyone has different fat-burning levels, and it takes time to develop your ability to use stored fat during exercise.”


There you have it! I’m gonna go make a few “the snack” bars — stay classy out there.


Written By:

Vancouver-born photographer, writer and designer Sol Kauffman has had his hands dirty in restaurant kitchens for years, washing dishes and slinging pizzas. In 2008 he moved to Victoria to pursue a BFA in Creative Writing at UVic ...

Comments are closed.