Question: What does a USA Pro Challenge cyclist eat?
Answer: Whatever his sponsors tell him to, of course.
OK, that's a stupid joke I made up, though it's apparently true that while in the saddle, a rider had better not be seen on camera sucking the foil teat of another team's sugar daddy.
GU gel, PowerBar Energy Gel, Clif Shot energy gel, Honey Stinger gel ... whatever logo's on your jersey, that had better be your maltodextrin master, according to Jim Rutberg, Carmichael Training Systems coach. Each company's base ingredients and carbohydrate blend might differ a little, but in the end it's all created with the same goal in mind: to deliver energy to the muscles, and quick.
Which gets back to the real, lengthy answer to our original "what to eat" question. Let's start with the words, "a lot." Like, around 5,000 to 6,000 calories on race days, as compared to the average American's 2,000 to 3,500, speculates Rutberg, who co-authored Chris Carmichael's Food for Fitness.
"It's rare to ever see a racer without something in his hand that's not a bottle or food," he says. "They're always grazing or drinking." Even on the bike, they gobble around 200 to 250 calories per hour, while also hydrating with a combination of water and sports drinks.
What matters more than what the cyclists are actually eating — quinoa versus pasta versus chicken — is that food's base element: protein, carbohydrates, fat, electrolytes. By now, some general standards have been well-established, even if each individual has his optimal mix.
"Food as fuel is the way that the athletes look at it," says Rutberg. "When you look at it that way, you dissociate things like, 'What is the right time of day to eat eggs?' Who cares? Breakfast foods at night make perfect sense, as does rice in the morning ... look at fueling the engine when it is hot, and when it needs to recover for the next day."
One unsurprising trend is that athletes do tend to reach for whole foods versus empty calories. And aside from the "functional foods" like the gel shots and sports drinks, they tend to avoid supplements and powders, says Rutberg. (He notes the added risk of testing positive for some surprise ingredient in an unregulated supplement, and ruining a career.)
Breaking down a single race day, many cyclists start with a breakfast and/or pre-race meal (depending on the stage start time) of basics that you or I might eat: whole-grain cereals and breads, eggs, fruit, even coffee. Depending on nationality and culture, or just taste preference, others instead choose rice or other morning meals atypical to most Americans.
Some teams have chefs, while others have soigneurs — assistants who help feed, clothe, massage and escort the riders — who aid with the carb-loading.
Pre-race grazing often includes a snack like a protein-heavy PR Bar. Saddle snacks may consist of mini sandwiches (often called paninis), or salted, boiled potatoes — easy starch between the pre-packaged, quick-fuel items. At race's end, the soigneurs hand over more protein-rich recovery drinks, which help repair muscles and aid in carb and electrolyte replacement.
After additional grazing, dinner might bring a lean protein like fish, or tofu or beans for the vegetarians and vegans (whose numbers have risen in recent years, says Rutberg), plus more whole-food sides like lightly oiled roasted vegetables. During race season, dessert's rare; that's usually reserved for off-season cutting loose.
"Race time is where you are ridiculously focused on nutrition, calories, sleep, training — it's obsessive, and that's not sustainable," says Rutberg. "There has to be a relief valve for these athletes in other seasons."
In the end, a given rider's diet, though similar in caloric nature to his peers', looks different in the same way the average American's diet differs from his neighbor's. Cyclists are human first, and just as finicky at heart as the rest of us. One may crave tacos, while another a paleo-centric steak feast, and still another a gluten-free Thai pig-out.
Really, there's room for it all in the cycling world, as long as it's portioned and timed right. "The body will adapt and be able to burn and conserve differently," says Rutberg. "But it's difficult for athletes to transition from one eating style to another in a short period of time ... when you find one that works, you generally stick to it."
Unless, of course, it crosses one of your sponsors.