Dozens of professional cyclists from around the world are converging on Sacramento this week. They’re getting ready for the first leg of the Amgen Tour of California that starts Sunday. We looked into what the riders eat to perform their best during the race.
Riders and mechanics mill about the DoubleTree hotel parking lot on a morning before the race. Biju Thomas seems to know all of them.
Thomas is with Skratch Labs, an official sponsor of the Amgen Tour of California. The company plans the meals for the 128 cyclists on the tour. He works with hotels to make sure they supply the right breakfasts and dinners for the riders. His own trailer food truck supplies the “recovery meals” as soon as riders dismount.
“The sooner you eat, the quicker your body starts to replenish the glycogen stores you’ve already depleted," explains Thomas. "So the quicker you can replenish them, the better you’re going to feel tomorrow.”
Thomas helps riders replenish their depleted energy reserves with sweet potato burritos and chicken fried rice.
“We try to do burritos as often as we can, because most of the European dudes come in and they love anything even remotely in the shape of or sounds like a burrito.”
There’s a second post-ride dinner back at the hotel. For all meals, the key word is “simple.” No heavy sauces or dressings with the fewest ingredients as possible.
“These guys need to be able to eat and then go train, ride, go recover, they can’t just go into a food coma," Thomas explains. "So we take out a lot of dairy, and excess salt, and sugar and all that, we make the food really clean, but really delicious still.”
In terms of volume of food, pro-cyclists don’t have to worry.
"It’s almost physically impossible to eat too much with the amount of calories that we burn," says Lucas Euser.
Euser is competing on the Amgen Tour with the United Healthcare team. He says nutella is a pro-cycling favorite.
"Sometimes those quick sugary things that in a regular diet probably could cause someone to go diabetic, are things that we need to use to turn into fuel.”
Before each day’s ride, Euser will eat things like rice, eggs, avocado, or oatmeal. Food that’s easy on the stomach and can be processed quickly. When he’s on the bike, he’ll bring bite-size peanut butter & jelly sandwiches or almond butter, blueberry ricecakes. At the most intense points of the race, he whips out the carbohydrate gels.
“Any available time I have in that race, I’m putting something in my mouth…So you have to take advantage of any dull moment in the race to eat and drink and make sure you’re refueled, rehydrated, and ready to go when the race picks up again,” explains Euser.
"Each one of those days they cannot fall behind. They can’t fall behind on calories, on protein, and on key nutrients," says Dr. Liz Applegate is Director of Sports Nutrition at UC Davis. She says the riders start fueling themselves with carbohydrates 45 minutes into the ride, and they don’t stop.
“We’re talking about close to if not 400 calories or so per hour," Applegate says. "They’re burning more than that, though. They’re burning 600 to over 800 calories per hour of cycling, so they’re going into a deficit during this hundred-mile ride, and then they’ve got to make up for that afterwards so they’re ready for the next day."
Applegate says among all the althletes she works with, pro-cyclists are the toughest. And they know how to use diet and nutrients to perform.
"It’s down to a microsecond who’s going to win the stage, and carbohydrates and caffeine are two things those cyclists can use for that last-minute burst," Applegate says. "So they know when to take what, and how much.”
Euser says nutrition is each team’s secret weapon. But he says eating for performance is about creating an emotional connection with food.
"While you’re preparing for a race, you want to be happy, right?," Euser says. "You want to produce the chemicals in your body that are going to keep you going day in and day out."
After the ride, his focus shifts to anti-inflammatory foods. Fruits, vegetables, nuts. Key ingredients to enable him to compete up to 100 days a year.