“How do they do it?”: anyone watching the cyclists at work in the Vuelta may ask themselves this question. How is it possible that such slim - even delicate - athletes are able to deliver such impressive performances? A cyclist’s body takes a battering during these multi-day stage races. The consecutive stages, sometimes in very different weather conditions. The variation between rest days, followed by exhausting mountain stages and fast, flat stages... only a cyclist in excellent condition will reach the finish!
Optimum health forms the foundation of physical fitness, as does building a strong immune system. Nutrition plays an important role in this. What the cyclists eat has a direct impact on their general health, their level of performance and also the speed at which they recover from exertion, which is vital during multi-day stage races. Nutrition plays an important role in the performance level and fitness of the cyclists.
Firstly, the cyclists must aim to achieve a nutritionally balanced diet during the preparation period, with a large variety of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. Carbohydrates form the fuel for muscles, they provide the energy required for exercise. Proteins are important in building muscles and in muscle recovery after exercise. Fats should be consumed in limited quantities, particularly as one of the cyclist’s aims is to have a low body fat percentage.
The daily energy requirement of a professional cyclist depends on a number of different factors. The nature of the exercise (intense or not) and the duration of the exercise play the most important role in this context. Generally, one can say that the average energy intake of a cyclist is high. For example, during the Vuelta they can easily burn about 6,500 kcal during an average stage and this can increase to 10,000 kcal in the mountains. By comparison: the average daily energy requirement of an average man is about 2,500 kcal.
Nutrition before the stage.
It is extremely important to maximise the glycogen stores (= carbohydrate stores) before exercise. For stages lasting more than three hours, which is common practice in professional cycling, this process needs to start a number of days (usually 2 to 3 days) before the race. The training load is reduced, whilst the intake of carbohydrates is increased in combination with a restriction of fats and fibre in the diet. This is referred to as “carbo-loading”.
Of course it is not possible to carbo-load during multi-day races, but it is essential to replenish the nutrients that have been burnt off during each stage.
The day of the stage.
As soon as the cyclists wake up, they start loading the carbohydrates required for the stage. Stages usually start during the morning: so breakfast becomes the race meal. Breakfast usually consists of white bread, toasted bread, bread rolls, pancakes, cornflakes, jam, honey, banana, etc. In large quantities! Some cyclists will also eat pasta or rice for breakfast, but this is certainly not essential.
During the stage.
From a nutritional point of view, the cyclists’ main objectives during the stage are: topping up carbohydrates and liquids! The quantity of carbohydrates consumed per hour depends on the duration and intensity of the stage. On average, the cyclists consume about 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, but they aim for 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour during longer/more intense stages. With the exception of time trials, professional cycling races usually involve long stages. Achieving an intake of 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour is only possible using a special mix of carbohydrates (a combination of glucose and fructose or maltodextrins). Each cyclist has his own personal preference. Some cyclists prefer bars, others opt for gels.
In addition to consuming carbohydrates, a second important task for cyclists is to top up on liquids during the race. The “domestiques” fetch the drinks bottles from the team cars and deliver them to their team leaders. The average liquid intake is about 500 - 750 mL per hour, depending on the weather conditions.
After the stage.
After a stage, the cyclists are immediately given a recovery shake that consists of a combination of proteins and carbohydrates. After all, it can take a while before they reach the hotel. The recovery drink provides the initial recovery for the muscles and replenishes some of the carbohydrates that have been used. In the bus on the way to the hotel there are usually also some sandwiches, energy bars, healthy snacks... waiting for hungry customers. It is also important to replenish fluids after exercise. Keep topping up is the message: this can be up to 2 or 3 litres. A normal hot meal is served on arrival at the hotel. Cyclists are people too and enjoying a meal together is good for moral and team spirit!!