Tips & Recipes
Fueling for a mountain stage
How our riders eat and drink during the hardest stages of the Tour
The mountain stages of a Grand Tour are daunting, to say the least.
Navigating hairpins, the altitude, and unpredictable weather conditions, on top of the usual stress that comes along with 21 days of racing, all make for dramatic TV but are also taxing to the riders. The intense effort a rider sustains will be a jaw-dropping 350-375 watts over an hour. This is something a strong amateur cyclist can sustain for only a few minutes.
Mountain stages are typically around five hours long and riders can burn 4,000-5,000 calories on the stage alone. All told, the energy expenditure of a rider may exceed 7,000 calories in one day, nearly three times that of an average person.
So how do riders fuel for a mountain stage?
Dinner the night before the race
An evening meal should contain 5-8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. This helps preserve and restore as much muscle glycogen as possible. Muscle glycogen is the most important fuel source for intense efforts such as long mountain climbs. High carbohydrate sources such as pasta, rice and potatoes are good choices.
Breakfast the morning of the race
A good breakfast on race day is essential. Breakfast has a different purpose than dinner. Although some of the breakfast carbohydrates can still be stored in the muscle, the most important function served with breakfast is the filling of liver glycogen stores. The role of the liver is to supply glucose into the bloodstream. During exercise, as glucose is removed from the blood to be used as fuel in the muscle, the liver needs to work harder to supply glucose so that blood sugar doesn’t drop. If a cyclist is unable to produce enough glucose, the consequences can be grave. If glucose concentration drops too low, the brain will not get enough glucose. Weakness and dizziness will set in and an athlete may become cold and start to shiver even on a hot day. Generally, eat 3-4 hours before your event and stick to higher carbohydrate sources such as bagels, toast and oatmeal.
Climber Krista Doebel-Hickok is a big fan of oatmeal. “It’s a good base of long lasting energy,” she says. “It has some complex carbs that take a little bit longer to digest. I like to start with oats as something healthy that gets me the carbs that I need and then top it and mix it all up with something yummy. It mixes well with banana which is great for potassium and more carbs. For me it’s a good thing because it provides energy while giving you a way to mix in all the other things that you need and you end up with a giant, yummy bowl of all the macronutrients and micronutrients that you need.”
Fueling during the stage
The next way to maintain blood glucose and provide additional fuel is through the intake of food and drinks during the stage. If a rider waits until feeling hungry to eat, it’s already too late, so it’s important to begin fueling early in the race and consistently throughout. Many riders will target as much as 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Early in the stage, a lot of those carbs will come from energy bars, rice cakes, baked goods (the perfect excuse for that Nutella-stuffed croissant), and carbohydrate drinks. Later in the day, riders move to even more rapid carbohydrate sources that are very gentle on the stomach. The carbohydrates have a specific composition of maltodextrin and fructose that optimizes the delivery of fuel to the muscle. Gels and carbohydrate-based drink mixes are better in the later stages of a race. Gels and drink mixes are both carbohydrate sources which serve a similar purpose. The absorption of gels versus sports drinks is very similar provided the composition is ideal. 2:1 maltodextrin-to-fructose is an ideal blend for rapid absorption.
Krista reaches for Neversecond gels throughout the stage to keep her fueled. “They’re quick energy. They’re easily digested. You immediately feel them. They hit your legs pretty quickly so functionality is a big part of why I like gels during races,” she says.
Let’s not forget fluids!
Of course, it is not just about eating. Fluids are important as well, especially on hot days. The dry air at altitude will stimulate sweat evaporation, making it harder for the body to cool itself. Pros will grab chilled bottles of Neversecond C30 carb mix from their soigneurs on the road. On hotter stages, they may drink 8-10 bottles and still lose weight. Sweat rate is very individual and dependent on weather conditions. Riders can expend up to two liters per hour depending on conditions.
Riders will try to manage their energy sources as well as they possibly can during the stage. Riding with a group, whether it’s the breakaway or the peloton, allows for drafting which saves watts.
After the stage
When one mountain stage ends, preparation for the next day’s stage begins. Riders need to consume carbohydrates and protein to repair their muscles. With dinner, the entire process repeats itself.
This article was posted in collaboration with EF Education-EasyPost and Neversecond.