The art of snacking

There’s a scene in the Eddy Merckx documentary movie, La Course en Tete, where Eddy’s soigneur Guillaume Michiels and another Molteni helper are in a kitchen preparing the team’s ride snacks. They move with practiced ease, a steady succession of tiny bread rolls carefully cut in half, spread with jam and butter, or ham, then reassembled and individually wrapped. Repetitive work, but the end result appears to be literally hundreds of the rolls all ready for a race or training ride.

The rolls looked pretty tasty, but the job of preparing the ride snacks these days can be much less laborious – just grab a handful of gels and energy bars and one is good to go. But a steady diet of modern ride food gets boring rather quick, which is why we often prefer to reach for the Fig Newtons, some dried fruit, or pastries for those with a more continental bent.

But what is it we’re actually trying to achieve with ride snacks and what are the nutritional principles to be kept in mind? What can be on, and what should be off, the menu. To get some professional answers, your author earlier this year asked Team Garmin-Slipstream’s ace physiologist Allen Lim to offer some suggestions.

“The basic principle to keep in mind with ride snacks is simply to replace what your body is losing,” Lim explained. “That loss essentially comes down to water, electrolytes (salt, potassium, calcium, and magnesium), carbohydrates, and a little bit of fat and protein – fluid and energy.”

That seems straightforward enough, but how much replacement is enough?

“The amount, of course, depends on the duration, intensity and environment,” Lim said. “But as a general rule, I like to encourage the guys to replace at least half the energy they are burning per hour during racing (or as much as they can handle without throwing up) and to drink enough so they don’t lose more than 3% of their body weight in fluid loss over the course of a race. The best way to teach this is to weigh the guys pre and post race so they get a sense of how they’re doing and can self learn for any given situation.”

Racing has its own special demands, of course. Most of us who ride and race way more casually don’t have to face a six-hour Grand Tour mountain epic. But even the pros have different snacking requirements depending on the length of the race.

“Yes, absolutely, the length of the ride and or race makes a difference in the volume and type of snacks,” Lim explained. “In shorter, more intense events we rely more on simple sugars like the Clif Blocks or Gels and a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink. While in longer and less intense events we’ll rely more on solid foods like Clif Bars and savory rice cakes that contain a bit of protein and fat. Over the course of a race, riders will also modify what they eat according to the intensity, switching between highly processed foods with very high glycemic indexes (i.e. simple sugars) during very intense portions, and foods that are less processed with lower glycemic indexes that sit and digest a little more slowly during less intense portions.”

It’s clearly a very scientific process, and Lim explained that even the weather can determine the type of food and drink given to the team’s riders.

“Beyond volume and length, the temperature also makes a big difference in what the riders eat,” he said. “On very cold days, we shift to a higher carbohydrate intake in the form of Clif Blocks and Gels and on very hot days more energy is replaced through fluid. We also give the riders hot tea mixed with sugar, salt, and potassium on the really cold days. In contrast, the key on the hot days is to make sure the drink is ice cold. The cold helps absorption, improves thermoregulation, and helps to encourage the riders to drink more.”

The intensity of racing means that we all have to pay extra attention to keeping topped up, especially for the final sprint or even following the attacks in between. But when out for a training ride the goal of snacking might not just be energy replacement.

“For a typical training ride, or if a rider is trying to lose weight, we might restrict the amount of food eaten during a ride and just stick to a diluted energy drink (2 to 3%),” Lim noted.

But while he had already pointed out the value of gels and energy bars for racing, he suggested that the food for training rides was not necessarily so different from a normal healthy diet – no special ingredients required.

“I know the riders on Garmin-Slipstream eat a whole lot of different foods when they train,” Lim said. “What you need to imagine is that they’re on their bikes for 3 to 6 hours a day and that what they might eat on the bicycle is no different than what some people might eat at the office over the course of a work day. It’s just probably a lot more. That said, I really encourage the guys to eat real whole foods as much as possible, to not eat too much in training but to over-eat when racing, and to not forget about the benefit of your basic fruit or vegetable. A great general book with this in mind is ‘In Defense of Food’ by Michael Pollan.”

Your author was heartened to hear that more ‘normal’ foods should be on the menu for the long training ride – perhaps some bread rolls with butter and jam would be just fine. But what to drink?

“There is no situation in racing where water alone is better than a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink (5 to 6% carbs or 5 to 6 grams per 100 ml of fluid),” according to Lim.

But this rider seems to have an aversion to energy drinks and has experimented with a range of homemade concoctions, including flat cola, orange juice and cold tea, or even chocolate milk. I wanted to get some feedback who might also have wide-ranging (and wacky) drinking tastes on what Lim thought of making your own ‘energy’ drinks.

“It’s all fluid and it’s all energy,” Lim responded. “If you like the taste and you don’t puke on my shoes when I’m drafting behind you then it’s all good.”

Fair enough. Looking back at the history of food in the pro peloton, Eddy Merckx might’ve had tasty bread rolls during his career in the 1970s. But in the 1950s, at the Tour de France, all the logistics were taken care of by the race’s organizers. During one edition, riders had a choice from two different musettes. The first had a quarter chicken, ten prunes, and ten sugar lumps. The second left out the chicken and doubled the prunes. It certainly seems that drafting behind someone who had just ingested those snacks could’ve indeed been hazardous!

For a more modern and nutritionally consistent version, what was in a typical Garmin musette?

“2 Clif Bars, 2 Clif Blocks, 2 or 3 Clif Gels, 2 rice cakes, 1 small can of ice cold Coke, 1 ice cold bottle with a 5% carb-electrolyte solution; sometimes, just sometimes, a little candy bar or piece of chocolate as well,” Lim replied.

Lim has a reputation for his home cooked rice cakes, with the cakes having become somewhat of a valuable trading currency in the peloton.

“The guys like the rice cakes,” Lim explained. “Basically, sushi rice mixed with eggs, gluten free soy, some balsamic vinegar, a bit of olive oil and some sugar on top. This is all smashed in a big pan and cut into little squares. So good. We also do boiled potato slices with salt, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. Sometimes if the potato is still hot, the cheese will melt over it and encrust it in a glorious shell of flavour.”

Brilliant! Now, if only us amateurs could find someone to cook up a steady supply.

“The key with those snacks is to keep the ingredient list really minimal and simple and to focus on the more savoury side of the palette as most snack products that you can buy are on the sweet side,” added Lim. “I’ve also been known to feed the guys plates of lasagne, pasta, Spanish Tortillas (potato and egg), and bowls of risotto, and the occasional rotisserie chicken you find at food stands on the side of the road in Spain on training rides. It’s all good.”

It does sound all good – and maybe that quarter chicken would not be so bad after all!

Many thanks to Allen for his insights. He was interviewed for a PEZ article that never quite made it to press. Now, how about some of those rice cakes or cheesy potatoes on your next ride…