If you’re planning to join the thousands of people across the globe who regularly undertake long-distance bike rides (be it one of the circuits listed on the USA’s Adventure Cycling Route Network, the North of England’s “Tour de Yorkshire,” or even a long-term trip through an entire country), then amongst other things, you’ll need to consider how to keep your fuel levels topped up.
Eating on the move isn’t easy – and not only because of the practical challenges that come with feeding yourself whilst pedalling! In fact, making sure you consume enough calories to keep you going for a long time is an art! Cycling expends a huge amount of energy. According to one cycling website, “On average, a 180 lb. cyclist riding at a moderate effort level will burn approximately 650 calories per hour.”
On this basis, an eight-hour ride is going to cost you a whopping 5,200 calories! And if you don’t fulfil that requirement, you can be sure to find the whole experience more than a little gruelling – perhaps even impossible. So what should you be eating to make sure that doesn’t happen – and when?
Let’s get personal…
As many cycling professionals will tell you, finding the right nutrition for a long-distance bike ride is a very individual thing and takes time to understand. In an article written for the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, British road race champion, Laura Trott, gives the following advice:
“Always stick with food which you have tried before and you know agrees with you. For example, I know I can’t have really sugary sports drinks as I have an acid reflux problem and they just make me ill. Try to get used to what you will be eating and drinking before and during the event and see what works.”
Trott’s advice echoes that of Steve Hodgson from Leeds, UK, who’s taken part in countless long-distance road and mountain bike races, the longest being 125 and 100 miles respectively. Steve spent years developing his eating strategy and says, “What you can eat comes with experience, both of riding those sorts of distances and seeing how your body reacts. Cereal bars are OK for 2-3 hour rides, for example, but for all day rides I can’t eat them; they’re too dry.”
One day, a hundred miles, and thousands of calories
On the morning of a big race, Steve says he has “porridge, a cup of tea, and a couple of slices of toast with peanut butter & jam, and that’s it. You can’t simply cram more food in; it won’t fit. And you’ve probably got the jitters or pre-ride butterflies, so eating can be tricky.”
Once the ride has begun, it’s important to keep topping up your energy levels. And the secret, according to Steve, is to eat “little and often.” Not just sweet foods, either: “Savoury food really helps on big rides. I make sandwiches from oat cakes, with ham and a touch of jam inside. For massive rides, I’ll make them with all-butter croissants. The pros eat rice cakes.”
“Energy gels are a God-send though,” he admits. “After 4-5 hours of riding, it’s really hard to eat anything, so gels are easy to suck down. But I can only eat High 5, nearly all the other brands taste awful to me. It’s very personal though, so some trial and error is inevitable.” For a quick snack that quenches your thirst at the same time, Steve recommends apples:
“Apples are good as they clean out your mouth and you can keep taking a bite every now and then and putting it back in your pocket. Then when you’re done, you have no wrapper to carry, either.”
Fruits for fuel
For vegan amateur cyclist Cookie Renn, who rode a total of 3,000 kilometres across Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam in three months, fruit proved to be one of the best ways of maintaining stamina:
“I seriously struggled at times, being a vegan and riding through rural places with really limited options. However, there’s always fruit! And riding in the hot humid weather of southeast Asia, you can never eat enough fruit. However, you cannot really ride with fruit. The sun would just boil anything you had on you and turn it to mush.”
Cookie found that for her, some of the best things to eat whilst riding, were nuts – “usually peanuts, since they were cheap and everywhere.” Several other items, besides two full water bottles, also made her trip more manageable: “I’d have dried fruit, bread, peanut butter when I found it, and electrolyte tabs. We also found stands along the road selling corn and sticky rice inside bamboo, which tastes really good and will hold for a day or two.”
Pit stops and city “splurges”
One of the joys of a non-competitive long-distance bike ride like Cookie’s is the ability to make lengthy pit stops. For her, these included “a few too many 7-Elevens in Thailand,” markets “where you can just eat your heart and stomach out,” and shacks found on small roads in the more rural areas, where you can “buy a baguette and coconut for less than $1 and be sustained for a few hours thanks to the carbs and hydration – oh, and the good fat in the coconut meat!”
Of course, the bigger cities along the way offered endless amounts of choice and Cookie says she and her cycling companion “splurged on Indian food, pizza, and pasta. Sometimes, we’d find amazing healthy/vegan/raw food places, too!”
It wasn’t just the big cities that catered to Cookie’s restrictive diet and huge calorific requirements, however. “Sometimes, in Vietnam, where there are lots of veggie restaurants and stalls, we would find a “chay” (noodle) place. It was actually mostly vegan food, but they use eggs in some dishes.” But, she warns that a long-distance bike ride through southeast Asia does require some flexibility in terms of diet. “For me,” she says, “it was breads and packaged snacks like chips and cookies, which I normally avoid.”
Cookie learnt a few other important lessons on the road, too:
“If you’re in a hot place and not feeling hungry, but it’s midday and you haven’t eaten much, just stop wherever you see a place selling food and eat something, anything. Eat a fair bit if you can, too. You’ll need the energy – and you never know when the day is going to end, or if there’ll be much choice when you get there. And don’t be scared off from less travelled roads, because they are the beautiful ones. Just be prepared; always have something on you – and eat it!”
If you’ve undertaken a long-distance bike ride, how did you top up your energy levels? Share your experiences and advice with Dr. Foodle in the comments box below!