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Reaching the top of elite cycling isn’t only determined by VO2 max scores, racing verve, and the ability to tolerate pain.
It also relies on an athlete’s ability to chow lots – as in, belly-blowing levels of “lots” – of rice.
“We make the joke you ‘learn to love rice if you’re a cyclist,’” EF Education-EasyPost nutritionist Will Girling told VeloNews.
Although the era of cigarettes, steak, and baguette breakfasts is long gone, the age-old fundamental that “carbs are king” will forever remain in a sport dictated by endurance and output.
Carbohydrates are the energy-giving fuels that power finish line sprints, hors categorie victories, and all the kilometers that come before them.
And in the 2020s, if carbs truly are king, rice is the diamond in their crown.
“Riders eat a lot of rice … like kilos of it. It’s sort of boring, but they know it works,” Trek-Segafredo chef Bram Lippens said in a recent call.
“We add sauces like tomato or pesto to keep it interesting, but it is essentially still rice!”
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It’s a decades-old practice of topping up the energy tank that’s been brought kicking into the modern era and revolutionized by sports science.
Specialists like EF’s nutritionist Girling create a carefully calculated roadmap of calories and carbohydrate levels that are taken to Michelin levels by pro chefs across the peloton.
But no matter how advanced the science and how fine the cheffing behind the modern carb load, it’s one unassuming grain that’s always the staple.
“The night before a big race we keep it simple with maybe chicken and rice, or salmon and rice. Something easy digesting. Then rice is available rice again in the morning, typically along with toast, omelets, pancakes,” Girling said last week.
“It’s nearly always white rice we serve, because it’s so easy to consume and it’s low fiber.”
And guess what’s on the mid-race menu?
Yep, little pre-packaged cakes of white or sushi rice.
Rice – it’s the easy-digesting, low-calorie, oh-so-simple fuel of the modern peloton.
The calculations behind the carb load
Races as grueling as Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège will see riders burning 5,000 to 6,000 calories in one ride.
That’s more than twice an average male’s recommended daily consumption.
Add to that the calories needed to keep breathing, moving, digesting, and sleeping, and a racer may need to choke down as many as 8,000 calories just to hit “par” on monument day.
The age-old carb load is designed to max out the energy stores in anticipation of what’s to come.
“Carb loading is still a ‘thing,’ but it has changed a lot over time,” Girling said. “The thinking used to be you’d load for three days prior to a race, but not now.
“What we’ve seen is you can do it over one day quite comfortably. We start the process the morning before the race, or perhaps the evening before that.”
Pre-monument feasts aren’t a “go-til-you-blow” free-for-all of rice, pasta, bread, and potatoes.
Riders are tasked with taking down bodymass derived carb quantities that they portion out with meal table measuring scales.
The numbers ensure riders are fueled but not putting their watt-per-kilo ratios at risk. That balance being lean and being fast is so hard to hit 100 percent that some teams have custom-designed apps to help riders keep on track.
“Most riders will follow a ‘full load’ the day before, where they’re aiming to get around 10 grams of carbs per kilo of bodyweight,” Girling said.
“Others may follow a ‘hybrid model’ where they go for their maintenance level plus a predermined surplus. And then they have a rough number of carbs to hit for pre-race breakfast too.”
Kilos of rice and skipping the greens: ‘They eat like teenagers’
For a 67-kilo rider like EF’s Neilson Powless, a “full load” works out at 670 grams of carbohydrate in one day.
Doesn’t sound a lot?
It definitely is.
Consuming 600+ grams of carbohydrates requires putting down the equivalent of around two kilos of prepared white rice, or a similar volume of white pasta, depending how the raw ingredients are cooked.
“In the middle of the week when riders are doing the recon rides, I keep it light, lots of salads, maybe a little more fats, perhaps with tuna or chicken. And of course, rice is an option,” Trek-Segafredo chef Lippens said.
“Then the days before the race, it’s all about the rice or pasta, and we start cutting back the other elements.”
One of the main things that is cut from a pre-monument menu is “the good stuff” – the things your mom made you eat.
The high fiber content of the fruit and vegetable “five a day” is eliminated so riders hit the startline with empty stomachs and low water weight.
“Before all hard and heavy races they skip salads, and almost all the raw fruits and vegetables,” Lippens said. “I may put out a few veggies, like almost like just one or two pieces of broccoli, but they basically eat like teenagers.”
Four gels an hour or get dropped
Fueling doesn’t get any simpler when the flag drops.
Missing a feedzone or forgetting to eat is the quickest route to the metaphorical broomwagon.
And just like how science has diffused into the pro cycling kitchen, it’s gotten into the mid-race musette, too.
New formulations from nutrition brands like Maurten, Science in Sport, and NeverSecond allow athletes to tolerate more carbohydrate than ever before.
Whereas a decade ago, 60g carbohydrate per hour was seen as the stomach-safe threshold, most modern gels and drinks mean riders can hit as much as 120g of fuel per hour without suffering sickness.
“All our bars, gels, and the things we make like rice cakes all contain 30g of carbohydrate, or for the drinks, some multiple of that,” Girling said of his EF team.
“Because all our nutrition is roughly the same amount of carb, we just tell riders to try to eat three or four items per hour,” Girling continued. “That doesn’t change on body size – so a big rider like Stefan Bissegger [who weighs c.78kg – ed] can only absorb the same amount in the race as a rider like Neilson [Powless].”
A pro cyclist’s jersey pocket or feedbag makes for a picnic of packeted bars, gels, and soigneur-cheffed rice cakes or wraps.
Most days, riders have the freedom before a race to pick and choose which foods work best for them when they’re five hours deep.
But sometimes, it’s not a rider’s palate that dictates the menu in the musettes.
Anyone who’s tried unwrapping a rice cake in frozen rain or opening an energy bar while bumping over pavé will understand.
“For really intense races, or where it’s harder to get at stuff that’s in pockets like Roubaix, or if it’s really cold, we give them higher concentration drinks,” Girling said. “It means they can focus on the bottle and not worry about reaching for the solid food.”
And then on the way back to the hotel, it’s a steady stream of protein recovery shakes, bus-cooked rice, and assorted snacks before a carefully considered evening meal.
The burgers of balance
Although pro cycling is defined by watts per kilo and the pursuit of race weight, nutritionists and chefs know racers can’t be monastic machines 24/7.
Social media feeds buzz after the final of any given stage race with images of whippet-thin riders loading up on pizza, or of the world’s fastest dipping under an airport’s “golden arches” before the flight home.
It’s the occasional blowout that marks the reward for weeks of careful abstinence before.
“The day before Gent-Wevelgem, the guys already asked that we have burgers and fries and maybe some drinks after the race,” Lippens said.
“And why not? For one time in two weeks, and at the end of the classics this weekend they will have a glass or two as well … or three or four. It doesn’t kill anybody.”
And when pro team chefs have the skills to serve up pizzas, burritos, barbecues and more, what is the most requested treat on the Trek-Segafredo bus?
Lasagne gets a lot of love, but there’s one dish that dominates.
“Hamburger, fries, mayonnaise, and beer! They always want burgers and fries after races,” Lippens laughed. “It’s like burgers are programmed in their minds.”
— Ronde van Vlaanderen (@RondeVlaanderen) April 4, 2023