Feeding a day in hell: What riders eat to conquer the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix

Sport scientists, team staffers and chefs lift the lid on the old-school feasts and high-tech fuelling of the 'Hell of the North.'

Photo: Getty Images

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What does it take to fuel six bruising and breathless hours of burning through “Hell?”

A quota of carbs almost as crushing as the cobblestones at the center of Paris-Roubaix, that’s what.

Teams are concocting carbohydrate strategies based on old-school starch-loading complemented with complex mid-race fuel quotas in the quest to hit the podium of “Hell of the North” this weekend.

“There’s no room for error in feeding for races like Roubaix and the big monuments. In Roubaix more than any other, you need to be as optimal as you can. When a race is this intense, it can mean the difference between winning and losing,” Jumbo-Visma nutritionist and leading sport scientist Asker Jukendrup told VeloNews.

“Getting a plan right means getting the right quantities at the right time. Riders who are very used to taking in a lot of carbohydrates can push their intake to between 90 and 120 grams an hour. That’s a lot of carbs. Normal riders can’t tolerate that unless they’ve prepared to do it.”

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Cycling nutrition has advanced just as fast as tubeless tire technologies, in-frame dampening systems, and aero-tuned skinsuits in the past decade.

On-bike carbohydrate consumption exploded from the appetizer-size 50-60g/hour that was commonplace at the turn of last decade to quantities upward of 100g/hour – no matter whether a rider is a 50kg (112lb) climber or a 75kg (165lb) bunch-sprinter.

Brands like Maurten and Science in Sport’s Beta Fuel pushed nutrition forward with multi-carb concoctions designed to maximize sugar absorption to the muscles, and sports nutritionists and dieticians became better at understanding athletic energy consumption.

And with that, nutritionists and chefs have become just as important as any master mechanic or miracle-working masseuses in the increasingly marginal world of pro cycling.

Jukendrup will be devising unique nutritional roadmaps for Wout van Aert, Marianne Vos, and every one of their Jumbo-Visma teammates this weekend.

“We have a strategy that works in almost all races. But of course a race like Roubaix we need to take it to the extreme compared to say an easier day in a stage race. The energy demands are higher because of the intensity,” Jukendrup said in a call Thursday.

“Each rider on both [i.e., men’s and women’s] teams has their own designed fuel plan. What they need is individual, partly based on carb needs, hydration needs, weather conditions, their normal diet, how much they’ve trained with carbohydrates on a bike. There’s about 20 to 30 factors that go into optimizing each plan.”

From pre-race meals to musettes: What fuels a day in ‘Hell’

Even planning the mid-race feeds is complex at Paris-Roubaix. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

But behind the science labs and data screens is the old-school carb-up.

No matter how advanced sport nutrition becomes, it still all comes down to one thing — energy-giving carbohydrates.

Ensuring the tank is full to the very top far ahead of time is priority number one.

“Starting from Friday we cut fiber, so almost no fruit or veg, and start the carbo-load,” Trek-Segafredo men’s chef Bram Lippens told VeloNews this week. “We keep to just the ‘hard carbs’ – pasta and rice. They’re easy to absorb and very carb-rich. For protein, it’s just white meat and fish. No pork, beef, or fatty fish like salmon.”

In all other scenarios, fiber is a cornerstone of a healthy diet – but the bloating and risk of gut distress makes it a must-miss for bike racers.

The nutrients and vitamins of fruit and veg are sacrificed at the altar of energy-giving carbs.

Plates are piled high with white starches. The greens, reds, oranges, and purples of a varied and nutritious diet become the colors of team jerseys, not dinner tables.

One final “last supper” comes before a pre-Roubaix breakfast heavy on oatmeal and rice pudding.

From there on out, riders are reliant on what’s in their pockets and bottle cages to make it through either 29km or 55km of cruel cobblestones.

But like all other things at Roubaix, replenishing race food isn’t straightforward.

After the tarmac pre-amble that starts the race, cobblestone sectors come thick and fast. There’s little time to throttle back to grab mid-race feedbags, and even less space to take a bite.

Trek-Segafredo officials told VeloNews they will flood the course with staffers handing up bottles to limit potentially hazardous musette-management. When Mads Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven and their Trek team do take a bag, they can expect a Paris-Roubaix picnic of bars, gels, a mini coke, and, given the soaring spring sunshine this coming weekend, an ice sock.

Alpecin-Fenix staff told VeloNews the team is planning for Mathieu van der Poel and Co. to take two mid-race food bags on the road to Roubaix on Sunday.

MvdP and Co.’s mid-race musettes will prioritize fast-fueling energy gels and drinks, and each rider will know exactly what they need to eat.

“We know a bit the limits individually from rider to rider based upon tests we do on training camps at the beginning of the season and also just based upon racing experience. Most of the riders are between 80 and 100 grams on the tolerance of the carb intake an hour,” Alpecin-Fenix performance manager Kristof de Kegel told CyclingTips in a recent story.

“Mathieu is on that part a bit exceptional in that his uptake goes up to 120 grams – which he also really needs, because we all see the power that he delivers from hour to hour. So he burns it, and for that reason, the fueling is extremely important.”

Train the legs, train the guts

What does it take for Mathieu to make it through Roubaix? Almost 500 calories per hour, that’s what. (Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

Racing over the cobblestones at 40kph is a near-superhuman feat. But so too is eating 120g carb – nearly 500 calories – per hour. That’s four or five energy gels, or around three cups of cooked white rice. Every hour. For six hours.

“If you tell an average rider who’s not trained their gut to have 100g carb an hour, they wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. But pros practice it, day-in, day-out” Jukendrup said.

“Carb intake is trainable. It’s not like it’s not a fixed number per person, it’s a figure that you can improve. It’s the same as how you can improve your muscles and your heart. You can also improve your gut, to absorb more, take up more.”

Just like many riders incorporate low-carb rides into their programs, regular in-season training sessions are dedicated to practicing fueling and preparing the gut.

“I think nowadays your tolerance is as essential a part of the selection procedure to making it in the sport as the fitness tests,” Jukendrup said.

Just like you can’t make it to the top, if your heart and lungs aren’t good, you likely won’t become a top-level cyclist if your intestine doesn’t have the right characteristics.”

Paris-Roubaix is a test like no other.

And it’s not just the bikes and backsides that take a beating. The belly does too.

This is the third part of Jim Cotton’s new “Behind the Ride” column. Check out the first installments:


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