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Want a topic more hotly debated than power meters, glucose monitors or race radios?
Pro racers are increasingly choosing to go all-in on vegetarian or vegan diets as the world increasingly dials down its consumption of animal products. And riders that don’t go cold turkey (excuse the pun) are thinking more carefully about what meat they eat and when.
Vegan and vegetarian eating may be a more sustainable and eco-friendly choice, but does it work for thoroughbred racers pushing their bodies to breaking point?
Michael Storer, who was the revelation of the 2021 Vuelta a España with two stage wins and the KoM jersey, sure thinks there are gains in veganism.
“Going vegan a few years ago definitely had an impact on my body composition. I really leaned up a lot while maintaining muscle and that for sure paid off in my climbing” Storer told VeloNews.
“Sure, there’s no way of knowing for certain the benefits, but the thing that’s definitely clear is that you can perform while eating vegan. I won two stages at the Vuelta as a vegan – that says enough.”
The old-school idea of vegans being pallid, powerless bohos is long gone. Campaigns like “veganuary” are making animal-free diets mainstream, and Netflix’s controversial “The Game Changers” totally reconfigured beliefs about what can be done on plants alone.
That thinking has trickled down to the pro peloton. Whereas before, riders famously fuelled on steaks and cheese, it’s increasingly becoming lentils, tofu, and soy.
“Most of our riders are already saying in races they don’t want red meat, and they stick to chicken or fish. But it seems a lot of them are going more for vegetarian,” said Bram Lippens, chef for Trek-Segafredo men’s and women’s team. “Some of them do it for ethics and things, but a lot think it makes them ride better.”
The ethical, environmental, and health benefits of ditching meat and dairy are well known.
Red meat is said to raise the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and other health concerns. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization says farming animals is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions
But the benefits for athletes looking to perform while training and racing for up to 40 hours a week are less clear-cut.
Meat-free diet, gremlin-free blood?
Michael Storer attributes the leaps he made in his breakout 2021 with DSM to his switch to veganism. The 24-year-old was clear that he had no strict evidence that his plant-based pivot gave him his climbing legs last summer, but he was sure that he was leaner, recovering quicker, and feeling fresher as a result.
A lot of vegan riders support Storer’s belief that their meat-free diets have health and performance benefits. For them, the backing is all in the blood.
Storer said that his cholesterol and iron levels improved when he went vegan. Plant-based rider Simon Geschke also said that his meat-free diet gave him the lowest cholesterol and best blood markers of the team when he raced with CCC.
Retired Aussie warrior Adam Hansen indicated his vegan diet gave him the health needed to race 20 consecutive grand tours.
“Every time I got blood tests done with the team, they were always amazed at my results because I was the healthiest rider by far with my blood markers,” Hansen told VeloNews. “The medics always said I had some of the best results they’d seen.”
But the argument for veganism isn’t always so straightforward.
As a diet of elimination, skeptics and specialists alike point to the struggle to get the quality proteins needed for muscle growth and repair in the absence of animal products.
“I’m not sure if it’s generally more healthy to just get rid of food groups if your diet is already healthy,” said Asker Jukendrup, leading sports scientist and head of nutrition at Jumbo-Visma.
“One of the biggest challenges is making sure that the quality of the protein or the amino acid composition is adequate. You could take supplements and solve things that way. But I’m not a big fan of supplements in general. If a diet requires you to take supplements that raises a big question mark for me.”
Stressing the system
For pros, there’s more to the argument than just performance improvement.
Hansen looked to a plant-based diet as a means of countering the stress on the whole metabolic and digestive system that comes with pro cycling.
“You do so many races and you pump all this processed food into your body. It means a lot of pro racers aren’t really all that healthy in terms of diet, other than calorie-counting wise,” Hansen said.
“Plus you’re traveling a lot, away from home, a lot of stress, where you race isn’t the cleanest environment, all the crap that comes off the road when it rains, your immune system is down. I think cyclists should do a lot more for their body, and not just in a vegan way.”
By extension, Trek-Segafredo chef Lippens said many of his men’s and women’s riders ditched red meat when racing due to the strain it placed on the gut. No rider wants last night’s half-digested ribeye in their belly if a race is going to start red-hot, after all.
Pro racing puts a strain on more than just the athletes, however.
The sport’s huge global footprint, with competition from Australia through Europe and South America, has a huge toll on the environment. As explored in Sadhbh O’Shea’s recent series, the sport creates a huge carbon footprint that sits in stark tension with the clean and green bikes that are raced.
Michael Woods is one of the sport’s most vocal athletes in his mission to clean up his cycling and is leading the peloton in carbon offsetting. But for Woods, the potential performance pitfalls and logistical issues of veganism offset the environmental benefit.
“We’ve dramatically reduced the amount of meat that we eat our diets this year because of the commitment that I made,” he said. “But it’s more like, I’m worried about traveling and racing, and how inconvenient it can be. If you read about Adam Hansen doing it and others, it is a big undertaking … and I still want to be the best cyclist I can possibly be.”
All just a matter of taste?
One of Woods’ objections to going all-in for a plant-based diet was the accessibility to good nutrition on the road.
For most top teams, a chef is a much a part of the team’s on-race entourage as the masseuses and medics, and meals can be prepared according to demand.
Lippens said that while specialist ingredients are becoming easier to access on the road, Trek-Segafredo team busses are always pre-stocked with essentials like tofu and lentils for the days where local stores are still stuck in the pre-vegan world.
But sometimes, racers are left at the disposal of hotel chefs when their team staffers stay home and options are limited. Hansen got around his 29 grand tours, many of which were without a team chef, by going back to basics.
“At races, they always give you pasta or rice or potatoes so carbs are no problem,” he said. “And there’s always a salad or something like that. It wasn’t hard, but it did get a bit boring because a lot of hotel chefs don’t know how to be creative with vegan food.”
Some stay away from veggie or vegan diets in the fear of the pallid plates Hansen referred to.
Top sports chef Alan Murchison once recalled that Rohan Dennis’ simply replied “vegan food is s**t. Next question,” when asked his take on the diet. But Lippens points out that plant-based meals are indicative of the quality of the chef, not the ingredients.
Bike racing is one of the toughest sports on the planet.
Chewing down a bland bowl of pasta after seven hours of racing is probably the least of a vegan rider’s problems.
[Editor’s note – this writer eats red meat, green veg, fresh fruit, and processed crap without discrimination]