Get this rider some food! Photo courtesy of ASO/Tour de France.
I don’t have the genetics, fitness, or dedication to make it to the Tour de France. But maybe I can still eat like I’m a Tour de France pro. During the Tour, racers subject their bodies to some of the most brutal punishment imaginable. They ride for 21 days, covering 100 miles or more per day, all while summiting some of France’s toughest mountain climbs. To accomplish this, they need a solid diet.
To learn how and what Tour de France racers eat to take on the world’s biggest bike race, I got in touch with Dr. Allen Lim of Skratch Labs. Dr. Lim has a long history of working with pro teams (EF Pro Cycling being the most recent) to get their riders properly fed and hydrated so they can perform and recover. He explained what racers eat throughout a day of racing. (Spoiler: It’s a lot of rice.) Hopefully, there are a few things that we average shmoes can learn from the pros.
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- Fresh-pressed juices
- Bread and eggs
- Rice and eggs
- Pasta and eggs
- Oats (maybe also with eggs)
Of course, coffee is a huge part of cycling culture. Many riders start their mornings with espressos or lattes. A lot of athletes will also bring their own pour-over kits. Fresh-pressed juices are a great way to get the nutrient density of fruits and vegetables without the fiber load associated with them. As for food, the go-to is an easy-to-digest carbohydrate paired with eggs for protein.
Photo: Jonathan Pielmayer
“Some traditionalists like bread and eggs,” Lim said. “But I see more and more that athletes are leaning toward white rice and eggs. It tastes good. It's easy to season. You throw a little soy, Sriracha, or olive oil on it. You can get a lot of carbohydrate and up to 1,000 calories worth of food into you without feeling like you are gut-bombing yourself because it’s really easy on the stomach. Rice can really bring up blood sugar without being too inflammatory.
“Some athletes love pasta and eggs. so that's another variant that we'll see. And then some athletes, maybe Dutch and Americans, like oatmeal or overnight oats. I tend to find that oats, while good, don't tend to be as calorie-dense, and tend to have a little more fiber, but it’s really personal preference. Those are really kind of the four core things. On occasion, there might be bacon and sausage and other types of proteins. But we mostly stick with eggs.
“For breakfast, we're trying not to give the athletes a lot of energy-dense foods and high-quality proteins, without a lot of fiber,” Lim explained.
- 70-100 grams of carbohydrate per hour through carb mix, gels, bars, and rice cakes
- Plenty of bottles
After breakfast, riders will board the team bus to transfer to that day’s stage. On the bus, they have access to additional snacks, hydration, and coffee as they transfer to the stage. Riders will keep eating during the transfer, during warm-up, and even while waiting at the start line.
During the race itself, most athletes need to eat between 70-100 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Most of this comes in the form of cycling-specific nutrition like gels, gummies, and bars. In addition to this, Dr. Lim likes to mix in a good amount of “real” food.
“We live in a world and a sport dominated by packaged goods, so having a certain amount of freshly prepared food mixed in can be a real treat,” Lim said. “It can really help the athletes' morale as well as their performance.”
Raspberry and mint rice cakes. Photo courtesy of Skratch Labs.
The go-to for Dr. Lim is his famous rice cakes. Again, rice is a great option because it’s energy-dense, easy on the stomach, and easy to make taste good. He’ll make both savory and sweet options, so riders can choose a rice cake to suit their palette.
Of course, riders need to drink a lot of bottles too. Many of these bottles will be filled with a carbohydrate mix.
“A typical race bottle has about 30 grams of carbohydrate,” Lim explained. “You can obviously make it more concentrated or less concentrated depending on rider preference. But if it's so hot that you're drinking two bottles an hour, that's already 60 grams of carbohydrate in liquid form. If you have gels, bars, or rice cakes on top of that, you're at 100 grams of carbohydrate an hour.”
Besides bottles with carbohydrate mix, Dr. Lim typically provides three other bottle options: plain water, a salty hydration mix (2,000-3,000 milligrams of sodium per liter), and then a standard hydration mix (800-1,000 milligrams of sodium per liter).
“We really encourage athletes to drink to thirst,” Lim said. “As long as they have a choice between either water, sports drink, or sports drink with a higher salt solution, they’ll choose what they need. It's fairly self-regulating and thirst is a fairly reliable marker of their hydration needs.”
- Chicken fried rice
- Recovery shakes
- Hydration solution
For Tour de France racers, eating right after a stage is incredibly important. As soon as they get on the team bus, they usually have a recovery meal ready and waiting. Some riders use recovery shakes, but Dr. Lim and many of his riders enjoy “real” food.
“Real food is a nice way to reset and feel a little more human,” Lim explained. “Recovery shakes are great for situations where we are in some sort of logistical bind and real food isn't available. But in my experience, when riders have the option for real food, they always take the real food over the recovery shake.”
Photo: Christopher Alvarenga
Once again, the top choice for a post-race recovery meal is rice.
“At the last Tour de France I worked, for 17 out of the 21 stages, the athletes had chicken fried rice after they got back onto the bus. The rest of the time, they had pizza,” Lim said. “Chicken fried rice ticks off the macro and micronutrient requirements, and I was able to make a lot of it very, very quickly as I waited for the riders to get back onto the team bus.”
If a rider is particularly hungry or just wants extra calories, then they can add a recovery shake on top of the meal. Otherwise, they’ll often rehydrate using an “oral rehydration solution,” which is a solution that is heavier in salt and potassium than a normal sports drink. While most sports drinks typically have 4 grams of carbohydrate per 100 milliliters, Dr. Lim typically mixes his recovery hydration at about 8-10 grams per 100 milliliters.
“It’s basically Kool-Aid with a bunch of salt and potassium, something very, very sweet,” Lim explains. “It’s meant to significantly increase blood sugar to cause an insulin spike. That insulin spike starts that process of going from a catabolic state where you're breaking down your body back into an anabolic state where you're now recovering. You also need to back that spike up with the right amount of protein, additional carbohydrates, and additional fats.”
In addition to food, it’s important to quickly decrease a rider’s core temperature.
“The body tends to stay catabolic unless you can cool it off,” Lim explained. “So cooling strategies, on top of getting riders a ton of food and hydration, is a really important recovery strategy. Most athletes just take a shower on the bus and that’s enough for them to cool off.”
Dinner and late-night snacks
- Team meal: pasta, rice, eggs, etc.
- Cereal and milk
- General junk food
The transfer from the stage finish to the hotel can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. Most of the time, stages finish around 5 p.m., so dinner generally happens from 7-8 p.m., though it can happen as early as 6 p.m. and as late as 9 p.m. This wide variance is why a substantial recovery meal immediately after the stage is so important.
Once riders get back to the hotel, there’s a hustle to get them situated so they have time to see the team doctor, chiropractor, soigneur, or massage therapist, and then get the bed. Team dinner is squeezed in between all of that, and it’s what you’d expect, full of carbs like rice, pasta, and bread, as well as protein sources like chicken and fish. The greater variation comes when it comes to after-dinner snacks.
Photo Denny Müller
“Historically there's always a food room,” Lim said. “The food room is just somebody's room, it's usually a soigneur’s room. The athletes know that if they ever get hungry after dinner, they can go there.”
In the food room, you’ll find every snack imaginable from cereal to sandwiches to general junk food.
“Some athletes are very ‘My body's a temple.’ But some athletes are really oriented toward junk food,” Lim said. “I would say that the split mirrors what you see in the normal population.”
According to Lim, some riders even go beyond the food room to satisfy their dietary desires.
“Chris Horner, for example, loved going to McDonald's,” Lim said. “He would do all the team meals, and then if there was a McDonald's across the street, he was walking across the street, getting a bunch of French fries and a filet-o-fish. He was a happy camper if they still had apple pies. There's an element of culture and nostalgia there too. He's an American, and that’s his comfort food.”
Food is more than just fuel
Chicken fried rice is what Dr. Lim grew up eating. That's why he likes making and sharing it now. That passion leads to great tasting food that riders love too.
Going to McDonald's late at night might not seem good for performance. But Dr. Lim made it clear that riders aren’t robots and that food isn’t just fuel. He explained that his approach to feeding pro riders is more holistic than you might expect.
“The reality is that in all my years working on the pro tour, I was more of a caregiver than a scientist,” Lim said. “It's about nurturing. It's about care. It's about being human. People think that it's all about data and numbers. And yeah, there's a lot of math involved. But you can't take the ‘human’ out of ‘human performance.’
“Food plays a big role in community and culture. We often forget that sitting down at a table with others is core to what we define as culture. There's definitive psychosocial evidence out there that shows that when families eat together, both the adults and kids do much better in other areas of life than when they eat alone.
“In a cycling context, the team meals that the Tour de France can be one of the biggest indicators of performance. Teams that are enjoying themselves and having a good time, are the teams that are going to be doing well the next day. If we’re talking about marginal gains, then the dining atmosphere, the way that meals are set up, and the quality and the deliciousness of the food are all bottlenecks. And it's such a big bottleneck that you can likely predict which teams are going to perform better by understanding what's happening at the dinner table.”
Lim explained that Americans in particular like to look at food like it’s technology. We often want our food to fulfill certain technological tick marks in terms of macronutrients, micronutrients, fiber load, insulin response, and any other potential ergogenic benefits. But it’s so much more than that.
“My job was ultimately to see food as technology,” Lim said. “But if there's a lesson for the average Joe, it’s that the cultural and psychosocial context of your food may be more important than what you actually put in your mouth. You should be happy when you eat. I think it’s more important that we just really, really enjoy what we eat, that we satiate ourselves, and that we have a really good time with the people that we eat with.
“Yes, there's a lot that you can optimize to create conditions for success. But as long as you're putting food in your mouth that makes you happy, you're probably going to be able to perform.”
Other fun Tour de France diet tidbits
Eating before bed
Did your mom ever tell you not to eat right before bed? Mine did. But does the same apply to pro cyclists?
“Sometimes, because they get to the hotel so late, they have no choice,” Lim said. “The main issue is that eating a meal does increase your metabolic rate and digesting food has a thermic effect and it can be difficult to fall asleep if your body's hot. There are a lot of countermeasures for that though. Teams have gotten smarter about thermoregulation at nighttime. Even a decade ago, we were already beginning to use cooling pads on the mattresses, so athletes could fall asleep quickly, even if they’ve just eaten.”
Why Coca-Cola breaks bonks
In Europe, Coke is typically made using sucrose (vs. high fructose corn syrup in the U.S.) which is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose. This makes it the perfect ride fuel.
“Having these two different types of simple sugars increases carbohydrate absorption rates,” Lim explained. “It tastes good and there's caffeine in it. In case of emergency, a lot of riders like a really cold Coke because it just feels good. I would say that Coca-Cola falls in that same realm as a gel for most athletes. There are plenty of athletes that would rather pound a small Coke than take in a gel. I think that for the most part, a small coke works better than a gel in terms of increasing blood sugar. But that’s very much a personal preference thing.”
Caffeine is good, but you can have too much
Riders just love caffeine, and it’s been proven to enhance focus and athletic performance. But even though it’s an approved substance for athletes to use, there are actually anti-doping limits on the amount of caffeine that you can take.
“Once you start to get into the gram level, when you get past 1 gram of caffeine, then you start to tell athletes to cool it,” Lim said. “If you give an athlete 2 grams of caffeine immediately post-exercise with an ample amount of carbohydrate, that caffeine can cause a significant increase in glucose uptake and an increase in glycogen resynthesis. But it's also so much caffeine that you might trigger an anti-doping valid violation. And you'd be hard-pressed to get that athlete to fall asleep that night.”
A typical espresso can have 60-100 milligrams of caffeine. So it’s possible to get into trouble after having 10 espressos. I can tell you from experience that drinking 10 espressos in one day is pretty unpleasant, so I doubt many riders will be at risk.
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