Coffee and cake – A cyclist’s relationship with food

cycling-food-1We don’t call it food. It’s fuel. Yeah, that’s right. I’m not eating, I’m doing science. This cake? Ah, you are mistaken, this is a hi-energy sponge bar. Ha yes, I know what you are thinking. Crisps. These are actually potato-carb fuel thins. That Friday night kebab? Protein recovery to help me over last Sunday’s smash fest.

One of the many great things about being a cyclist is that we can pretty much eat what we like, when we like. We are gluttons. There are no guilty pleasures for the cyclist. Our food pleasures are innocent and go by the names of nutrition, energy and recovery. Never are we pigging out. Never. Calorie loaded, we stuff our thin faces until we can eat no more. Only to top up on cake. For tomorrow we shall burn more energy than the summer sun (on our way to the cafe for cake).

Food for thought

As cyclists, nay humans, we kid ourselves in all kinds of illogical ways when it comes to food. How else to explain the pseudo-science from nutritionists, or the alleged super foods, or the miracle diets people suffer, or the very existence of something that tastes as foul as cabbage soup?

“Superfood is a marketing term used to describe foods with supposed health benefits.”
Wikipedia. You can almost taste the scorn.

The marketing men and women of this world certainly play to the desire that everything that passes our lips extends our lives or gives us superpowers.

Apply food marketing to a sport like cycling and you’ve a lot of bad science to stomach. Which ‘hydrates’ you more? Water, sports drink or milk? Yup, milk. Well it does this week anyway. Until next week when research reveals tree sap is best for hydration.

Our dirty secret

Me, touchy?
Me, touchy?
Just like you, I have a confused relationship with food. I would probably say I eat fairly well with a balanced diet but I know I am lying to myself. I don’t eat enough fruit and even less vegetables. I love meat. And piles of carbs. I have a soft spot for nostalgic dishes that take me back to my childhood. Fray Bentos pie served on four potato waffles anyone?

If food is in front of me I will eat it. My solution to this is not to buy it in the first place. I often get hooked on one dish or ingredient and then eat this pretty much at the exclusion of anything else. When I first moved to London I ate sausage pasta every night for almost a year. And took the leftovers to work for lunch every day too. Nowadays I eat a cheese sandwich every day for lunch. Hummus is my go to snack, a pot of the stuff easily devoured with a bit of dipping bread. Or fingers. And let’s not talk about the food I eat with booze or a hangover. Oh deary me.

What about on the bike? I’m not much better although I do try to stick to ‘proper’ food where possible and save the gels only for when I’m really desperate.

Pre ride – Carb loading

Remember to carb load before the ride
Remember to carb load before the ride
I’m a big believer in building up your energy stores before big bike rides. I certainly notice the difference if I set off on a long ride with little in my stomach from the day before. The folk in white coats recommend carb loading a couple of days before a big ride. I find the day before is enough. When cycle touring, carb loading becomes even more important so you don’t deplete your energy stores.

The pre-ride breakfast is usually a struggle for me, especially if I’m up for an early morning ride. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been dry heaving when trying to force porridge down my throat! Porridge doesn’t actually work that well for me as a pre-ride feast. I often find I’m hungry within ten miles. Given I’m not inclined to cook eggs or some such that leaves me with a limited choice of cereals and toast. All hail Weetabix.

To drink I’ll enjoy a cup of coffee or tea depending on how I’m feeling. I sometimes find coffee raises my heart rate a little higher than I would like for the first part of the ride, only to send my energy levels crashing back down half way through the ride. No such problems with a good old cup of tea.

On the bike – eat and drink little lots

Cyclist and coffeeOn the road we’re so tired we refuse to chew. Mushy banana slides down our throats, gels are inhaled. Yet still our mouths open for more, baby birds constantly awaiting the return of their parents. Every kilojoule counts. Each ounce of energy is another spin of the crank, another metre of road beneath our wheels.

For long rides or medium length high intensity slog fests I’ll always carry a banana or two in my jersey pocket. These are supplemented by a whole loaf of Soreen malt loaf, which I somehow manage to chew my way through. Sesame Snaps are the little treat I take with me to cheer myself up when the weather is crap or I’ve simply had enough. This is usually enough to see me through 60-100 miles.

Gels are only carried in exceptional circumstances, such as rides with a lot of climbing or when there’s no shops on route. I also don’t pay too much attention to the timing of taking on x grams of carbs every x minutes or whatever the doctors of the internet blather on about. I eat before I’m hungry and drink before I’m dry, to misquote a Bob Dylan lyric.

I never stop during a ride. I don’t like to break my momentum or get cold and stiff legs by pausing for a mini in-ride feast. The rare exception is when I’m utterly exhausted when I find stopping for food (pork pie, scotch egg, chicken sandwich, pasty and the like) can really boost my morale. Sometimes you just need to stop mentally more than anything else.

Liquid – for a cyclist doesn’t drink, they re-hydrate – is usually one 800 ml bottle of water and one 800 ml bottle of water with the addition of a cola flavoured, caffeinated electrolyte tablet. Prior to using these tablets I really suffered from leg cramps but have had no such problems since. The extra caffeine helps keep me alert when I’m tired and I need to cycle back into London after a day out in the country lanes. Plus it’s nice to change the taste from water on a long ride. And yes, I love my big water bottles even if the ride is a little heavy to begin with!

Hunger and the dreaded bonk

Mark Cavendish attempts to avoid the bonk
Mark Cavendish attempts to avoid the bonk
We sometimes get it wrong. Miles done outstrip calories in. Bang, the man with the hammer strikes. Legs as empty as your jersey pockets. No shop in sight. You scan the highway for roadkill. Bushes are frisked for power rich berries. But alas, there’s nothing. Not even a leaf. You lick your fingers. Mmmm. Banana skin trace. That’s worth another mile. Must eat the salt laden sweat from my brow. Yum, recycled electrolytes. That’s worth another mile.

The world passes by in a blur. Trees look like giant broccoli. The road ahead a ribbon of liquorice. You’re so hungry you almost convince yourself that rabbit shit is chocolate covered raisins. God help any cyclists you see with a puncture because you’ll be tucking into their meaty thighs like the aeroplane crash survivors in the film Alive.

Hitting the wall is thankfully a rare phenomenon. There’s few excuses for it. We know we need to eat to keep going and yet each year there will usually be that one ride when the bonk strikes.

Post ride recovery

Recovery drink.
Recovery drink.
One of my favourite things about cycling is stuffing my face all of the time post ride. Usually this means eating anything I can readily access – eggs, milk, cereals, last night’s leftovers, or my personal favourite, ‘fash’, my very own invented student dish.

Fash is a contraction of fish and mash (you see what I did there?!). To make fash you need: one Pyrex measuring jug, milk, butter, a packet of potato flakes, a tin of tuna and a couple of slices of cheese. Make the mash and then add all ingredients to the measuring jug. Take fork and eat – you even have a handle on the jug to help bring the food closer to your mouth! If anyone asks you what you’re shoveling into your face, mumble something about fish pie and omega oils and protein and minding their own damn business.

I really should plan more but I know I won’t. I don’t want cycling to become a chore. A routine. Eating whatever I find in the cupboard is part of the many joys of riding a bike. Sure, I’ve read the science and have recently tried to eat more protein after a big ride to help me recover, which has essentially translated into me drinking lots of chocolate milk. Yum!

The rest of the day is spent eating, topped off with a huge evening meal of whatever the hell I like. If I’m away from home this usually means fish and chips with mushy peas. Yup, English to the bloated core!

What about you?

We’re all different and will eat differently. Whether half of the things we believe are beneficial are actually good for us is another matter, but that really isn’t the point. If the placebo works I’ll keep on taking it.

Some more food for cyclist ideas


4 thoughts on “Coffee and cake – A cyclist’s relationship with food

  1. Last Thursday’s ride was followed by an Old Fashioned, a Daiquiri & a Long Island Ice Tea with a steak & chips chaser 🙂


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