Welcome to Tom Staniford’s regular column that Tom has dubbed “Delusions of Grimpeur,” which will largely consist of Tom’s humorous ramblings and occasional pithy insights. We hope you enjoy Tom as much as we do. Be sure to give him a follow on Twitter to keep up with his latest exploits and wry humor.
Food is always an interesting topic when talking to cyclists, for a number of reasons. In simple terms it fuels the relentless hours in the saddle you may or may not actually be doing. For those of a more comfortably-sized disposition, it may provide a constant nemesis and taunt as they struggle to get the scales to remain stable or show reductions. For the control freaks it’s yet another aspect of their performance about which they can closet themselves away, analyse and get their nerd on.
The obsession, therefore, runs deep. For some it manifests in the practical inhalation of practically anything, on sight. For others the food obsession is incarnated in an obsession with measures of size and quality and timing.
Yet our understanding of how much food, of what type, and when and why to eat it is something that seems to ebb and flow with the predictable regularity of a drug scandal entering the 3rd week of a Grand Tour.
Back in the day (says I; as though I have a battered suitcase full of gritty anecdotes and toil as opposed to a designer musette full of kittens and freshly-laundered Egyptian cotton socks) it was all about the protein, and probably about being very manly. Champions ate steak. The really good ones would insert a hefty cut down their shorts to provide an organic precursor to the chamois pad – the day’s rattling progress delivering ample tenderization of the meat prior to a slap-up meal at the end of business.
The advent of Sport Science (I am reliably informed by people far more intelligent than I that this is not an oxymoron) saw us move away from the BCAA’s with a newfound respect and appreciation for the role carbohydrates play in delivering energy to the working muscle. For all the variations this may engender (do you want fructose, maltodextrin, or a 2:1 blend, sir? Can I interest you in a spot of palatinose on the side?) we have essentially hovered around the ‘carbs is best’ maxim for the last few years, albeit with the occasional tweak.
However, recent years have seen a quiet revolution taking place that all but the most patient of observers may have missed (I only noticed it because as now that I am a celebrated international columnist I have limitless funds to employ an army of assistants who handle all of my researching and writing needs. In fact, I didn’t even write this. This is the handiwork of my Norwegian intern, Edvald. I digress). Fat, apparently, is good.
Now, to those of you fortunate to have encountered the rare pleasure of a particularly greasy off-season kebab after a night knocking back absinthe in the grottier confines of a local mosh pit (we’ve all been there, amirite?) this comes as no surprise. It’s about as unsurprising as a French rider being in the break on Bastille day. But, winter excess and comfort eating aside, the fact that fat does excel as a fuel source in certain situations is entirely believable. Cue different methods of encouraging fat utilisation and incorporating more fat into the diet in order to improve recovery, performance, muscle synthesis, libido, IQ, and probably the time it takes to complete the Sudoku at the weekend (aside; do they have sudoku in newspapers in America? Answers on a postcard please). I think I once read that 40% of a pro riders caloric intake is derived from fats – a figure that simultaneously thrills Colonel Sanders and strikes fear into the hearts of chickens everywhere.
I’m really not sure where I’ve gone with this train of thought.
The other quiet revolution taking place is the move away from pre-packaged, pre-processed, and preternaturally expensive sports nutrition towards more natural food. I’m talking SkratchLabs, rice cakes, manuka honey, wheatgrass, etc. What was formerly the preserve of New Age vegans, yogic acolytes, and weak-chinned hypochondriacs is now a fully accepted element of being pro, looking the part and being ‘bella in sella’ (you remember last week?). All in the search for marginal gains, you know.
Whilst there are good sports nutrition brands out there it often appears that most of the market is populated with a kind of mulched carb offal in the hope of attaining fleeting dietary convenience, sadly to the detriment of any discernible flavour or lasting goodness.
The fact is all serious athletes are control freaks, and we are fortunate that there are so many different types of food we can address this character trait to, alternatively praising or scorning on a whim. I’ve never met Anquetil or Simpson (and, in all fairness, am unlikely to) but I’d happily bet my almost-complete Rouleur collection on the fact that they truly believed at the time that those mounds of steak were the best thing they could eat for their performance.
But where do you fall on the foodie spectrum? I know riders who will actively replan training rides to avoid riding past/through the chemical fug issuing out of a McDonalds. Yet I know about as many riders who are accustomed to a casual Big Mac from time to time, regarding it as good for the soul. IIRC Chris Horner is a huge fan of Coke and the big yellow ‘M’? I myself regard the aspirationally-named KFC bargain bucket and a few cans of Red Stripe as the epitome of post-season celebration, in addition to allowing me to introduce the neighbours (through the paper thin walls of my hovel) to an impressive collection of classic reggae and ska.
So as our understanding of food and how it interplays with performance on the bike evolves, so too do our obsessions and absolute belief that we ‘know what we’re doing’. Just as fashions come and go, to be exposed by later generations or the same generation with a little more nous, I’m sure that in years to come we can all chuckle at our accumulated faux pas and bizarre dietary experiments. I, for one, am already looking forward to shaking my head with resigned indifference at my own attempts last year to create a kind of yoghurt energy gel with high-MCT coconut milk. It got messy.
All joking aside, if you feel you may be struggling with an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food, then please please consult a professional. Your health is paramount and as such will always trump any flimsy shallow search on my part for cheap gags. Please look after yourselves.