Anyone who’s been following this year’s Tour de France can’t have failed to notice two things. First, all that pedalling looks like really hard work. And second, the people doing it are thin. Really, really thin. Riders tend to start with about 4 to 5 per cent body fat, often dropping yet lower as the race progresses – simply catching a chill in the early northern stages can play havoc with their skeletal immune systems.
They’re all chasing that perfect power-to-weight ratio, because it’s an inconvenient truth that if two people of equal strength are riding bikes up a mountain, the lighter one will always have the advantage. Pros follow strict training regimes to keep the kilos off: both Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins saw their Tour performances improve significantly after shedding roughly a tenth of their body weights, with the latter cutting out all gluten, beer included, in the lead-up to the 2009 event. He finished fourth, upgraded to third a few years later, after Lance Armstrong’s retrospective disqualification – a significant improvement on his previous record of 124th.
While riders, unsurprisingly, want to go into the Tour as lean as possible, once the race begins they can hardly eat enough. They’re estimated to burn 8,000 calories a day in the course of 21 stages of between 101km and 222.5km, including 23 enormous climbs. That’s roughly the equivalent of 32 slices of tarte tatin, 22 croissants, or 11 generous portions of moules frites.
Time was, these indulgences were allowed. Though we have no record of anyone putting away such heroic quantities of patisserie in pursuit of a fancy jersey, many of the legends of the Tour tucked into the finest France had to offer. The first race in 1903 set off from a convivial cafe on the outskirts of Paris, and the winner of the second apparently achieved victory on daily rations that included a staggering 11 litres of hot chocolate, 4 litres of tea, and 1.5kg of rice pudding.
Bernard Hinault, who won five times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, hydrated with champagne on the last climb of the day, while Belgian Eddy Merckx was free with the cakes on the basis that: “It’s not the pastries that hurt, it’s the climbs.” One early competitor even had his butler lay out picnics by the side of the road, and retired Dutch pro Tristan Hoffman recalls as late as the 1990s a fellow rider starting the day on two Mars Bars and a litre of Coke.
These days, nutrition is taken much more seriously. Teams travel with their own chef, whose job it is to keep the supply of low-salt, high-protein, easily digestible foodstuffs coming. As Sean Fowler of Cannondale-Drapac told the Cycling Podcast last year, you don’t want any “intestinal stress” when you’re ploughing your way through that much fuel. That means rice rather than glutinous pasta, lots of fish and white meat, and definitely no salty ingredients that might lead to water retention – because no one wants to carry unnecessary baggage up the Col d’Izoard.
Sickly sweet energy gels and bars form the backbone of the musettes, the little bags of fuel handed out to riders en route – along with rice cakes, fizzy drinks (“for a bit of pleasure”) and the odd ham sandwich. On particularly tough stages, competitors struggle to find the time to swallow all the calories they need and still keep up with the race – “you kind of have to force it down” according to rider Joe Dombrowski.
Forcing down food in France? Now that’s really tough.
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions