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Your daily rations for the Tour de France: 11 generous portions of moules frites

Alternatively, 22 croissants, or 32 slices of tarte tatin.

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.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game