The Excruciating Diet of a Professional Cyclist
Team Orica-Scott talked to Food and Wine about their carb-heavy Tour de France diets and the psychological toll of consuming over 7,000 calories a day.
When you’re a professional cyclist, you must eat so much food that you begin to dread it. During this year’s Tour de France, the members of Team Orica-Scott ate over 7,000 calories a day, mostly in the form of pasta, potatoes and simple carbohydrates, and by the end of the Tour, meal time became a chore. While unlimited pasta sounds like a dream for us sedentary folk, nonstop carbo-loading begins to take a psychological toll on the riders. At dinner the night before the Tour’s final stage in Paris, the team opened up about the extreme diet that racing requires. On August 19, they’ll do it all again for the Vuelta a España, which begins in Nimes, France and ends in Madrid on September 10.
“We’re constantly overeating. It’s actually possible to put on weight during the Tour because you’re scared of coming up too short,” said cyclist Mathew Hayman. “In training, if you get a little bit low, it’s fine. During a race, if you get low because you don’t have energy, it’s over.” Cyclists go from eating a couple of meals a day during training to snacking nonstop during races, even when the sight of a rice cake makes them want to vomit. They can’t stop consuming calories because their bodies are always working, even when they’re in bed.
“There’s food in front of you from the time we get up to the time we go to sleep,” said Hayman. “In the morning, you have breakfast, go to the bus, eat in the bus, put food in your back pockets and eat during the race. Then, when you finish, you chug a protein shake, then maybe some muesli. Once you get back to the hotel, you grab some fruit and go to dinner. When you get up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet, you have a yogurt.”
While racing, the riders down raw food bars and nutrient-pack gels, but the reality is, they can get the fuel they need from little cakes and sandwiches, so they eat those whenever possible. That’s right—cake does the job for professional athletes just as well as any nutrient-optimized snack, according to team director Matt White.
“For us, carbs are the main dish,” said team member Michael Albasini. “For other people it’s a side. That’s why the flavor of the meals is so important, because it helps you eat two plates.” But on day 17 of a race, even the thought of a delicious pasta dish is daunting. “At the start of the tour you’re hungry, but you shouldn’t eat too much,” said team member Esteban Chaves. “But then at the end of the tour you’re not hungry, but you should eat more.”
It helps that Team Orica-Scott had chef Hannah Grant, who will be the star of an upcoming Amazon original series about her experience cooking for cyclists. Grant followed the team all over France for each stage of the Tour, making sure they got the nutrients they needed while sourcing local ingredients to cook interesting, chef-grade meals. For their final dinner, Grant prepared a beautiful tuna sashimi—using fish she caught that morning off the coast of Marseille—steak, frites and roasted carrots.
“When I started seven years ago, the food world for professional riders was very conservative,” Grant said. “It was grilled chicken, no fats, pasta, an iceberg salad buffet and lots of ketchup so it would all go down. The mental part of looking forward to a good, interesting meal is just as important as the actual nutrition of these things. If it was just about nutrition, everyone would just make a sludge that had everything you needed.”
While pasta and rice and protein comprise the bulk of their meals—now deliciously so with Grant in the kitchen—there’s no way of knowing what a cyclist’s diet will look like in five or ten years.
“A lot of fads come and go over the years,” said Hayman. “We’ve cut down on avocados slightly. We used to have fifteen avocados on the table every meal, breakfast and dinner. And then it was coconut oil.”