All meals are important for the riders competing in Tour de France, one of the world’s most gruelling endurance events. But the one eaten immediately after racing five hours is the most critical to recovery and rehydration, and therefore performance. In a short window of about an hour, the cyclists have an opportunity to refuel their bodies after a taxing effort and to get ready for the next stage.
At cycling’s highest level, nutrition has evolved with the bikes and gear. The American Cannondale-Drapac team, for instance, has a dedicated nutritionist and two full-time chefs at the Tour who prepare and monitor everything the riders consume during the three-week race. And all the food and drink they consume — up to 8,000 calories’ worth daily — is based on the latest findings in sports science nutrition.
Minutes after each stage, when refuelling is so critical, riders down a protein-rich recovery drink and a litre of diluted pineapple juice before eating a dish with an animal protein and rice and quinoa. All that before their actual dinner.
Here’s what the Cannondale-Drapac riders are eating and drinking after each stage of the world’s biggest bike race:
Within minutes after each stage, when refuelling is critical, riders begin the recovery and rehydration process. They start by downing a protein-rich recovery drink, as rookie Tour rider Lawson Craddock of Texas does here.
But it all starts before the riders finish, with Andrea 'Biso' Bisogno of Italy. He drives the Cannondale-Drapac bus and also prepares the recovery drinks and meals that the riders will consume on the drive to the hotel. British nutritionist Nigel Mitchell plans everything the riders will eat and drink in this critical hour or two, when nutrition is most important.
Biso starts with one-litre bottles of water, which the riders start drinking right after each stage. Mitchell told Business Insider that riders consume 10 litres of fluid each day on the Tour -- that's 2.6 gallons or 18 imperial pints.
Per Mitchell's guidelines, Biso mixes in store-bought pineapple juice, which adds some sweetness and makes downing all that water easier on the riders. Among the benefits of pineapple juice is its anti-inflammatory properties, which furthers helps the riders recover. Potassium-rich cherry juice is also used for its antioxidants. Both juices fuel rehydration and speed up recovery.
In addition to the diluted pineapple juice, seen here, if a rider is still dehydrated Mitchell will give him an extra litre of water with electrolytes. The electrolytes come in tablet form and are tossed into water, like Alka-Seltzer. They add flavour and a bit of salt.
Cannondale-Drapac uses OTE Sports recovery mix, which has 20 grams of high-quality protein. Mitchell says a protein drink is perfect for rehydration and recovery.
Minutes after each stage of the Tour, riders start drinking the protein-rich recovery drink and the litre of diluted pineapple juice, both of which help put fluids back into the body.
Biso then starts preparing the postrace meal by boiling bouillon cubes, which intensify the flavour of the meal. This meal is very important for the riders as most stages at the Tour finish at 5:30 p.m. and riders often don't eat dinner at the hotel until 9.
Biso usually adds an animal protein to the meal. On this day it was chicken, which he cut up into pieces.
The emphasis is on high-quality lean protein. The meals are often made with chicken, rabbit, or tuna. Variety is important, as eating so much food during the three-week race becomes a challenge for riders. It has to be healthy but also taste good.
Regarding the importance of protein, Mitchell told CyclingWeekly:
'A lot of cyclists underestimate their protein needs. A Tour de France rider needs two grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. Club racers and fitness cyclists don't need that much, but they make the mistake of having the majority of their protein in one, or maybe two meals. You should have quality protein with every meal so your intake is spread throughout the day.'
A high-quality risotto rice, seen here, is the basis for the meals. But Biso adds quinoa for more variety and flavour, based on Mitchell's guidelines. Quinoa, a superfood, has protein and good fats, and the grain adds more nutrients.
'The post-stage meal is really important,' Mitchell told CyclingWeekly. 'We have cooked rice for the riders, which we use in the form of rice cakes during races. Rice is great -- it contains easily digested carbohydrates, some protein, and lots of water, which helps with hydration.'
This meal will be dished out to each rider in small bowls that they will eat from as they drive from the stage finish to their hotel. A few hours later, the riders will sit down to a full dinner. At the Tour, each rider consumes up to 8,000 calories daily.
After one mountain stage we drove to the team hotel with one of the riders, Kristijan Koren of Slovenia. A team staffer had a bowl of rice with ham and peas waiting for him so that he could begin refuelling right away. This nutrition strategy plays a key role in helping the riders endure the 21-day race -- and give the team its best shot at winning.
The postrace meal on the bus holds the riders over until about 9 when they sit down to a big dinner in the hotel.
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