Ever tried eating the equivalent of 25 cups of pasta in one day? The average calorie intake for the Tour de France cyclists is 5000-9000 calories/day. Compared to an average of 2200 calories for a 75kg, 30 year old male, that is a lot of food to eat!!
To take in this amount of food, riders generally eat a big high carbohydrate breakfast about 3 hours before the race and then smaller carbohydrate snacks or liquid supplements 1-2 hours before the start. Once on the bike riders generally aim to take in 250-350 calories each hour of easy-to-digest carbohydrates such as sports drink, energy bars, gels, gummies and even de-fizzed pop.
Riders can only carry so much food on their bikes (every gram counts) and not enough to properly fuel a 5 hr stage, so each team has a soigneurs who prepares the feed bags that riders get at the start and in the middle of each stage. Feed-bag fare tends to be utilitarian – the ultimate finger food, since it’s being consumed in motion – and includes cut-up sandwiches, fruit, or energy bars.
After each stage, riders are focused on recovery and take in a snack that is high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, with adequate fluids to start rehydrating. An example of this would be a 2 cups chocolate milk, a banana and 1 cup sports drink.
A big dinner based primarily on carbohydrate such as rice, pasta, grains, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables helps to refill glycogen stores. Protein is also an important part of dinner and foods such as eggs, meat, chicken and yogurt are ideal for tissue repair. The key to maintain energy levels and adequate calorie intake is to eat little and often by ensuring that snacks are readily available in rider’s hotel rooms and team buses.
It is tough for some riders to physically eat enough to optimize glycogen storage so little tricks like adding maltodextrin (glucose polymer), which doesn’t change the taste, to drinks such as coffee can be a solution.
Depending on the rider and the heat of the day, cyclists will consume 2-3 water bottles an hour. These are filled with carbohydrate concentrations that ranges from 2-8%, again depending on individual preference and the climate. These sports drinks also contain varying amounts and compositions of electrolytes and sometime a little protein.
Some teams have sport dietitians and chefs who work closely with the riders to develop an nutrition plan to optimize their performance and maximize recovery through one of the world’s most grueling races. It is important that the riders are monitored daily to assess their energy intake, weight loss, recovery, fatigue levels etc., as early diagnosis can prevent serious complications.