Professional cyclists are among the hardest-working athletes in sport, but if you think they put in a mountain of work at a Grand Tour race, you’d be staggered by the amount of effort exerted in total behind the scenes.
The riders themselves will consume 4-5,000 calories per day during the most grueling races of the year – such as the Tour de France – constantly aware they have to replenish the energy they are exerting into the hundreds of kilometers pedalled during the season.
A typical rest period for Vincenzo Nibali or Mark Cavendish is only a month before they’re back in the saddle for two or three months of pre-season ahead of the next, arduous campaign. As with most sports today, technology is cutting edge, although there are also more regulations and tests, especially in cycling which has been rocked by doping in recent years. Riders are constantly kept in check by a dedicated team of doctors, nutritionists, masseurs and trainers, for whom days are often longer than the athletes themselves.
Dr Carlo Guardascione has worked behind the scenes in professional cycling for nearly 25 years, with Lampre and Saeco for 12 years apiece and now as chief doctor at UCI WorldTour debutants Bahrain Merida.
The WorldTour got underway with the Tour Down Under in Australia a few weeks ago and 10 of the 18 squads feature in the Emirates this week. Guardascione and Bahrain Merida are here and the Italian revealed it’s been a long road.
“It has been a busy pre-season,” Guardascione told Sport360° at the team’s official launch in Bahrain last month. “We have riders who need to be in the best shape at the start of the season while others get stronger, depending on their characteristics. For (Vincenzo) Nibali, his maximum performance will be reached for the Giro d’Italia, while Niccolo Bonifazio is a sprinter so his best performances come at the start of the season.”
It all begins with specialist medical checks, then come blood check-ups, with UCI and WADA controllers sent to monitor the team in Bahrain. Finally riders undergo technical tests related to performance, then it’s down to business and getting into shape for the start of the season.
“In all problems, we are with the team, in each race a doctor follows them in each moment,” added Guardascione. “During the races the doctors work every day with the masseur, to treat muscle problems and discuss the best recovery.
“It’s a sport of endurance with big stress on the muscles. Doctors will wake up the riders to get their blood pressure and heart rate. Medical staff and trainers will be up before the riders and usually go to bed after them so it’s an even longer day for the training staff.”
Riders’ diets contain high protein and carbohydrates on race days, breads and cereals as well as a constant stream of high energy drinks, snacks and water throughout each stage.
“We are speaking about a great quantity of all food and beverages,” added Guardascione. “The sport is very long and you have to be very strong. This is the only sport when you need to eat during the race.”
Another man in high demand in Dubai this week is Quick-Step Floors head trainer Koen Pelgrim, a vital component in 2016 Dubai Tour champion Marcel Kittel’s season.
“It’s always important to start the season well, but the first races of the season are often a step in the process towards the highlights in the spring,” said Dutchman Pelgrim, himself a former pro cyclist.
Although Pelgrim preached the importance of keeping active and not putting on too much weight during the off-season, recovering mentally is equally vital.
“These three-four weeks of rest is really necessary, as the riders have to be focused for almost 11 months,” he said.
“In general we advise to stay active. Riding their bike, swimming, hiking, any form of physical activity is a great way to spend these weeks. After this period they start again with structured training and diet to prepare again for the first races.”
Dr Carlo Guardascione and Koen Pelgrim on a typical race-day diet for a pro cyclist…
Riders wake up three hours before the start of a race and have a very big breakfast. Bread and cereals can be combined with a protein source like low-fat cheese/meat or omelette with three egg-whites and one yolk. Also pasta with low low carbs or rice. Fruit of the season. Water and a protein shake.
At the start line in their jerseys, riders will also put food; energy bars, bread with jam, meat, and gelatined fruit. On the bike there is always one bidon (bottle) with water and one with an isotonic/energy drink. They change many times during the race.
Also during the race the riders have a refreshments bag with more bread inside, an energy bar, Coca Cola, bidons, as well as jellied fruit.
When they finish they immediately take a bottle with a cocktail of water, protein, glutamine and fruit to start the recovery. They speed it up with rice, pasta, and protein mixed with yoghurt or milk.
At the hotel the guys will have fruit salad, simple cereals to get them through to dinner time. At dinner, when the stage is very long, over 200km, they take two types of pasta.
Less than 200km it is only one type and lots of salad. The second plate is always protein; chicken or fish, with cooked vegetables. They finish with a fruit cake or some caramel.
All this adds up to 4/5,000 calories per day during a Grand Tour event like the Tour de France when they are exerting a lot of energy. A standard amount would be 3/4,000 calories for a normal, shorter race.