At a stage race, your legs are pretty crucial. But I would make a case for digestion being pretty much up there with legs in terms of importance to your success.
If your stomach packs up and stops doing its bit, life can very quickly become exceptionally uncomfortable. I was recently reminded of this through the course of a very demanding ABSA Cape Epic. This race, more than any other, has got itself well sorted out when it comes to nutrition, but even it can’t guarantee that riders’ stomachs are up to the task of consuming and digesting perhaps as much as 10,000 calories a day for over a week.
It all starts off so well. On day one, full of the enthusiasm that comes with the start of a really exciting event that you have been building towards for months, you feel your appetite raised by the knowledge of upcoming challenges.
As the days go by, though, that appetite starts to wane. Those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed people that you see in the breakfast tent on day 1, cheerfully shovelling eggs, sausages, toast, porridge, muesli etc. down their throats, turn into shadows of their former selves. Roused by the bagpipes at 5am, dragging themselves out of their warm sleeping-bag cocoons, and shambling to breakfast, they force fuel into themselves in the manner of condemned men eating their last meal, while staring vacantly into the middle distance.
If it all goes properly wrong, an already challenging day’s racing can become exceptionally difficult. I’ve seen this in others, and rode the queen stage of the 2010 Craft Bike Transalp on the back of a night of unstable guts. We lost about two hours to the people we had been racing with, as it felt like riding eight hours on a permanent hunger knock, with no way of remedying it because eating was pretty much impossible. Oh, and any bump under the tyres felt like being punched in the midriff because the stomach cramps were so bad.
When it comes to food during the course of the day, the Epic has found a great sponsor in Woolworths SA. Not the defunct UK high-street chain – that would be strange – but a South African supermarket chain a bit like Marks and Spencers in the UK. First great plan – give every rider a paper bag containing some combination of sandwich / chocolate milk / biltong / chicken fillets / nuts / fruit as soon as they come over the finish line. Second great plan though, and I think an innovation for 2012, was a “top-up meal”. Selected in advance online, you could pick this up to tide you over between the finish-line food and supper. Now that shows the race putting itself in riders’ shoes and thinking what they need.
To state the obvious, feed stations are pretty important at some longer races. At the queen stage of the ABSA Cape Epic, it would have been a struggle to carry enough fuel for 143k, particularly if you are one of those riders (like myself) with a pathological aversion to carrying anything on your back. And that’s before you even get on to water – temperatures up into the 40s this year meant that it was possible to run out of water in two bottles between feed stations.
At some races, feed stations can be a bit of a lottery: perhaps some cut-in-half muesli bars at a Euro race, acquired from the local Casino supermarket; dried fruit of some description; cups of water maybe. Not so at the Epic – instead a carefully thought-out selection of goodies: copious quantities of Coke or energy drink, dried and fresh fruit, gummy sweets, salty rice cakes, Marmite sandwiches. Plenty of energy and plenty of variety.
Pockets full of calories
For all the merits of the feed station, though, if you’re really racing you probably don’t want to stop too much; and if that stop can be limited to a bottle refill, so much the better.
Just as with the sit-down meals, what works from the pockets can change significantly over the course of a week, though. Early on, it was possible to get down a MuleBar or three – my bar of choice – during the course of a long stage. As the days go by, solid food while racing becomes more and more of a struggle, as the stomach becomes ever more fragile, and the reliance on gels becomes every stronger; preferably with caffeine in for an extra kick.
What keeps you going during a stage race or marathon? Any unusual treats that will get you through a long day, or that you can rely on still being able to get down yourself after five or six days racing?