How To

How to fuel like a pro cyclist – with Tinkoff-Saxo chef Hannah Grant

Nutrition tips from one of pro cycling's top chefs

Eating correctly is a vital part of getting into shape for cycling and when you’re a professional cyclist nutrition is a key component of life.

While we’d all love to be lean, mean racing machines, the reality of life, work and family commitments can hamper those ambitions, but, according to Tinkoff-Saxo team chef Hannah Grant, there are plenty of nutrition lessons you can learn from the pros to improve your performance on the bike.

Grant has been a chef for Tinkoff-Saxo since 2011, travelling with the team to races to take care of every nutritional requirement, cooking daily meals for the likes of multiple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador and newly-crowned world champion Peter Sagan in that time.

What can you learn from the pros and how they fuel for a non-stop training and racing schedule? We caught up with Grant, who is also the author of the Grand Tour Cookbook, to find out how to fuel you ride like a WorldTour professional.

It all starts with breakfast

Breakfast, they say, is the most important meal of the day, not least when preparing for a long day in the saddle, and for a professional cyclist that often means going big on protein and carbs.

The most common way to get protein into your diet, Grant says, is through eggs while a warm, carbohydrate-based meal is also served for Tinkoff-Saxo riders as they start the day.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day

“For breakfast we need to have a bit of protein – that usually comes from an egg serving, with an omelette being the classic but just any egg serving being suitable,” Grant explains. “We also use chia seeds for additional flavouring but a very, very important thing as well is the carbohydrate intake.

“Where that comes from depends a lot on the riders. We have a lot of different nationalities and the group, of course, will change a lot from race-to-race. At the Vuelta a Espana I had a lot of guys eating porridge for breakfast, and that would be the base for the day, but at the Tour de France the riders preferred rice and pasta.

“It’s a case of finding out what works best for each individual, what powers their engine. You can’t force people to like something. We try to encourage them to choose the right things though.”

But it’s not just what you eat but when you eat it, too, as Grant explains.

“We tend to do breakfast three hours before the stage starts,” she says. “That gives enough time for the food to get down and not be coming back up when you start to go full gas.”

Be prepared – so you can go home-made

Tinkoff-Saxo as a team firmly believe in homemade food – a policy which ensures they know the origin of every ingredient going into their meals.

But, whether you’re a chef preparing meals for a WorldTour team at the Tour de France, or an amateur riding your local sportive or road road, you need to be prepared if you want to enjoy homemade food.

Plan ahead so you can ensure your meals are homemade

“Our bottom line basic rule is keep everything homemade,” Grant says. “Make things yourself and don’t go for the easy, fast, ready-made cheap meals. Think ahead, prepare.

“I plan the menu at races as I go. I know in rough terms what we’re going to do – usually we always serve chicken, because it’s the protein everyone can agree to. If you don’t want fish, you can always have the safe option of chicken.

“So there’ll always be a chicken dish and then the alternative could be anything from fish, veal, lamb, rabbit – whatever I can find.

“Also, don’t just pick something because you’ve read in a book that you should. Not everybody will react the same way – if something doesn’t feel good then your system is not going to be happy.”

Experiment – but not just before an event

The best way of finding what works best for you, Grant says, is to try new things, experiment and see what fits best.

But there’s a time and a place for trying a new nutrition strategy, and the day before the big sportive or race you’ve had planned for months is not that time, Grant explains.

Don’t be afraid to experiment – just not the day before a big event (pic: Nicola Abalde, via Flickr Creative Commons)

“Another basic rule is don’t ever change something drastically prior to something important,” she says.

“If you want to change up what you eat – perhaps you’re used to eating corn flakes but want to go for oatmeal so you can get the slow-release energies in there during the day, you don’t want to do that two days before a race, sportive or major training session.

“Give yourself a chance to adapt, and maybe start changing when you’re having a bit of downtime.

“It’s important to try new things, but listen to your body. Don’t change everything in one day, just change a few elements. If you make small changes, it’s easy to see what works and pinpoint those days when you feel great.”

Grant believes that another time to avoid experimenting is after a bad day in the saddle. For Grant, that means when she’s dealing with pros who may have crashed, suffered during a brutal day in the saddle, missed a training or race target, and she says it’s important to keep things ‘normal’ on those days.

“If you’ve had a really shit day then that’s not the time to be experimenting,” Grant says bluntly.

Go wheat-free when possible

Many diets will encourage you to cut back on wheat-based products when you’re looking to lose weight, and to Grant it’s a policy which makes perfect sense.

As you get older, she explains, your metabolism will slow down and wheat is often the cause of that bit of weight you just can’t seem to shed.

Try and go wheat free to help keep any excess weight off (pic: Emily, via Flickr Creative Commons)

“When you’re 18, 19 and into your early 20s then your metabolism is on fire,” she says. “But once you get to 25, it will change and slow down.

“A lot of guys have the tendency to pack on some extra weight and wheat is often what’s to blame for those two or three kilos you just can’t shift.

“Wheat also increases the production of oestrogen in the male body, so men eating a lot of wheat products often have the tendency to develop ‘man boobs’!

“You can’t starve yourself, but you need to choose the right things. I would always encourage people to choose any alternatives – rice-based, oat-based foods and so on.”

Do you really need that gel?

Tinkoff-Saxo’s riders have a range of energy products to choose from in the musettes on race day, including Grant’s homemade rice cakes, and a selection of energy gels and bars from the squad’s nutrition sponsors.

But the race-day demands of a professional cyclist differ greatly to our own, Grant says, and whereas they may take on a gel ahead of a full-gas sprint or going into a climb, Grant advises that amateur riders use gels only when required – not in every training session – and instead call upon ‘normal’ food to fuel short to medium-length rides.

Do you need all those gels?

“A lot of [professional] riders tend to say for amateurs or recreational cyclists stay away from the gels,” Grant explains.

“For a two-hour training session or event, you don’t need a gel and the problem can be your body getting used to them – they act like a nitro boost and you want to use that as the last possible option to make sure you get over the mountains or squeeze your last bit of energy out.

“That is, for sure, the thing to keep in mind. If you’re biking for an hour-and-a-half or two hours you definitely want to keep things as natural as possible. A banana will usually be fine.

“Don’t just pump the gels because you end up coming home having taken in more energy than you actually use – you will actually get heavier, which defeats the whole point of training.”

What goes into a musette? And how do you make the perfect rice cake?

If you want to rely on regular food to fuel a long day in the saddle, what should you be stuffing into your jersey pockets?

When Tinkoff-Saxo’s soigneurs pack each rider’s musette, snatched from the roadside feed station during a race, they’ll include a combination of homemade food and cycling-specific nutrition products, and Grant explains that it’s not just energy, but ease of digestion that you have to consider.


What goes into a pro cyclist’s musette?

“The soigneurs will often put a little sandwich in there – soft breads with banana or honey or cream cheese, for example, as they have to be super-easy to digest – and then on the side I’ll made soft rice bars,” she says.

“We talk about the flavours – sweet, salty and so on. The rice bars keep you full longer. You have the base energy going.

“If you just pump sugary bars and gels into your body over a number of weeks then your stomach is just going to give up on you.”

Rice cakes are popular throughout professional cycling as a source of slow energy release, packing in plenty of nutritional value for their size, and being easy for riders to digest on the go. How do you make the perfect rice cake? Grant’s book, the Grand Tour Cookbook, contains the full secrets but she does have some basic tips to share.

“The rice grain is really important when it comes to a rice cake, if you want to avoid it going super-mushy,” she says.

“Risotto rice grains do well – round rice. Then, depending on how you like the consistency, you adapt accordingly.

“If you want a little more bite, then chia seeds and fruit will take up some of the moisture. It’s worth trying a few different things before you get it right.

“The quality of your product you put in, will determine the quality of what you get out. And don’t stir it too much or it will get mushy. Leave it, and only treat it gently.”

The 20-minute protein window

If you want your body to fully adapt to the physiological stimulation you are giving when riding then adequate recovery vital – and that starts as soon as you get off the bike.

Protein plays a big part in the recovery process, helping to rebuild muscles, and Grant says you should look to get a recovery shake – homemade, of course – inside you within 20 minutes.

Get a protein shake down within 20 minutes of your ride finishing (pic: I Believe I Can Fry, via Flickr Creative Commons)

“When you get off the bike you have a 20-minute window when you need to get protein in as quickly as possible,” Grant explains.

“Getting the protein in during that 20 minutes will reduce your recovery time. I know when you have worked yourself to the edge and you’re completely shattered the last thing you want is a protein shake but to overcome that you have to just do it because you know your recovery will be so much better.

“For the pros, in the stage races, missing out on that window could be the difference when it comes to surviving the next few days.”

A protein shake will give the recovery process the best possible start, Grant says, and will keep things ticking over until you have the opportunity to eat ‘proper’ food.

“You have that 20-minute window and then [if you won’t be eating a full meal for a few hours] have a small rice mix or a potato salad – with chicken in, perhaps,” Grant says. “Try to keep that as low-fat as possible.”

How to make a perfect protein shake

If homemade is best, what goes into the perfect protein shake then? Well, it’s actually quite a simple process, Grant says.

“There are a lot of options for protein intake – you could make a simple smoothie and add whey protein,” she suggests.

Grant recommends keeping protein shakes homemade (Pic: I Believe I Can Fry, via Flickr Creative Commons)

“Make it yourself because you could find the things you can buy off the shelf are as full of sugar as a Coca Cola – and it’s more expensive.

“While some people don’t like whey protein, there are a lot of options – egg-white protein, rice protein, vegan protein. There are a lot of options to explore, make your own shakes and taste what’s best.

“Also stay away from artificial sugars. A lot of people are tricked into going sugar-free, and then end up just filling their bodies with artificial sweeteners.

Consider your long-term goals when preparing dinner

With the recovery process underway with a protein shake when you get off the bike, it’s time to think about dinner – and that, Grant says, will often come down to what your future goals are.

Grant says Tinkoff-Saxo’s riders will often have a three-hour gap or more between getting off the bike and eating their evening meal at stage races, particularly when there are long transitions.

Consider your long-term goals when preparing dinner (Pic: Moyan Brenn, via Flickr Creative Commons)

But eating earlier than that isn’t a problem, as long as you don’t load up excessively as soon as you get off the bike. And always remember, your dinner is the first part of your fuelling for the next day too.

“Don’t go full-on bulking when you get off the bike,” Grant advises. “Our riders usually have a three-hour gap before dinner is served so they need to have something to keep them ticking over – that’s where the small carb meals we’ve already talked about come in – but if you have got home, you’ve had your protein and then your dinner will soon be ready then that’s completely fine, though the protein shake will fill you up and you may not feel like eating a big meal straight away.

“Your main meal will depend on what your plans are for the next day. If it’s just a small ride to the office, perhaps a couple of miles each way, then there’s no need to carb load in the evening. The main thing for a rider is to stay lean so if you know that you’re not going to go crazy the next day then you need to be wary of your carb intake.”

The key to staying lean, as obvious as it sounds, is to not take on more than you are going to burn off.

“Always think ahead – what sort of effort will be doing the next day, and for how long,” Grant adds. “I meet a lot of amateurs who, if it’s raining, will go to a 45-minute spin class and then come to me saying they’re not losing weight.

“If I ask what they do at home, they’re like ‘well, I was hungry so I ate a big portion of pasta’. And I’m thinking you only did 45 minutes on the bike, you haven’t used that much energy. Some will even have taken a bar or a gel first! It’s common sense.”

“You just have to always remember that what you put into your food is what you get out.”

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