How cyclists manage to eat up to 6,000 calories and keep pedaling | Sports

Team assistants wait to give cyclists refreshment bags on a stage of the 2020 Tour.
Team assistants wait to give cyclists refreshment bags on a stage of the 2020 Tour.BENOIT TESSIER (Reuters)

“I am not a motorcycle, that you can accelerate as much as you want and win, I am a cyclist, a person”, says Fernando Gaviria. It is a warning to the fans who want to think that victory is only a matter of will, that they require you to win, of course, and to the cycling trainers of today, who have calculated their horsepower, their optimal revolutions per minute, their best heartbeats in the bed and on the bike, your metabolic rate, your optimal consumption and also how much fuel you have to fill your tank with, not one gram more, not one gram less. And like the Movistar sprinter, all the cyclists in the peloton, who in San Juan, between the mountains and the vineyards, throw themselves against the wind on the roads. They all claim, with their lives, their disasters, their accidents, Remco, Egan, Jakobsen, their vicissitudes, the courage of the heart against calculation. Everyone, who doesn’t, wants to be a mystery to others, not a data sheet with which everyone can accurately predict the steps they are going to take, and even the magnificent functioning of their digestive system, stomach and intestines.

The Movistar engineer Iván Velasco, precisely, one of the researchers inhabited by the desire to know everything, an insatiable curiosity, also warns of the danger of objectifying cyclists. “We run the risk of going crazy with the data, with the numbers, with the parameters, and we forget that we are talking about cyclists, about human beings who are not precisely governed by mathematics,” reflects Velasco. “They should only be a complement to improve performance, not a whole, not 100% accurate, because a cyclist is not a car, it is not a motorcycle, it is not a building in which the engineers can predict very well what the materials offer and rigidity, the tension to which you can submit it and so on. But a cyclist, a person, is not governed by mathematical laws, nor by parameters, nor by data”.

“Exactly”, agrees Aitor Viribay, nutritionist at Ineos from Alava. “The culture of data must have a scientific approach. It matters not only how you learn from the data, but its interpretation, what it means, what we do with it. There is always the potential risk of making everything more predictable, more mechanical, but the human body is not the engine of a car. It is the character of the sport, the different factor. The human body is unpredictable, we do not control its operation 100 percent, there are always uncontrollable factors, no matter how hard we try to know everything”.

These reasonings of sports scientists justify, of course, the need to continue delving into the culture of data, the search for training perfection: the cyclist must be an unpredictable mystery, but also a machine of muscles, lungs, heart, brain, and if it has to be a machine, let it be the best possible. That you know, for example, how much gasoline, and of what type, your engine needs exactly, and that the carburettor burns it, oxidizes it all efficiently, so that it doesn’t stay raw.

“By relating all the power calculations and the physiological parameters of each runner, their thresholds, their oxygen consumption, etc., in the last few years we have come to be able to calculate very, very reliably the amount of macronutrients that they are expending during training and the amount of macronutrients you would need to recover from that workout and be active again the next day,” explains Velasco. “We know the kilojoules or kilocalories that you must ingest from each macronutrient, be it carbohydrates, proteins or fats, to be fully recovered and be able to perform the next day in the best conditions.”

Viribay’s calculations in the Ineos, and the digestion and metabolic analyzes to which he subjects the cyclists, lead him to figures that seem exaggerated, impossible, to such an expenditure of energy in the great stages of the Tour, for example, that they force runners to ingest up to 6,000 calories in 10 hours in order to meet the needs of the effort. And they have to eat while they pedal. “If you want to move watts, you need energy, you need to eat, and eating during exercise is not that it is beneficial or that it is better or worse, it is that it is necessary, it is that it is a requirement to maintain that energy expenditure. In a great tour we see an excessive intake, even of more than 80 kilocalories per kilogram of weight per runner per day or intakes of up to 20 grams of carbohydrates per kilo, as in a stage as extreme as that of the Galibier and the Granon the past Tour”.

Many consider such intake impossible. They believe that no digestive system would withstand it, although if they looked at how professionals in competitions to see who else eats in less time (69 dogs with bread in 10 minutes is the record), they would verify that the stomach is extensible and that even with he full you can have the feeling that there are still holes. The cyclists are not championship gobblers, but they do too. “If we ask a cyclist to eat 18 grams for each kilo of weight [kilo 200 para un ciclista de 65 kilos] in food, it is practically impossible. If we ask you to eat 1.5 grams per kilo per hour, for example, or two grams per kilo per hour on the bike, and that already makes 10 grams per kilo, well, it’s another story to ask for four or five more outside the bike, in rice or pasta. If they don’t eat during exercise, where intake is much easier, and, above all, the effect is different in a much more beneficial metabolic environment, it would be impossible to reach these amounts of energy”, explains Viribay. “How does an intestine or the entire digestive system manage, including stomach, small intestine, large intestine, microbiota, intestinal health, how to ingest 18 grams per kilo of carbohydrates, with ten grams per kilo of pure and hard sugar, glucose and fructose, in gels or gummies with 150 grams of carbohydrates… I don’t know. We do not know. But we trained it and found that just like muscles, the digestive system responds to training. They digest, assimilate, and oxidize better”.

The body and life respond to Nietzsche’s old motto, “what does not kill you makes you stronger”, or more finely put, to the mechanism called hormesis: poison it little by little so that it assimilates everything and does not kill, as Rasputin did to overcome so many poisoning attempts. The cyclists now go out to train with a full stomach, or and they drink a lot, and fill their stomachs with gels and syrups, and all of the Ineos, assures Viribay, from whom he asks for a subjective assessment of their stomach comfort, say that they are very well. And also runners from other teams, such as Oier Lazkano, the powerful wheeler from Movistar, who assures that it is not such a big deal to go out to train with a full stomach and also feed him every hour with 150 more grams. “The body gets used to everything and so do I,” says Lazkano, who has needed the most energy in Paris-Roubaix. “With the bottle you dissolve 80 grams, 40 more in a gel and 30 in a bar, and that’s it.”

Viribay nods and claps. “I am fascinated by the ability of the digestive system to absorb food, especially in a super-extreme environment, because it has everything against it, such as physical exercise, where there is vasoconstriction that tells the cyclist, if you have 10 resources, now you are going to work at greater speed with three ”, says the Ineos nutritionist. “And we learn from them that their ability to absorb and oxidize that substrate is also wonderful, incredible, out of the ordinary.”

Knowing this, Gaviria and all the cyclists will now be able to say, no, I am not a motorcycle, I am something much better, more perfect. Where are you going to compare?

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