How to Fuel a Monster Ride

Done properly, all day on your bike is a (mostly) enjoyable experience. Improperly, that last 30km can be one of the longest, most painful stretches in your life.

By Selene Yeager

Fuelling for a big ride – let’s use the Old Mutual Wealth Double Century as our example here, but it could be any adventure you choose – has come a long way since Oros and a few peanut butter sandwiches.

NOTE We will be asking you to refill your bottles just about everywhere on the route, in the below piece. If that isn’t something you find yourself needing to do, it should be or you are building up to dehydration, and it’s finish-threatening consequences. The most important part of eating on the bike is actually drinking… here endeth the first lecture.

First and foremost, let’s get the elephant out of the room: plan to consume carbohydrates. The faster and further you go, the more fuel you’ll need, because you’ll be burning more. But you’re still dipping into your glycogen stores, burning about a gram of glycogen a minute, at low, ‘fat-burning’ intensities, says Iñigo San Millán, PhD, head of trainer staff for UAE Team Emirates.

You only have 350 to 500g max when your stores are fully stocked, which you’ll run through in about 3 to 4 hours of moderate riding. Aim to top off your tank with 30 to 60g of carbs (the lower end for light riders; the higher end for larger riders) an hour. This is the goal in endurance riding.

There’s a wide array of pre-packaged fuel sources like bars and carbohydrate gels that are portable, easy to digest, and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and flavours. A typical energy bar can consist of about 200 to 250 calories: 30 to 40g carbohydrate, 10g protein, and 5 to 10g fat. Carbohydrate gels run in the 100- to 125-calorie range, and consist of 25 to 30g of a more easily digestible and simple carbohydrate source.

While bars and gels can do the trick, it’s tastier and more nutritious to fuel your century ride with real food, like PB sandwiches, bananas, fruit bars, nut treats, trail mix and other food you like. Take the time to experiment with all your snacks during training to get to know how your energy level and your digestive system will respond to your choices. Kilometre 150 is not the time to discover you really can’t stomach Fizzers on a ride.

Eat and drink early and often. 200km is a long time to be on the bike and can take more than 8 hours, depending on terrain. What you eat and drink during hours 2 and 3 of your event will dictate how you perform in hours 4, 5, 6 and beyond. It’s much easier to keep the fire going than trying to relight a flame that’s gone out.

Your Double Century Ride-Fuel Plan

Here’s a suggested ride-fuel plan based on the OMWDC route. Keep in mind that energy intake is extremely variable; depending on your size and speed, you may need fewer or more calories. This is meant to be a starting point for a 75kg rider averaging about 25km/h; tweak it according to your specific needs.

Two days before:

Stock up. To start the ride with as much glycogen in your muscles as possible, take in a higher percentage of carbs for 24 to 48 hours before. For instance, if you usually eat chicken and veg for dinner, cook up a stir fry you can put on a bed of rice as the base.

Pro tip: Pull up the event info page and check out where the aid stations will be and what food/drink to expect. That way you’ll know what to expect, and whether you need to pack more of your own food/hydration mix to be sure you have what you need (and like).

Event morning:

Eat a good breakfast that fills you without leaving you stuffed. Oats is the perfect pre-endurance meal because it’s easy to digest, yet gives even, lasting energy. Add some nuts or nut butter and/or a little yoghurt for a bit of protein and fat.

Pro tip: The portaloo lines can be long at event venues. If possible, eat about two hours before go time; leave enough time to digest so you can, um, clear matters up before you leave your accommodation.

Rest stop #1 (32km):

You shouldn’t be too depleted yet. An energy bar or some baked treat will provide the 30 to 60g of easily digested carbs you need to top off your tank.

Pro tip: Even if you don’t really need anything at this point, it’s wise to stop and at least top up your bottles. You never know what’s coming up. Flat tyres or harder-than-anticipated sections can mean you have to ride longer than planned to the next aid station.

Rest stop #2 (75km):

By now your muscle glycogen stores are getting depleted. A rest stop savoury treat like some boiled potatoes is a good early lunch. In the DC, this is the Food Lover’s Market oasis atop Op de Tradouw pass: use it well.

Pro tip: Take your time and grab a bite, but avoid dawdling. The longer you sit around, the harder it is to get rolling again.

Rest stop #3 (115km):

When riders hit the wall, it’s often in no-man’s land; the hill through Ashton up to the big feed station witnesses major sense-of-humour loss. You’re not close enough to being done to roll to the finish, but you’re too far in to be fresh.

A little caffeine can help perk you up. Now’s a good time for a mini Coke or a chocolate treat to get back on track, followed by a proper lunch: in endurance, real food fuels the finish.

Pro tip: You might also be kinda sick of sweets by now. Salty peanut butter crackers, trail mix, Pringles or pretzels can replenish some of the salt you’re sweating out, and help avoid palate fatigue.

Rest stop #4 (145km):

Your sweat losses can really catch up to you here. Stop at the Red Bridge water point and refill your bottles, and top up with an energy bar or other sugary snack.

Pro tip: You’re entering the business end of your adventure: 5 or 6 hours in, your body will be revolting. Keep eating. There are a few challenges at the end of this ride – at the end of every ride – and what you eat here will be your fuel for them.

Rest stop #5 (160km):

This is the second of the team stops on the DC, and the focus should be on hydration and easy, digestible food.

Pro tip: It’s tempting, but do not ride past the final aid station. In any race. The closer it is to the end, the more important it is to stop. Event organisers often put those final aid stations in because there are some challenging roads ahead that may take riders longer than they expect.

Last Chance Saloon (176km)

By now, you will be properly hot and bothered, and with 30km to the finish, it’s imperative you fill your bottles here so you don’t get stranded in the last hour, and undo all your hard work. A Coke will give you some vooma, too, for any surprises the organisers have in the finale (which they always do!).

Pro tip: Now’s the time to slam a caffeinated gel, presuming you’ve trained with them and your tummy is ready to mix tiredness with some rocket fuel.

Bonus pro tip: Don’t be tempted to use ice on your body if it is hot – keep it for your bottles. All you will do is rush the overheating blood near your skin to your core, making things worse! Cool water, yes, Ice no.

The finish:

Woohoo! Celebrate with a high-carb, moderate-protein meal within 30 minutes of stopping, to restock your glycogen stores while your muscles are at their hungriest.

Pro tip: Focus on a 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio for maximum glycogen stocking. Good examples: chicken sandwich, grilled chicken pasta salad, or a hummus and grilled veggie wrap. Of course a good braai is the best way to celebrate such adventures, but get some carbs in as well as that hard-earned chop and wors.

This feature first appeared in the November/December issue of Bicycling – South Africa’s biggest cycling magazine.