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Pasta al denture: passed down dietary wisdom in cycling’s lower leagues

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From spaghetti in a flask to an absolute ban on melted cheese, James Stout recalls the bizarre traditions and ill-founded nutritional knowledge handed down through generations and imposed on aspiring racers

Photographs: Grace Russell
Racing food, Grace Russell

It’s no secret to anyone with even a passing interest in cycle sport that the diets of elite bike racers are remarkable. If your interest goes beyond a fleeting one, you might have heard tell of massive pasta breakfasts or seen the annual “what goes in a musette” bumper feature that seems to be re-run every July – Wow! A mini can of Coke. 

 

If you’re really keen, you might have even seen Eddy Merckx tuck into a high-protein breakfast in A Sunday in Hell. As long as bike racers have done extraordinary things with their bodies, they have put extraordinary things into those bodies.

 

This began with Anquetil’s bottle of champagne and stewed rabbit but, sadly, we have moved on. In recent years, the focus has switched to what cyclists don’t eat, rather than what they do. Every time I see Chris Froome riding away from the peloton, I can’t help but think that he could do with a couple of hearty Sunday dinners and a slice of cheesecake.

 

Read: I am a machine, an escaped robot – Anquetil Alone

 

In my mid-20s, I said no to cheesecake too. To be more accurate, a Frenchman with a tracksuit, a belly, and a fine crop of facial hair said no to cheesecake on my behalf.

 

Despite being the same age as many of the riders winning Grand Tours today, I came up through the rather less rational and much less glamorous pipeline of European amateur and continental cycling. This was the world of pasta breakfasts, obligatory embrocation and a total prohibition on melted cheese.

Racing food, Grace Russell

In this world, science played a rather subdued second fiddle to tradition. If you used the former to question the latter, it merely demonstrated evidence of your lack of understanding of the unique form of rationality that only made sense at 40kph in tight shorts.

 

Here is the dietary holy trinity: “If it was good enough for Eddy Merckx, it’s good enough for you”; “Nobody is paying you to ask questions”; “If in doubt, pasta”. The basis of a strange dietary faith revolved aroundthese three commandments. From this basis, a whole liturgy of bizarre prohibitions and customs has grown.

 

Steak, despite appearing prominently in movies you’ve seen about Merckx, plays a vanishingly small role in the diet of the impoverished (and, in my case, low ability) European bike racer. Mostly, one eats beige things.

 

Read: I hate mashed potatoes – Q&A with Ryan Mullen

 

Often, these beige things began life as vegetables, sometimes as fish or fowl, and most regularly as some kind of grain that gave its life so that a team-mate’s grandmother might overcook it without any seasoning and serve it to you lukewarm.

 

There were rules to be followed in this monochrome world, and transgressing them would mean not only a reprimand, but also 15 kilos of instant weight gain and – far worse – “bad sensations”.

 

Young, naïve and desperately wanting to ensure that I did everything I could to preserve my sensations, I knuckled down as generations before me had done and ate lots and lots of beige food.

 

The rules of this regime were many and varied, but a few stand out as remarkably illogical: the insides of a baguette were never, under any circumstances, to be consumed.

 

Those contained the dreaded “bad carbs” which would instantly turn one’s physique doughy. The crust, however, was okay. Many a delicious loaf has been scooped out over the years by young cyclists wishing to maximise the marginal gains that can be found in the boulangerie.

 

Read: Charly Wegelius’ Tour blog – too much bread

 

Secondly, under no circumstances was one to eat melted cheese. It was an established fact that, once melted, cheese contained three times the fat.

 

The same cheese in a solid state was kosher, but woe betide the ill-educated espoir who let his brie dwell too long under the grill. In addition, we made sure that we got our protein from fast animals: horse was great and chicken was fine, but if you ate beef, you only had yourself to blame when you slipped out the back of the bunch at a bovine pace.

 

Pasta was the mortar that held together our diets. Conveniently, it also resembled mortar in its taste and texture. Pasta was served in the traditional French manner, which we came to refer to as “al denture”. I think the idea here is that, should a senior member of French society mislay his or her false teeth, they would be at no disadvantage when it came to slurping the watery paste which pasta reverts to when soaked overnight before cooking.

 

We ate this slop in economically-priced hotels all over Europe, always with the same sauce and some cheese in a shaker can. In a farmhouse in Gent, we ate it for breakfast with brown sugar, and again for dinner with ketchup.

Racing food, Grace Russell

In a layby in France, we pulled over and ate pasta from a thermos flask exactly three hours before the race. Let me tell you, if there is one thing that lets you know you have made it as a bike racer, but perhaps not as a human being, it is sitting in a folding chair by the autoroutewith several other young men in matching tracksuits and mullets, all relishing lukewarm plain pasta and the scent of diesel at 8am.

 

Fat was generally the enemy. We foreswore mayonnaise, butter, chocolate, cooking oil. And our tastebuds. We enjoyed the occasional helping of fat-free yogurt, but only after training. You see, “lactose” sounds a bit like “lactic acid”, so obviously the former will lead to an excess of the latter. That, my friends, is Belgian science. We weren’t paid enough (or at all) to question it, and if you wanted to be allowed to race, you shut up and said no to croissants. Especially the chocolate ones.

 

Read: An Easter in Flanders with legendary team boss Hilaire van der Schueren

 

Sugar, according to that same school of Belgian science, will make you fat (for once, they seem to be not entirely wrong). That is likely why we weren’t permitted to eat it unless it was before, during or after a bike race.

 

During the race, however, one was expected to subsist on pâtes de fruit(a kind of less joyful jelly baby), tiny cakes, and the occasional muesli bar.

 

Should an event be more than 200km, a variety of sandwiches were served in a specific order: ham and cheese for the first 50km, followed by cream cheese and jam, followed by jam alone. If your constitution was strong enough to overcome this onslaught of dairy products and make it to the final 40km, a bottle of “flat coke” (which is pronounced “flatcoke” in Flemish) awaited you.

 

If you could hold this down, and yourself upright, you might be fortunate enough to receive some pasta from a thermos flask in the car park after the race, because frites are not for “serious” bike racers.

 

Your director would illustrate this by driving the full 200km course fuelled exclusively by tobacco and then consuming a plateful of fried potatoes in front of you, dipping each one in a lavish helping of mayonnaise, as was fitting for a man of his position.

 

The full version of this feature, titled Consumer Champion, appeared in Rouleur 17.2