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Tour of Qatar 2014: echelons in the food queue

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Photographs: Chris Juul Jensen

I got quite a shock on the first day in Qatar. I’d been told by those who had done the race before that it was dog-eat-dog. Don’t ask for permission when making it as last man in the echelon, but beg for forgiveness afterwards to the poor bugger you “accidentally” knocked away while fighting elbow to elbow.
I experienced it myself the first day. I had perfect position before the decisive moment, and then suddenly, elbow here, elbow there, and I was long gone from making the front group. I knew this sort of stuff went on during the race. But in the omelette queue?
Man, I was in for a tough week.
I regrouped and eventually got back to the front. There were multiple choices of ingredients – it was like Pimp My Omelette. However, my brain functions are rather restricted in the morning. So when it came to customising mine, my decision-making was slow.
“What would you like in your omelette sir?”
“Yeah, okay, ehmm… I would like eggs please. Doh!”
Anyway, omelette on plate. What’s next? Ah yes, rice, of course. It’s funny, the things I do sometimes when I’m at a race. Do I have rice and eggs every morning at home? Of course not. But now it’s as if my life depended on it. It’s the same when I’m on a plane. Tomato juice whilst cruising 30,000 feet above sea level? No problem. On land though, no way: who would want to drink a cold glass of tomato soup?
No matter what the breakfast situation at any hotel, from Oudenaarde to Oman, the most important aspect of a bike rider’s pre-race meal is coffee. When 150 riders are thrown into one big hall where ALL teams sit and eat together, things can escalate quickly. Ordering coffee resembles a scene from the Stock Market: riders waving their hands, yelling at everyone and everything. Sheer desperation.
“How many coffees would you guys like?”
“Four, may we order four espress….no wait make that five, yeah fi…no, okay, seven espressos. We need ten ESPRESSOS!”
I would leave breakfast having consumed three double espressos. A sextuple espresso, if you like.
But the food doesn’t stop after breakfast, oh no. There’s the feed zone, the ceasefire where all riders briefly become friends again. Nobody attacks, the break gains a couple of minutes. No biggie, let’s have lunch, and then slowly pull them back. Sedate and refined.
Nothing aggravates me more when this isn’t the case. Sometimes people think it’s a good idea to catch the others by surprise whilst they’ve got a food bag hanging out of their mouths.
Wrong. Bad idea. The UCI should introduce a rule banning any rider or team from attacking in the feed zone, on penalty of immediate disqualification.
But whenever there is a mutual accord of love and peace, the feed zone is a joyous couple of minutes, where we get handed musettes by our soigneurs – small bags filled with cakes, energy bars and tiny Coca-Colas. Sometimes I even expect a little note, like I got in my school lunches. Have a great race Chris. You’re the best. That’s how much effort is put into making them.
Sometimes riders exchange their snacks, a good way of breaking the ice with the big stars. “Hey Wiggins. Trade you this piece of brownie for that piece of frangipane?”
Okay, I’ve never done that. But it does happen. And if you’re wondering what frangipane is, it’s the Leffe of Belgian cakes. One of the greatest soigneurs I’ve had, Geert, is a master at finding the best known to the Flemish world.
Then there’s after the race. Forget the first category climb 20km before the finish, the crosswind section that came out of nowhere, or the five hours spent in the rain: the countdown to dinner is practically the hardest part of a rider’s day.
Waiting to eat can break the greatest champion. When I am in my room or lying on the massage table, my eyes will systematically drift to my watch every two minutes or so.
Read 20 pages of my book… what’s the time? Massage on left leg: what’s the time? Get back to my room, try and write this article, but decide to postpone until tomorrow (for the eighth day in a row): what’s the time? You get my drift. It’s a time-trial, a constant fight between man and clock.
The ironic thing is that when I finally do sit down to eat, the meal that I spend three hours fantasising about is typically eaten in under 15 minutes.
In my last blog, I forgot to mention that another joy of being a pro is having a team chef. Ours is Hannah; she could turn soil into Michelin-star winning bolognese if she wanted to. The saying “it tastes like chicken” is brought to a whole new level after tasting her offerings (Mum, your chicken comes in a close second, I promise).
If the food we are sometimes served at dingy French hotels tasted as good as that, the world would be a better place. I don’t want to offend the French, or act like a spoiled pro, but I’m pretty sure all the other riders will back me up when I say that, when confronted with a plate of overcooked French pasta and abused piece of chicken, with beans on the side, the choice of having a meal consisting mainly of parmesan cheese, butter, bread and ketchup is an easy one.
That may sound ridiculous, because we are world-class athletes who need the best nutrition for our world-class bodies. But desperate pasta can lead to desperate measures.
Where else to finish off other than dessert? As I have just mentioned, as finely honed sportsmen, of course we do not even touch anything that resembles dessert…
Look, a little pudding never hurt anyone. You can’t tell me that by eating one tiny slice of cake, I will be the first rider to get dropped tomorrow. Okay, if I eat the whole cake, it’s a different story.
I do admit to having a minor dessert problem though. You see, if it’s a buffet, I tend to make the “mistake” of tasting the cake before placing it on my plate and returning to the table. I convince myself (and the sports director, if present) that I’ve only taken one piece when, in fact, I’ve consumed three. I’ve seen others do it too: I’m not the only one!

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