We find Rob Child on the MTN-Qhubeka team bus deeply ensconced in his cooking for the day. He has two electric hob rings and a tiny sink, all squeezed into less than half a metre, with which to prepare food for his riders.
He made the mistake of having a wander round the Astana catering wagon earlier in the week. “A beautiful bit of kit,” he says wistfully. “All stainless steel, a huge refrigerator in the back, microwave, six-burner hob with cast iron inserts. I would quite happily strip the inside of that van out and stick it in my house.”
So far on this Vuelta trip, all of the chefs we have visited have been working for WorldTour teams and all have been providing evening meals in place of the hotel buffet.
Grand Tour virgins MTN-Qhubeka, as we found in our feature on the team in issue 45, do things differently for a variety of reasons – sometimes financial (they are a Pro Conti team with an appreciably smaller budget than most) but often because they are not bound by the traditions that inform much of how longstanding European teams conduct their business. The African team has a refreshing, questioning approach to everything.
First off, Rob isn’t even a chef. He can clearly cook, no problem, but his speciality lies elsewhere.
“I’m often referred to as a nutritionist but I’m actually a doctor of exercise physiology and biochemistry,” he says. “My approach to nutrition is unique and based on targeting specific chemical pathways and then identifying foods and nutrients that are capable of delivering the desired metabolic effects – very different to the approach of real chefs, who focus on palatability and presentation, but not biochemistry or physiological effects. For me, the difficult part is incorporating the required nutrients into a package that is palatable and convenient enough that it can be delivered under race conditions.”
Not a chef, but a very decent cook
For Rob, delivering under race conditions means using his two electric hobs to the best of his ability to knock up a variety of food that works from his biochemistry perspective, as well as being tasty.
“I really wanted to provide as much variety as possible for a hard stage like yesterday. In essence, the more they ate on the bus, the quicker their recovery. So there was fresh fruit salad, homemade rice pudding, pasta with pesto and pine nuts, rice, couscous and vegetables, chili chicken and garlic, and tuna with pickles.”
That sounds fantastic under any circumstances, let alone cooked up in the corner of the team bus. Rob’s reasoning is that the riders fill up on his food in the bus, and top up with what the hotel provides later. “The logistics of Grand Tours mean that riders on some teams don’t get a full meal for several hours after the race,” he explains, “which is a significant disadvantage in terms of recovery. At the Vuelta, it’s not uncommon for the guys to finish the race around 5pm but not sit down for dinner until 10pm.”
The multinational make-up of the MTN team might have presented Rob with some cultural differences to overcome in the kitchen, but aside from the Eritreans not eating pork, anything goes. “All of the riders are very open to trying new foods, so the Europeans eat couscous and the African riders eat pasta and porridge oats – that makes my job much easier.
“In fact, I’m amazed that the riders like their food so spicy, especially as the traditional thinking in cycling is that food shouldn't be too heavily flavoured. They have pretty much given me a free reign to use as much chili, garlic, ginger and other spices as I need to make the food taste good. I guess I have an unusual bunch of riders, though: adventurous enough to join an African team and certainly adventurous enough to try world cuisine.”
Rob’s culinary approach is the living embodiment of fusion cooking. He is well travelled and makes a point of ordering the regional dish wherever he may be to look for inspiration. And his home nation’s much-maligned cooking makes a good starting point.
Weights and measures: Rob keeps tabs on the riders' weight
“The multi-cultural society that we have in the UK means we are exposed to a lot of other cuisines, compared to Italy or Spain, for example. As a result, I’m not limited to one country’s cooking, and the guys on the team are keen to embrace pretty much anybody’s cooking, so long it’s interesting and good to eat.”
A good case in point is Rob’s breakfast speciality: Jamaican cornmeal porridge. He chose his first race with the team, Tirreno-Adriatico in 2013, to sell this new idea to his new riders. “I described it to them as an experimental breakfast… I explained that there was some interesting science behind it and that it was the choice of Jamaican sugar cane cutters, who worked on the land 12 hours a day – which physiologically isn’t so different to stage racing.
“I thought it would appeal most to the black riders, as its origins lie in the Africa dish mieliepap. But in reality, it’s the European guys who look forward to it the most.”
Rob feels he has an advantage over the bigger teams in being able to integrate nutrition and sports medicine, and make fast decisions based on his findings, rather than having to pass through a chain of command.
“I’m cooking breakfast one minute and then straight up to the room to check the guys on the scales, and they all bring their urine samples with them, so I can check their hydration in the morning. Based on that, I will make or recommend hydration drinks for them for before the start of the race. And depending on what their results look like as a group, I will also manipulate the food as well, to provide more electrolytes.”
He starts telling us about another of his hit meals with the riders on hot days like today: Austrian salad – potatoes, white wine vinegar, cream cheese, celery and crushed walnuts. We are famished. This is not helping. It is time to go home.
Extract from issue 50