Real Food For Hungry Cyclists – Cycling Weekly

Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to have my first article published in Cycling Weekly. Writing for their health and fitness pages about energy products and their alternatives, you cant read the article on their website so here are the words in case you missed it.

Peruse any respectable French patisserie, and lined up next to the pretty tartlet’s, lurid macrons and coulees-drizzled petits-four, you will find a rather disheveled looking cake called a Paris Brest. Consisting of choux pastry filled with a praline-flavored butter-cream topped with toasted almonds and a light dusting of icing sugar. it seems somewhat of an ugly sister amongst the other pretty offerings but do not be put off.

This humble pastry has been the choice of competitive cyclists for over a century and is named after the world’s oldest bike race The Paris – Brest, a grueling event, first held in 1891 that require its riders to complete a 1200 km (750 miles) ride from Paris to Brest, and back, within 90 hours!

With the original riders not wanting to stop the long periods of time and made to carry their own supplies, one crafty baker ‘enroute’ saw a gap in the market. He created a calorie-laden confection called the ‘Paris-Brest’. This tire-shaped choux pastry was piped full with a huge amount of calorific praline cream, perhaps mimicking the newly invented inner tubes of the day and topped traditionally baked almonds and icing sugar, perhaps imitating the tread of the tyre and dust from the road, as well as providing protein, and a no doubt well needed boost of power.

These energy-packed treats soon became a favorite amongst the brave riders on the Paris- Brest, which continues to this day, establishing The Paris Brest as the oldest purpose-made cycling energy food in the world. Which leads me to ask the question. Why today, if over a 100 hundred years ago cyclist had the wisdom and good taste to eat delicious freshly made pastries and still compete in competitive endurance events, do we resort to refueling on artificial, over priced and over packaged gunge?

Today, as well as being aware of the importance of an active lifestyle we also seem to be becoming more and more conscious about what we put into our bodies and where its comes from, which to me completely contradicts a boom in synthetic gels, energy bars and sports drinks.

Now I don’t want to sound like to much of neo-luddite, I’m not suggesting that we all start munching French tarts before our next ‘randonnee’, and as Mr Hicks has stated, perhaps there is a need for these products among those who compete at the very highest level of our sport, but surely for the majority of us, those of us who enjoy the quieter side of cycling is resorting to the branded, expensive products really necessary, when in our fridges, fruit bowls and kitchen cupboards are the perfect ingredients to make sure we not only perform appropriately in the saddle but eat appropriately in it as well?

I am not a competitive cyclist. I don’t race and I don’t consider myself an athlete. But as a long distance cycle tourist fascinated by food I completely understand that eating is an intrinsic part of cycling. If you get your food intake wrong, it doesn’t matter how fit you are, you are going nowhere and are well on your way to experiencing the dreaded bonk. Cycling, especially racing or touring is demanding. Your bike is powered by the food and drink you consume which provides fuel for your muscles, repairs tissue and muscle damage and replaces lost electrolytes and other nutrients. And this is where the bright-colored power products that beam to us from the pages of magazines and the counters of sports, seem come to our rescue because they will…

Increase carbohydrate absorption!
Provide amino acids for added focus, rippin’ energy and speedy recovery!
Combat tissue breakdown
Provide rapid improvement in recovery from hard exercise.

And all we have to do is hand over the hard earned cash, peel of the wrapper, squeeze some gel in the gullet, mix up some fluorescent magic potion and we are ready to go faster and fitter than ever before. Nothing could be more convenient… and this is where the problem lies.

In the last 50 years the way we eat as nation has changed dramatically. Time is of the essence and our growing convenience-culture is shown by the fact 80% of the UK population owns a microwave, coupled with the fact in the UK we buy more ready-made meals than any other major European country. We are all busy, but lets get things into perspective. A wise old cyclist once told me that exercise does not take time, exercise creates time, and I believe the same to be true for the preparation and consumption of the food we eat.

After all, as cyclist our bodies are our engines, our food and drink our fuel, so surely we should have a better understanding of what we are putting in the tank and how it is prepared. This could not be more important than what we consume before during and after a ride. The commercial creations certainly provide a quick convenient solution to the problems, but if like me, you are a little concerned with the synthetic nature of these convenient solutions, and the fact they taste dreadful what are we to do?

Riding my bicycle all over the world has made me more aware of our growing obsession with these products. I’m not going to lie and say I have never chugged down a bottle of Powerade or eaten an energy bar, but when cycling in far-off lands the luxuries of a clean glass of water can be hard to come by, let alone a silver wrapped pouch of gel. This has led to me understand that relying on simple, local ingredients works for the hard working locals and it has worked for me.

Sugarcane plantation workers in northern Brazil, who cycle some 30 miles to and from working for 10 hours in back breaking conditions, will re-hydrate on fresh coconut water a natural isotonic packed with electrolytes.
I’m not suggesting we all carry coconuts when we ride, but what I hope to illustrate is that we don’t need to go straight for the branded products for our pre, during and post-ride refuels. Instead we can and should look much closer to home.

Late last year I was lucky enough to take my bicycle for a six-week tour of Egypt and Israel. Crossing the Sinai desert is tough riding. The sun is hot, shade is minimal and the Biblical landscape of arid mountains and parched valleys are unforgiving. Traveling 120km a day in this hostile environment I took my survival tips from the local Bedouin. Desert nomads who have roamed the Sinai for millennia and who are completely at home in the desert. While staying in their tented desert camps after drinking cups of sweet herbal tea I was invariable sent away in the morning with a small bag of dates. Energy-packed pockets of sweet energy that grow in abundant bunches on the palms that fill the Wadis (oasis) that collect what little rainfall there is in this parched corner of the world. And I soon discovered dates are one of Mother Nature’s very own energy foods.

As well as being high in dietary fiber, an important factor not found in most branded products, dates are also loaded with the carbohydrates. A serving of energy-packed dates contains 31 grams of carbohydrates, making
them a powerhouse of energy bulging with naturally occurring sugars such as fructose, glucose and sucrose that make dates a perfect energy boosting snack for any athlete. But these humble desert fruits are not just about power. Satisfying the sweetest of teeth and containing almost zero fat and no cholesterol, bite for bite, dates provide three-times as much potassium as a banana! Potassium is an essential mineral our body needs to maintain healthy muscle contractions, which guarantee dates will keep your legs turning and your heart beating on the most grueling of rides.

Sadly until my trip to The Holy Land any previous contact with this small, desert fruit was limited to the dusty capsule-shaped box, decorated with camels, palm trees and lurid sunsets, that was unearthed from a dark cupboard every Christmas. Neatly packed in shiny rows like the eggs of some giant insect, I never touched the things and was only too happy to see them disappear back into the cupboard with the neglected cracker toys until next year. But while cycling in Israel and Egypt I fell in love with dates and loaded up with kilos of this wonderful fruit which I discovered was the perfect desert cycling food. Whether they were given as gifts, picked up from the desert sand or purchased from the local shouk (market), a bag of dates always hung from my handlebars, allowing my route through the Sinai to be easily tracked, like Hansel and Gretel through the forest, by a reliable trail of stones spat by the road side . Once home I started cooking and experimenting and here is a recipe for some tasty, natural and cheap date energy bars. If you don’t have a box of dates lurking in a cupboard at home they can be picked up in most supermarkets, health stores and almost any Middle Eastern market.

Date and Nut Energy Bars
(makes 8 bars)

• 0.5 cup of chopped dates (stones removed)
• 0.5 cup of walnuts
• 0.5 cup of plain almonds
• 1.5 tablespoons of golden syrup or natural honey
• 0.5 cup of desiccated coconut unsweetened
• 0.5 cup of raisins
• 0.5 cup of dried cranberries (can be replaced with sultanas to keep the cost down)
• The zest of half a lemon
• A little extra coconut for dusting on top the energy bars if you feel creative.

1. Pour the almonds and walnuts into food processor and grind into a rough powder.
2. Add all the other ingredients and process into a sticky dough like consistency.
3. Press the dough into a rectangular shallow baking dish and sprinkle the top any remaining coconut.
4. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours before cutting into bars.
5. Wrap in grease proof paper, slip into your pocket and hit the road.

But why stop with dates? In the next few weeks I am going to be looking at what we can be making in our own kitchens. I will be dusting off my blender, digging at the back of the kitchen cupboard, cleaning out my fridge and popping to the shops to bring you the very best in alternative energy foods and drinks for all your cycling needs. From delicious home-brewed recovery drinks to easily packed fruit-leathers, via tasty date bars, easy homemade goo and power packed flap jacks, I’ll be bagging up my very own energy products and taking them on the road. So if you like me are as passionate about what you put in your body and what it tastes like enjoy the ride.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 18th, 2009 at 11:06 and is filed under Cycle Touring, Cycling Recipes, Recipe Of The Week, World Cycling. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed or trackback from your own site. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Hear, Hear!
    Excellent article. I have long contended the closer to the source (less additives) the better. My system will not tolerate things like HFC(High Fructose Corn Syrup) and quite a few supposedly benign preservatives.
    When touring I ate massive amounts of fresh fruits purchased from roadside stands along the way. I have eaten a few dates in my day, but obviously they need a second look.
    The recipe has been duly printed and is on the cabinet door for the next time I do a baking.

  2. well done on getting in Cyclists Weekly!

  3. thanks al – hows you? thanks for the photo friday and hope it was well received. off a week on thursday so the nerves are setting in…

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