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Tour de France: a mountain of calories

Suzy Mckeever Suzy Mckeever | 14:11 UK time, Friday, 29 June 2012

It’s the Tour! On Saturday the world will watch as teams of wiry men start three weeks of cycling at ridiculous speeds over ridiculous numbers of kilometres, up ridiculously high mountains. One thought springs to mind here at BBC Food – what do they eat?

Team Sky cyclists snacking during training

Team Sky cyclists snacking during training. Image: Team Sky

Tour cyclists need at least 6000 calories a day, three times as much as a normal person, and getting that much food is difficult. Either they don’t feel like eating after such massive exertions, or they get bored of eating so much (remember Eddie Izzard struggling to eat massive quantities of potatoes during his multi-marathon epic run).

Søren Kristiansen is chef for Team Sky throughout the Tour, and he’s determined to make sure the riders “are still smiling when they are having healthy food.” He’s influenced by classic Nordic food, “I like to work with vegetables that are not hard for the body to digest, but... that are working slow in the body and a lot of raw food.” Beetroots are a favourite, and crop up in fresh beetroot, carrot and cucumber juice. Pumpkin risotto, barley and quinoa also feature frequently. He makes “old-fashioned foods made in a new way.”


Dishes made by Soren Kristiansen for Team Sky

Søren Kristiansen's dishes for the Team Sky Tour de France riders

Søren works closely with Team Sky’s nutritionist, Nigel Mitchell, his ‘chief’. The team’s food is planned not only nutritionally, but to match each Tour stage. “On the hard mountain days we don’t make porridge [for breakfast] because it’s too heavy on the stomach. We have some flat stages in the first week. I have more chance of giving [the riders] red meat. In the second and third week we go into the mountains.” Then he’ll cook more chicken and turkey as it’s easier to digest.  There is always a lot of fish on the menu. He does concede though that “once in a while they will have some, how shall I say - unhealthy dessert – with some heavy chocolate.”


This theme of familiarity, comfort and keeping athletes happy, as well as fuelled, is core to Sports Nutritionist Renee McGregor’s work at the University of Bath. She works with athletes across many sports including the UK Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team. Providing support and care for the athletes is critical when the team is aged between 16 and 18, many away from home for the first time, surrounded by the rigours of training. Food’s emotional hook has to be managed as much as the necessary nutritional content.


velodrome cake

Homely, if not quite healthy - the velodrome cake!

When Renee says “the athletes want food” it takes me a second to work out that she means food, as opposed to supplements. “You get different types of athletes - some of them are very much about supplemental types of food. Because I'm a dietician at heart I will always try to use food before supplements. Most of my athletes would rather have food – they want to eat - they want to enjoy food.” When you’re eating pasta for breakfast it can easily become just another part of your training kit.

To keep things interesting she adapts recipes to increase both flavour and nutrition. Her ‘sweet potato brownie’, made for runners, is a perfect case in point. From a basic recipe Renee “reduced the amount of sugar, increased dried fruit and used walnut oil instead of butter.”

The brownies have slow release carbohydrate from the cocoa, fast release carbohydrate from the fruit, essential fatty acids from the walnuts and walnut oil (good for recovery), and cranberries “to give it that tart/sweet thing”, vitamin C and more fast release energy.  These are perfect before a race to fuel up, or with a glass of milk after the race, for recovery. Translating scientific knowledge into tasty dishes is a real skill, and vital to keeping the athletes engaged and happy.

Milk, in fact, turns out to be the best recovery drink going. In skimmed milk “you’ve got the right proportions of carbohydrate to protein for recovery, 3:1 … hydration, there’s lots of water in skimmed milk, and electrolytes, replacing some of the salts you've lost. It’s the perfect recovery drink,” says Renee.

Back in the Tour de France, riders preload on carbs for breakfast: pasta, rice, omelettes, cereals and toast to top up their glycogen levels for the day ahead. Glycogen is a type of energy that’s easily accessible to the body and used up in exercise - it runs out after about 90 minutes of hard exercise. To keep glycogen levels up on the move, riders need sports drinks and carbohydrate-laden gels to keep going. Supplements have their place. If glycogen is not topped up the athletes will be exhausted. In running, it’s known as ‘hitting the wall’, in cycling it’s politely termed ‘bonking’.  ‘Bonking’ can be seriously dangerous: if you’re lucky you’ll just lose your place in the pack (the peloton). More likely is that you crash: into other riders or barriers, or you career off a mountain.

Once the day’s stage is done, recovery within 15 – 30 minutes of finishing is vital (we’re back to the milk), followed a few hours later by proteins and more carbs. As the tour ploughs mercilessly on, the riders will get visibly depleted, as they struggle to replenish the calories and nutrients lost and repair the muscle damage inflicted by each stage.

Their food needs to be restorative, both psychologically and physically.  Søren and Renee instinctively know that their role is to restore and build the athletes, using food and its emotional resonance and power; wrapping up the nutrients with care and attention and actively supporting the athletes, so they can thrill the world.


Chef Søren Kristiansen posts pictures daily of the Team Sky's meals on twitter.

Renee McGregor's sweet potato brownie recipe

Velodrome cake recipe

Tour de France official website



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