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Fuel for Cyclists

By Sheila Ascroft

fuel for cyclists, energy barsWhat to eat (and drink) on a long bike ride depends on your stomach. And, like fingerprints, no two stomachs are the same. The choice depends as much on what your digestive tract can handle as the cost, convenience, effectiveness, or taste. Some people I know do fine on Fig Newtons while others swear by their favourite energy drink and eat nothing.

If you are just going for a short pleasure ride (anything less than 90 minutes) and are not putting out much effort, then plain cold water is all you need. However, if the ride goes longer, you will need something more.


Without getting scientific,although if you’re bent that way and want to know the exact amount to eat during high intensity or endurance rides, it’s 200 to 300 calories (30 to 60 gm of carbs per hour), there are a few basic things to know.

After 90 minutes
After 90 minutes to two hours, your muscle glycogen stores are just about used up and that is not a good thing. Essentially your body is running on “empty.” You are facing the dreaded “bonk” or hypoglycemia. You’ll start to feel shaky, suddenly very tired, and mentally fuzzy. You do not want to hit this wall! To avoid this, snack every 30-60 minutes throughout your long rides. Try something like a banana or an energy gel. However, don’t overeat or you may cycle poorly from bloating and nausea.

Most experienced cyclists these days use a combination of energy gels or chews or bars with “real” food.

My favourites are Hammer Gel’s Espresso with 50 mg of caffeine, or GU’s Espresso Love and Clif Shot’s Razz. Gels are a syrup or jam-like paste that comes in a squeeze foil packet with a tear-off end to allow the contents to be sucked out. This offers a great alternative to the hard-to-unwrap, difficult to chew, and relatively tasteless energy bars. (Although I admit that Clif bars do taste quite good, kind of like a cookie and satisfy that need to chew something; Power Bars are dry.)

These gels come from many companies in a variety of flavours, but they have about the same combination of 17-25 grams of simple and complex carbohydrates and about 70-100 calories each. Being a semi-liquid, the gels empty more quickly from the stomach and give a more rapid energy boost than the solid energy bars. However, they are pricey little things, often $1 or more per packet.

My routine is to have a second gel after the second hour or maybe something chewy. I like Clif Shot’s Bloks, Jelly Belly’s Sport Beans and GU’s Chomps. All have pretty much the same ingredients as the gels but are flavourful “gummies” and pleasant to chew on. They can also break up the monotony on a long stretch of road!

After two to four hours
I also try to drink a bottle of water every hour. I always carry two large water bottles on my bike. I know some prefer the CamelBak® water carriers, but I don’t like weight of it on my back. If I know the ride will be hot and humid, I freeze the water in my bottles overnight so they’ll stay cooler longer. There other option is to use “Polar” bottles that are insulated. Both work about the same length of time though and the Polar bottles hold less water. I also plan my route so there will be a convenience store about 50 km out so that I can buy more cold water. It’s surprising how much difference there is in the taste of bottled waters. Find one you like and stick to it.


After about three hours, I’m ready for some “normal” food. I’ve tried Fig Newtons and even a baked potato, but found I prefer a sandwich (bagel or homemade bread) with a strong cheese, cut into four pieces. I’ll snack on it as needed. If you use a baggie to store your snack (sandwich, cookies, fig bars), don’t seal it. Just fold it over when you put it in your jersey pocket. Then you can pull food out with one hand rather than use your teeth to rip open the bag to get at the food.

You don’t have to buy fancy products – you can go with the old standby of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It will probably be messy, as inevitably it will be squished in your jersey pocket. (Same goes for peaches!)

By hour four, I’m bored by the taste of water. If it is hot and humid out, I’ll alternate between water and Gatorade or any of the other “ades” (i.e. sports drinks) available until the end of the ride. Again, some people swear by E-Load, Cytomax, or one of the other scientifically designed drinks, while the rest of us just down whatever fluid is cold and tasty. The one thing to be aware of is sugar content. It’s best if it is not over 6% or your stomach may complain.

100 km ride
If I’m doing 100 km ride and almost finished, I’ll pick up a pint of 1% or 2% chocolate milk. It is simply heavenly (both for replenishment and taste). Sometimes the energy drinks or juices feel too acidic in the stomach and the milk coating is just the thing. If I still have 40 or 60 km to go, and my cheese sandwich is gone, I’ll still drink the milk, and then go back to using gels. By hour five or six or seven, I don’t feel like eating much, but I try to take in a gel an hour. It’s important to top up your fluids too.

When the ride is over, I start replenishing immediately; usually with a sports drink or a meal-replacement drink like Ensure (Boost is too sweet). This is the magic 30-minute “glycogen window” when your body is most receptive to and efficient at replacing glycogen stores and speeding recovery. Follow this up with a healthy meal (four-to-one of carbo and protein) as soon as you can.

Where to stuff it
Besides your back pockets, seat bag (and/or saddlebags for heavy touring), you can add a nylon Bento box (Japanese word for lunch box) to your top tube just behind the stem. This little container has mesh top, Velcro fastenings, and can hold several gels or a sandwich and your cell phone.

Laurel-Lea Shannon says…

I’ve had to experiment a lot with food for cycling. I have a tendency toward hypoglycemia, plus I’m quite particular about what I eat and drink. For a few years, I added a fairly expensive energy powder to my water. Last year I experimented with my own concoction of water, green tea (small amount), a tiny bit of orange juice for flavour, one teaspoon of honey and a pinch of salt. It’s working well. For me, it works better to have this energy drink from the start of my ride, not just water. When my energy drink runs out I buy a bottle of water and a bottle of iced green tea, and mix the two in each of my bottles—that cuts down the sugar content in the iced tea. Obviously, I love tea!

I also take dried apricots on my rides. I’ve never used gels—honestly, the thought of them makes me gag. Near the end of longer rides (the last hour), I often don’t feel hungry but I know I should eat something, so I eat the apricots. It’s not good to eat too much dried fruit on a ride but a little is fine.

If I’m out for a four or five hour ride, I’ll stop at some point and eat a whole wheat bagel with almond butter and honey or, a bagel with a small amount of cream cheese. I find dairy products phlegm producing so I use them sparingly.

I don’t use commercial energy bars anymore. I don’t like the taste of most of them and if you do a lot of riding, it gets expensive. I prefer unprocessed “real” food. Last year I started experimenting with my own recipe for an energy bar and I now have a good-tasting nutritious bar that I use when exercising. On longer rides, I’ll eat a few of these to keep me going.

As you can see, every cyclist’s stomach is different and wants what it wants. It’s now up to you to figure out what fuel works best for you.

Here’s the energy bar recipe:


Womenscycling.ca Energy Bar

This bar contains oats, raisins, peanuts and almonds, honey, oil and salt. I estimate each square is between 180-220 cal.

Mix the following in a large bowl:

2 cups organic quick oats
1 cup unsalted peanuts: chopped fine in a food processor
¾ cup almonds: chopped fine in a food processor
1 cup raisins
1 tsp sea salt

Mix the following in a small bowl:

1/3 cup honey: diluted with organic apple juice to ½ cup total
3 tbsp olive oil
2 ½ tbsp maple syrup (optional)
1 ½ tsp vanilla

Mix these ingredients and then add to the dry ingredients and mix well. Preheat oven to 350°.  Oil 8×8 square baking dish then press mixture into dish firmly with a potato masher. Bake for 25 minutes. Allow to cool completely. Cut into squares before too hard.

Note: If the squares crumble it means either: they were too warm when you cut them, the peanuts and almonds weren’t chopped fine enough, or the mixture was not pressed firmly enough into the baking dish.

Sheila AscroftI’ve been cycling for 20-some years and writing about it for the last 10. My articles have been published in newspapers and magazines — and now on the women’s cycling website! I’m a member of the Ottawa Bicycle Club and the Canadian Kilometer Achiever Program. www.sheilaascroft.com

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