The quest for good goo: Clif savoury gels – Margherita pizza in a tube

Yum. Tube pizzaI have been struggling with in-saddle nutrition of late. Whatever other goals you may have for weight maintenance, loss or gain, “eating while biking” after you get past a certain time or distance is all about avoiding that sudden onset of fatigue or exhaustion known as “bonking.” Not that kind of bonking.

I’ve done it to myself several times. It’s weird. The one time I did it while Strava-ing, my numbers showed a 3 km/h drop in average speed and 10bpm drop in heart rate. At the time, I felt miserable and incapacitated. And try as I might, there was nothing I could to do pick up my speed. The ride home was dreary and desperate.

The math goes something like this: you have around 1500 calories of glycogen available to you on most occasions – metabolized food that your body can use to make your muscles move etc etc. Depending on how hard you’re riding – how many watts of power you’re putting out – you can go through that in a couple of hours on the bike.

If you never ride that long, stop reading. Nothing else I say will serve any purpose and if you follow my advice you’ll probably just eat a bunch of really mediocre-tasting mostly over-sweet food.

So how do sportif and long distance cyclists riders not constantly bonk? Well, they train so that they can make better use of their glycogen stores. And they eat in saddle.

But what?

Bananas. And bars. And gels. It has to be compact. It has to be durable. You have to be able to eat it one-handed. And it has to leave no trace or come with you when you’re done with it. And it can’t be too much like taking medicine.

Bananas are almost perfect. Easily consumed and digested they provide a natural simple carbohydrate boost – around 90 to 100 calories. And the peel goes back to the earth. In time. You know you’re on a popular bike route when you can follow it by looking for the next blackened, rotting banana peel. But if you ever ride long in heat, you may experience a catastrophic in-pocket peel failure. And they’re not all that compact.

Bars and gels have been scientifically engineered to be nutritionally perfect, quantitatively optimal, and dispensorially efficient. And they taste just awful enough to assure you that you’re not just eating dessert while moving.

I’d settled on Clif bars because they purport to have more natural ingredients and, while being the proper 1:4 mix of protein to carbohydrate, their sweetness is usually somewhat muted. This is a personal preference. But you have to chase them down with a lot of water, to help your body metabolize them with greater speed, yes, but also to get them down your throat. So eating becomes a bit of a moving picnic without a cloth or a table for that matter, involving more distraction and slow down than I’d like.

So gels. I started using them first thing in the morning before riding, in all honesty, because I wanted a bit of caffeine to help me feel a bit more alert while getting through traffic and out to where I like to ride. And I didn’t want the noise of making actual coffee to wake my sleeping family. I pick the coffee flavoured ones. I tried a GU Blackberry flavoured one with added caffeine once and it tasted like cough syrup.

But even the coffee flavoured ones are – by design – mostly sugar, aka simple carbohydrate. Candy. I have been avoiding candy for years. Again, a personal preference. And caffeine? The feeling of alertness isn’t actually a substitute for alertness. I’m not sure the 40 or 50mg in your average gel is worth thinking about.

So I was quite pleased when I saw a place that sold the much-talked about Clif savoury gels that also delivered to Canada. I ordered myself some tube pizza. I also ordered some Clif shots with double caffeine. I’m going to try those too. I’ll let you know if I feel that jolt.

But back to tube pizza.

These things were greeted with some scepticism. Bike Radar listed them as one of the real products they wished were April fool’s jokes. Possibly without tasting it.

This review points out that one of the main value claims Clif makes with these is that they have a ton of sodium in them. Which technically you need to replenish when you’re sweating buckets out there on the road or trail.

The review warns not to feed them to children or use them as a substitute for real pizza. Like that needed saying.

I took one out on a three hour ride last weekend. They don’t actually taste all that bad. It reminds me of the leftover mush of tomato sauce and parmesan cheese on my tomato sauce-hating daughter’s plate of pasta when she’s done. It felt more sustaining and satiating than that little sugars squirt I’ve become used to. This could of course be perception bias.

Comparative goo

My quibbles are with the logistics.

Clif uses the same containers a lot of baby food makers have started using. They’ve got a pretty heavy duty screw-off top designed with a seal to show careful parents of infants that their child’s food has not been tampered with. I tried to open it while riding, but gave up and pulled over.

This review has Clif suggesting breaking the seal pre-ride and either replacing the lid with a camelbak bite valve or just leaving it lightly closed. I may try the former approach. I don’t have anything with a bite valve. Or I may just see if I can’t refine my technique.

The package is substantially bigger than your average gel. Even empty it will take up more space in your pocket. Because you’re not going to chuck it by the side of the road, right? A tube of pizza has 160 calories, compared to the 90 or 100 that a gel will typically contain.

This is a smidge more than the carefully calculated calorie count in your average gel. Endurance trainer Joe Friel says you can metabolize about 100 calories an hour while you’re riding. So there’s not much point in packing away more than that at once. Despite what the length of this review might suggest to you I don’t obsess over nutrition so I’m not bothered by the difference.

The main thing for me is not wanting to dread my mid-ride nutrition. And the variety is welcome to me.

Nutrition information: Hammer Gel Espresso Love vs Clif Gel Margherita Pizza

Nutrients per 100gPacket sizeCarbohydratesFatProteinSodiumCalories
Hammer Gel90.0023.330.000.0044.44100.00
Clif pizza gel120.0014.177.504.17500.00133.33

So as you might expect, the pizza in a tube is a more well-rounded bit of nutrition. But that is a lot of sodium – 25 per cent of the recommended daily intake. And there are fewer carbs per 100g than with the Hammer Gel.