In-saddle picnics: fuelling for long rides

I am one of these riders that forgets to eat and drink. Sometimes when I am riding with others a fellow rider will say how amazed they are at how little I eat or drink. But I suspect what they’re really saying is “you should refuel more before you completely collapse.”

So the last few weeks have been a good occasion to experiment with Eating More™ with a view to Not Collapsing on Long Rides™.

My old regime (to the extent that I had a regime to follow) went like this:

You wake up with about 2000 calories from the night before floating around in your bloodstream. You mobilize this for the purposes of riding. Breakfast might be between 400 and 900 calories depending on whether you’ve got a vending machine or an all-you-can-eat buffet. And if you’re riding hard, you’re going to be burning between 400 and 600 calories an hour, plus the 80 calories an hour you burn just breathing. So really, you can ride about six hours without running out of food energy. Any energy you give yourself along the way won’t really do anything except obviate the feeling of hunger.

And since you can’t metabolize more than 100 calories per hour while doing all this riding, keep your eating to a minimum. So for me that meant:

  • Nothing on rides under three hours;
  • A gel or a bar every hour starting at three hours
  • Nothing in the last hour

I’ve been working with this strategy for some time now. And I do a fair number of long (160km + rides) and I notice that I run out of steam. Well who doesn’t, you might say. But what if I don’t want to? I ask in reply. What if it’s a race and I want to keep going till the end? Might food be the solution?

The people who coach me have a simple mantra: bars, blocks gels every half hour. The gel wrappers themselves say you should eat one before, then every 45 minutes during the activity. So substantially more food that what I’m used to. What would happen if I tried this? Would I suddenly be vaulting, Van der Poel-like up the ramps and climbs like I was fresh out of bed?

The Experiment

This year I signed up again to ride Hurtin’ in Haliburton, a well-organized, fun relay race where you see how many laps of a 27km gravel loop you can ride in eight hours.

When I rode it last year, I was beset with mechanical problems but I welcomed them as it gave me an excuse to step off the bike and call it a day, short of what I had hoped would be eight laps. I felt completely spent. I had watched my lap times rise and my speed drop so even if I had had access to all my gears, I was nine minutes off the pace to get round the course and have it count.

This year I was about the same fitness level. But with a bit more fatigue. And while my form was above zero both years, I was in better form (and a year younger!) last year.

My performance management numbers on race day.
YearLap 1Lap 2Lap 3Lap 4Lap 5Lap 6Lap 7Total
Lap time comparisons

In 2022 the big time hit came on lap six when my chain fell off and jammed between the cassette and the spokes while I was in the middle of a big-ish hill. I fell over and had to put my bike together again a bit before continuing. Mostly though the same patterns prevail in both years. I go out too hard on the first lap and lose speed over the course of the race.

I didn’t lose as much speed as fast in 2023, though. I was on-pace to do eight laps up to Lap 4 and gained enough time in the early laps to be 1:23 ahead of the pace required to do eight laps by the end of the race. Only on lap 7, my rear derailleur cable snapped a few km before the end, in the middle of a nasty ramp. I stayed upright, but the gearing I was left with was highly unfavourable. I had to walk the last steep hill and I knew another 300m or so of short steep ramps awaited me and I dreaded the idea of riding a tortured lap only to have it not count. And I was feeling quite dead so stepping off the bike was not a difficult decision. I did, however, improve my time by more than ten minutes.

Ten extra minutes from better fuelling and hydration

That 10 minute, 48 second difference between 2022 and 2023 I reckon is down to food and hydration.

In 2022 I counted out six or seven gels, resolving to eat one per lap. But I skipped the first lap and probably the last too. I can’t remember. I don’t recall how much water I went through. But I didn’t use any electrolyte powder in 2022.

By contrast in 2023 I set up my own personal feed station. I dropped a shopping basket by the course, just after the timing gate. I filled it with eight bidons (half with water, half with drink mix) a bag of mini-stroop waffles and a bag of chocolate fudge and some gels. And I put seven gels in my jersey pocket. I can’t eat just gels hour upon hour. I start to feel gassy and… well… after seven hours of hard riding you can’t trust that what comes out your ass is just going to be air. So I picked some solid food that was very high in sugar. And had some of it every lap.

In the end I didn’t eat much of the fudge. It was so sweet it made me feel a little queasy. The stroop nibbles were easier to choke back and were out of mind once they went down.

Out on the course I ate my gel a bit before the halfway point of each lap. There was a sign admonishing people not to use live bait beyond a certain point that I took to be my cue to eat. It was a few klicks before the course’s two main hills and the road was not so rough as to make a brief in-saddle picnic dangerous.

In the later laps also I stopped at one of the aid stations that was offering cute little butter tarts. At the first stop I had one. The second two. The aid station was at the top of a steep, rough ramp so I wasn’t losing much time by stopping and since it was late in the race, there were no waits. In 2022 I didn’t stop at any aid stations.

I went through five bottles over the course of the race. I had set my Garmin to remind me to drink and I actually started paying attention to the reminders. At least half of that liquid was electrolyte mix — good for another 180 calories too. I went with the Skratch labs mix rather than the Nuun tablets I usually use because I thought I could drink more of the Skratch stuff without getting the gastric discomfort that comes from too much Nuun stuff.

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