This article is a fresh take on the subject of nutrition for the high-performance cyclist. This is a topic which (I assume) has been covered many times before on other [more reputable] cycling blogs. Everybody is asking [premise]: what can you consume to maximize and optimize your power output for a century ride or a long day of touring on your Brooks Flyer or B17? When you strip away the science and marketing, you are left with what I can share. I may not be the most reliable resource, but then again, maybe I am. I have ridden a bicycle far and survived, and that qualifies me better than some. Now that I have your confidence, let me boldly continue.
In this article, I will be breaking down everything I know about nutrition sources, relating specifically to what they have done for me. Feel free to comment with your own go-to cycling foods. I will write the top picks on a scrap of paper, and flush it down the toilet. This is about me.
Three Suggestions To Enable Your Ride
Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwiches: The Low-Budget Heavyweight Contender
These are likely the perfect bicycle fuel. There are only three ingredients, which last practically forever in all conditions, and you can assemble them with a spoon. I once rode across the USA. (Ask me about it, I won't shut up.) Before I even reached the Mississippi, I'd blown half of my budget on bars, and the inevitable greasy breakfasts at diners which followed, because I'd been up late at a bar. My recommendation for solo cyclotourists is to skip the bar and drink in the woods. Or skip alcohol altogether (which is my current journey) and constrain yourself to the fact that you will sometimes feel alone in the world, and the bar almost never does you any favors. Counter examples tend to be outliers, and on the balance, I think I'd be a better person if I'd skipped the bar almost every time. By the absolute worst case measurements, I'd be roughly exactly the same.
Somewhat as a matter of necessity, I got intimately familiar with PB&J. I woke up halfway inside my tent, and made the mistake of examining my expenses. The need for a course correction was clear. If I was to dip my wheel in the Pacific Ocean, and still have enough money to fly home, I would need to limit my spending. After some consideration, I decided to challenge myself to spending only $5 per day. I made rules: I could use the food I was already carrying. Indeed, I could still drink booze, but only if it fit in the budget (which it obviously would not.) Thirdly, the budget was cumulative, so if I spent zero dollars one day, the the next I could spend $10. I could save, but I could not borrow from the future.
I went to a grocery store and got cheap bread and jelly. There were not many options that would allow me to succeed with the challenge. I had a jar of peanut butter to get me started on the right foot. I remember running out of peanut butter (which happened a lot) and finding that a $3 jar would put me close to breaking the budget. Later that day, I passed a discount grocery store, and they were blowing out Jif for a dollar. I was proud of myself for waiting - I celebrated with a fifty-cent ice cream.
I adopted a new routine. Each morning, I would wake up on whatever earth I'd found to camp on for free, and I would ride until I found a picnic table or flat surface on which I could sit and lay bread. I would spread out bread on a plastic shopping bag, maybe 8-10 slices, and I would make sandwiches in bulk assembly-line fashion. I stacked the sandwiches in a bread bag, except for one, which I would eat with my instant morning coffee. I never got tired of eating PBJs. They were a perfect gauge of hunger as well as source of power: When I didn't feel like eating one, I probably didn't need it, but when they called my name, I absolutely did. I loved looking forward to a PBJ at the top of long climbs. The variety of jams and different types of bread were enough to keep things interesting - and make me feel like a king.
I arrived at PBJs from the angle of budget restriction, but I have returned to them in times of financial stability. These sandwiches are a nearly perfect source of safe and predictable energy.
Quinoa and Lentils: a Taco-Like Food
I eat quinoa with lentils multiple times per week while traveling. They are easy, and impossible to mess up. As a meal, they have all of the characteristics of an excellent travel food: simple and predictable to digest, and portions are infinitely adjustable. I stumbled upon this food-source, because I was desperate to exit the unending cycle of getting hungry enough to not care how much I spent on the closest prepared food I could find.
When I am not particularly active, this is how I prepare it, and I double the recipe when I want more. (For additional ultralight hobo cred, my measuring device is an empty vienna sausage tin. An official half-cup measuring device also works fine).
1/2 cup of quinoa and red lentils. Roughly half and half, maybe slightly more quinoa. Red lentils cook faster, and by using this method they become mush.
1 cup of water. (Or two parts water for every one part quinoa & lentils.)
Boil and/or simmer it on a camp stove. No need to think - it's done when the water is absorbed.I let it sit for 5-10 minutes, then I smear it on tortillas, and eat. If I think I need more calories, I stir in olive oil. I season the individual servings with salt and hot sauce in order to maintain maximum flavor control. Leftovers can be left in an unsealed cooking pot, and be safely reheated with a shot of olive oil and eaten up to 48 hours later. Don't sue me if you die, but I've done that dozens of times. This food, obviously, is a versatile platform to which other ingredients can be added - steamed vegetables, melted cheese, or eggs to name a few.
Oats: You Don't Need to Cook Them
I choose quick rolled oats because they are easier to work with, and I cannot convince myself that there is a meaningful difference between various varieties of oats. I ingest oats by stirring them into a cup of yogurt. I stir in as many oats as I can fit, and add more oats as I eat. I add oats right up to the point where the resulting paste approaches noticeably dry. If the yogurt is plain, honey makes it better, but I tend to stick with delicious flavors. Milk also works for soaking up oats. I no longer cook oats, because I'm never impressed with the results. This method works better for me.
The downside to yogurt is that it needs to be refrigerated. I eat my oats and yogurt on a bench out in front of a grocery store - preferably with instant coffee while charging my phone.
Additional Notes To Consider
People get overly emotional about coffee. If you can learn to enjoy instant coffee while traveling, you will have a much simpler life. The best solution, of course, is to give up coffee altogether - but switching to instant is great in the meantime. When I drink brewed coffee, I tend to add cream and sugar, but when the coffee is instant, I prefer it simple and black. The point (for me) is to simplify while maintaining a ritual, and I like the ritual of boiling water as I wake up.
I usually use Nescafe, because it is widely available. Trader Joe's brand is my favorite, while living in a van, but the size of the jar is not cyclotourist-friendly. Any Latin American brand tends to be good, so yellow packaging signals a win. I'll be the first to admit that not all instant coffee is equal: I've had some that was frankly undrinkable, while others I truly enjoy. I developed a sensory association between instant coffee and travel, so if it's an acquired taste, I have it. It reminds me of feeling free.
Goo Packets: A Fascinating Trend
Levi Leipheimer's brother once gave me a huckleberry-flavored Goo packet as a gesture of goodwill. I'd never tried one before. I waited until I was good and bonked-out to try it, and I can't report that it helped very much. PBJ continued as my go-to solution.
Spaghetti: A Convenient Alternative to Eating a Horse
Pasta might be the ultimate solution when you are hungry as hell, and you are in the mood for endless portions of food. Pasta is a perfect platform for adding copious amounts of olive oil and salt. Olive oil has lots of clean-burning calories, and when you've been sweating all day, your body will be craving the salt.
⮤...That sums up almost everything I know about food, except for vegetables and fruit. I have a simple rule when it comes to fruit and vegetables, and it goes "try to eat more when you can." I hope you've enjoyed this article, and perhaps even gained an actionable hint. While there was a lack of supporting science, and there were no quotes from coaches, I believe the information is close enough to the mark. After all, this is merely some dude's bicycle blog, but he is a happy 35-year-old: he has made it this far. There is likely far worse information circulating, and that's where I feel comfortable setting the bar.
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