Dr Hutch: Cyclists are basically a group of giant Lycra wasps cruising round the countryside looking for sugar

Cycling Weekly's columnist looks into the fairground mirror of cyclists' relationship with food and decides that, on reflection, he's OK with the weirdness

Bees on sweets with Dr Hutch's face
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There is a fine story about the rider John Woodburn in the 1980s, when he made two attempts on the Land’s End to John o’ Groats record.

On the first attempt he used the best scientific nutrition his advisers could pull together, and subsequently ground to a halt at a place called Blair Atholl on the edge of the Cairngorms. The following year he decided that since every other day of the year he ate three meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner, on the ride he would do the same, and that he would decide what they’d be by whim as he rode. His helpers famously burst into a packed chip shop on a Saturday night demanding instant service, and had to scour Preston for chocolate cake at 6am. He broke the record.

Cyclists have an odd relationship with food. As evidence, I’ll suggest to you that when you read about Woodburn’s strategy, you probably thought, “Three meals a day? Weirdo.”

You probably started muttering to yourself about carbohydrate, electrolyte balance, caffeine dosing, and the need to eat energy products that are, to most non-cyclists, strange.

There is a reason for our idiosyncrasy. Even fairly ordinary cyclists burn a lot of energy – there are very few sports where a typical club athlete might spend four hours on a single training effort and be potentially 40 miles from home.

We’re basically a group of giant Lycra wasps cruising round the countryside looking for sugar and spoiling ordinary people’s attempts to enjoy a peaceful elevenses outside a cafe. (“Oh no, Charles, they’ve smelt your croissant, they’re going to eat everything!”)

Triathletes are the same when they’re in bike mode. Cross-country skiers can be similar. But not many others. Our obvious cousins, the runners, rarely do the same length sessions or get so far from base.

The requirements of energy and convenience mean we’ve tried a lot of solutions over the years. A good rider round my way once told me how he and his clubmates in the 1970s decided that glucose syrup was what they’d been looking for all their lives. Used in races it produced 20 minutes of the sort of wild attacking you’d expect from a sugared-up toddler, followed by an overwhelming need to lie down on the verge and have a nice sleep. It also meant that all their teeth fell out.

There are riders who swear by jelly babies, Haribo, or bananas. For years pro teams have used rice cakes, usually made by a hassled soigneur in a hotel room in the middle of the night with a rice cooker, the mini bar and a zip-lock bag in place of a baking tray. 

But for a lot of us, at least for the days we’re taking seriously, it’s about weird stuff only we would acknowledge as food. No one but us thinks an energy gel is ‘food’, still less gets excited when they hear about a new flavour. (“Here, try a squirt of this – it’s Madagascan vanilla!”)  No one else, or at least, no one without a problem, works out a day’s menu with a calculator.

There are other sports who could learn from us, of that I have no doubt. I spent a couple of summers a while back doing offshore sailing races, lasting up to a week. When I suggested sports nutrition as a way of keeping a crew hydrated, alert and easily fed, the reaction was total indifference. Eventually we compromised, and they renamed their staple daytime drink ‘energy-beer’ and their staple food as ‘energy-bacon-sandwiches’.

But it suits us. It goes with our character. We’ll do whatever it takes. However ludicrous. Pass the wallpaper paste. The blackcurrant flavour please.

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Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. As a rider he won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland and competed at the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He was a three-time Brompton folding-bike World Champion, and once hit 73 mph riding down a hill in Wales. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine