Food as Fuel

Paris, France, 18-22 August 2003 On my most recent cycling adventure, Paris-Brest-Paris, I was able to experience at first hand (sometimes most painfully) the relation between energy consumption and performance. Food as fuel, in other words.
PBP is a 1200K classic from the French capital to the Breton coast and back, a distance that must be completed within the imposed time limit of 90 hours. That means some 4000 cyclists set off from Paris at 10pm (after a delicious meal that included the pastry 'paris-brest') last Monday and arrived back (in my case) at just before noon on the Friday — about 3 1/2 days to cycle some 760 miles. There was very little time for sleep and most of the days and nights were spent on the bike. However, every 85K or so there was a control where we checked in and had the opportunity to eat. The food was hearty French cafeteria fare, but no worse for that. I'd usually start with a bowl of potage with bread, or perhaps a plate of crudites, then a main course of something like côte du porc forestière with pasta or mashed potatoes, or poulet rôti and rice, perhaps some spinach or haricots verts, and to finish crème caramel or rice pudding or iles flotantes. I ate such substantial meals like this no less than four times a day, sometimes even for breakfast, often in the earliest hours of the morning. In between I snacked continuously, sometimes on bananas (a favourite and very effective cycling food), sometimes on cereal bars, often on tartes au fraises. Meanwhile, I drank up to 10 litres of water a day (I carried both two bidons — water bottles — and also wore a 'Camelbak' that holds 2 litres).
In every village we passed through there were French crowds cheering us ("allez, allez, bon courage!") and offering water, coffee, biscuits, homemade cakes, sandwiches. We stopped often to eat and to chat. Sometimes there were tents set up by the road, with braziers where saucisses were being grilled. Accordion music blared out to keep our spirits up. This is what Paris-Brest-Paris is all about: something that is part of the very fabric of life in the villages that the route has traditionally passed through for more than a hundred years. In that sense, we were very much bit players within a moving, living tableaux that passes through the northern French countryside every four years. Yet the people along the way made each and everyone one of us all feel like world champions!
The distances we cycled were immense: 450K the first day to Loudeac; 320K the next day to Brest (I was hoping for a dozen huîtres to celebrate but did not manage this) and then back to Loudeac; another 300K the following day to Mortagne le Perche; and finally 160K back to Paris on the final day. Sometimes the concentration of cycling meant that we missed eating or even snacking, and then the dreaded cyclists' 'bonk' threatened to set in, a build up of lactic acid in the muscles, and a feeling of total lack of power in the legs: your legs are spinning but there is nothing in them and you feel you are not getting anywhere. This is incredibly unpleasant and worrying, though we knew the cause, that, quite simply, the tank was on empty and we needed to eat, and eat quickly.
The main energy source when cycling relatively briskly is glycogen, metabolised from carbohydrate and stored in the muscles. This is a finite source of energy that must constantly be renewed, at least every two hours. If there is no glycogen, then the body tries to eat into fat reserves as an alternative source of energy. But the transition is uncomfortable, even downright unpleasant and not very efficient. Of course the sports scientists and the marketing boffins would have you believe that you need to eat powerbars and consume energy drinks and magic gels and other such potions in under to maximize energy replenishment and so enhance performance. I've tried such gunk and quite honestly it does not work for me. It is usually concentrated and thus hard to digest; the energy drinks give me stomach upset; and frankly the tastes are always artificial and unpalatable. So for me, it has to be real food any day, preferably in large quantity. Poulet rôti avec du riz and tarte au fraises (with the odd sandwich au rillettes) seemed to do just fine for me.
That said, I was both envious and in awe of some of the seasoned French veterans of PBP, riding it for the 3rd, 4th, 5th or maybe more times. These experienced anciens, with their youthful, glistening, muscular shaved legs a contrast to their reptilian wrinkled skin and grey hair, were never fast, but they just knew what had to be done. When, that first night, we had cycled halfway across Normandy in the pitch dark on fast, rolling, dangerously crowded roads (the peleton of lights snaking for literally kilometres ahead and behind), finally to arrive at dawn at the first feeding station, they did not go to the cafeteria like most of us tyros. No, they headed straight to the bar to down a couple of quick demis, the odd shot of Calva before jumping on their bikes and setting off again. Truly awesome! Vive la France.
Since my return at the weekend, I've done very little indeed. The odd 25 mile cycle; a game of tennis; a session on the river with Guy; and this week back to work. Meanwhile I have continued to consume 'energy' in the prodigious and outrageous quantity that my body has grown accustomed to and still craves. At least I've been catching up on sleep. After some four nights snatching only a few winks by the side of the road, or in a ditch or under the shade of a plane tree, it's been nice to be in the comfort of my own bed.
I sleep; I dream: of mountains of food; of downing small beers in a single gulp; and of glistening, youthful, shaved legs, spinning, spinning so fast that overnight I wake up to find that I have metamorphosed into a Reptile!

|Home| |QP New Media| |Kim's Gallery|

Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2003