Thought for food: From Issue 116 - Mind
Body composition, watts per kilo and weight are always going to matter in sport, especially cycling, but fixating on these numbers can take riders into dangerous territory. How do we get it right?
This is an abridged version of an article originally published in Issue 116 of Rouleur. Subscribe today to read in full and support our journalism.
“When I lived with the team owner, he used to make me go down to the chemist at the bottom of the street every day to weigh myself and bring him back the ticket so he could judge me on that. I used to have a shit before and not eat any food so I was as light as possible. I got to the point where I’d do it and it wouldn’t be low enough, so I’d take off all my clothes and do it again. I’d go there really early when no one was in the shop and they were just pulling the shutters up, so I could get down to just my boxers and get on the scales.”
Weight. It’s a heavy word in cycling. The fact is that shedding kilogrammes can fundamentally make a rider go faster on a bike: the less weight a rider drags uphill against gravity, the easier it will be to climb. But for some riders, the road to a smaller number on the scales can lead to an unhealthy obsession.
The opening story about the chemist shop is just one of a huge number of testimonials from cyclists young and old, professional and amateur, who say they have suffered from disordered eating. For some, this emerged in their early teens and for others it was later in life, but among many of them, the root of the issue is shared.
“I used to skip meals, usually breakfast and lunch on rest days, and trained fasted in my teens,” says Connie, a 22-year-old cyclist from London. “I started associating food with training to the point I would train fasted on the turbo in the early morning before school at the ages of 16 and 17, to then be able to reward myself with breakfast afterwards.”
That feeling of needing to earn calories is prevalent among a number of cyclists. “I hear a lot of, ‘I can eat this because I have done X number of kilometres,’” explains Elisabetta, a cycling coach at Herne Hill Velodrome in London.
This belief is often reinforced by coaches and sporting directors who tell their athletes to eat less on rest days. Julian, a 27-year-old French rider, tells me this is something he experienced regularly on the amateur racing scene in France. “One of our riders stopped a five-day stage race after one day, so the sports director took his body fat percentage,” says Julian. “He said the rider had a fat percentage of around 15, and then told him to go and ride every day of the race behind the peloton, so more than 200 kilometres per day for the next four days, eating only fruit.
Read more: Fuel better, ride faster: three nutrition mistakes, and how to avoid them
“He was coming back empty and tired, then of course he lost weight and the sports director said that was good, but he was just so dehydrated, it was dangerous. But that’s the classic French way.
“I’ve seen young guys eating just carrots and apples on days when they were travelling, no proteins and no carbohydrates on a rest day. An older director would say they had to have a ‘jour des fruits’ [fruit day] as they weren’t riding their bikes.”
Renee McGregor, a leading sports dietitian, explains that this attitude towards eating can be detrimental to a rider’s performance: “The reality is that if you are training most days, your recovery day is the time to continue to refuel after a hard effort and also prepare for your next day of training.”
Many of the riders I spoke to while researching this feature noted that the images professional riders put on social media can have a significant impact on how they believe their bodies should look. “There’s an old culture about being lean, French panache; [Julian] Alaphilippe is the French model, the punchy guy who is really lean, attacking from afar,” says Julian.
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Ellen McDermott, former Irish national champion and a qualified performance nutritionist, agrees that the image professional riders put out is something that can have a negative impact on those who look up to them. “On social media, nobody wants to post a picture where you can see three or four rolls of fat because they’re crouched over in an aero position,” she says.
“But where’s it going to go? It has to be there. I think if everybody was a little bit more honest on social media, the world would be a happier place. It’s important to educate younger athletes in particular that what they see on social media is the pinnacle of what that athlete wants to portray, it’s not like that all the time.”
“I think transparency and representation from all role models is key. People at the top of the sport need to discuss the nitty gritty of pro life,” says 23-year-old Izzy, who rode as an amateur cyclist in Belgium for three years.
However, when it comes to social media, the topic has its nuances. Many riders also note the positive side that the internet can have on broadening a rider’s viewpoint on particular issues.
“Negatively, I will compare myself to professionals and despair that I don’t look like them, but then social media is positive when they share what they eat,” says Emma, a cyclist from south London, who talks about role models like Kitty Pemberton-Platt, the author, illustrator and social media strategist, and Kate Courtney, the 2018 world mtb cross-country champion. “Kitty Pemberton-Platt’s illustrated series on Instagram sharing what professionals have eaten helped me a lot actually,” says Emma. “Kate Courtney shared her eating behaviour on Instagram years ago and that was really positive, too. Seeing what other people eat and how much, I find that really helpful to normalise it.”
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Illustrations by Montse Galbany