Food is just fuel, but what is it fueling?
Last week at the second race in the Mississippi Gravel Cup, I rode for a little over six hours and didn’t eat any solid food. It was a sloppy, muddy, rainy day and I was pushing hard to get on my age-group podium. I didn’t feel like I could take my hands off the bars long enough to do more than get a drink. Turns out, I didn’t need to.
For those of us doing the 80-mile race, the course included about a 15-mile loop that we repeated three times. Those doing the 50-mile race only did it once, but after those 100+ riders came through, there were no good lines to follow. What was left was a muddy Etch-a-Sketch of random lines. You could see tire tracks wander from one side of the road to the other as riders ahead discovered that there were no good lines, and the road was no better on the other side.
So I did the race with three bottles of homemade drink mix as my only nutrition. Each bottle had about 135 grams of carbohydrates and a little salt, and I drank each one over the course of about two hours. I finished 10th overall and third in my age group. I was exhausted, but I hadn’t bonked.
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For years I gave little thought, if any, to nutrition on the bike. I’d take a Clif bar along and eat it if I got hungry. On centuries, I’d stop at the aid stations and have some Fig Newtons or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or both. I still have pizza the night before a long ride. I don’t know whether it’s science or just perception, but I feel stronger longer into the ride if I honor that habit.
And then recently I found myself at the top of a deep rabbit hole of nutrition research. And willingly climbed down into it.
I went so far I learned that the body can absorb about 60 grams of glucose an hour, which provides about 240 calories. If you want to fuel with more carbohydrates per hour, you have to add fructose, although it’s not absorbed through the same channels and so isn’t available for use as quickly. You can use maltodextrin in place of glucose to reduce the cloying sweetness.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that the optimal mix of glucose and fructose, however it’s arrived at, is 1 part glucose to 0.8 part fructose.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I have a spreadsheet that scales up that formula so I can make my homemade mix in bulk. I call it Go Juice. Tastes like hummingbird food.
When I think about food on the bike, I think of it purely as fuel. But at the dinner table, I’ve never really thought of it that way. And maybe I’ve been wrong all along.
My wife has been a food writer for decades. We cook together. We frequently plan trips giving equal weight to where we’ll eat and what we’ll do. Sometimes where we eat gets higher priority. On the road, whether it’s the food culture of a foreign country, or the tamales of the Mississippi Delta, it’s never really only about the food.
Food has been an important part of our lives for more than the nutritional value. We always get more from cooking for friends than you can measure in calories.
But it’s really been fuel all along; the important question is what have we been fueling. (Even those overnight oats in the morning — what are they fueling?)
On ride days it fuels performance. But when it’s a meal — either at home or away — it’s fuel for something that’s fulfilling in a different way. It might be wrapped up in the atmosphere of a place — the sights, smells, and sounds. It might fuel a discussion of the culture the food came from. It may just feed a conversation with friends. Or all three.
In the end, I’m realizing that the type and quality of the food is only part of the attraction — and maybe sometimes it’s even the lesser part. What the food makes possible — what it fuels —can be more important. And don’t get me wrong, a really good meal elevates everything. Beautifully cooked food shared with friends, even in a simple place, lifts and lights up everything around it.
Like my friend Said says, “I’m not a foodie. I’m an eatie.”
The ride: Miss. Gravel Cup #2: Camp Shelby
Video: Camp Shelby