You might not need to worry on an hour-long training ride, but if you’re riding for longer than that – and most certainly when taking part in a sportive – you need to consider on-the-bike nutrition. Without fuel you run the serious risk of bonking, the cycling equivalent of distance runners hitting the wall. Feeling weak, shaky, dizzy or light-headed, even becoming confused, emotional or irritable, are all symptoms of bonking – it’s a horrible and potentially serious state to find yourself in.
There are foodstuffs in your kitchen cupboard that can provide a good source of carbohydrates, but there are also sports nutrition companies whose products are based on research and scientific knowledge and carefully designed to deliver the optimum amount of carbs in easily digestible forms. Specialist cycling nutrition takes away the guesswork for you, it can be less messy than a jam sandwich in your jersey pocket, and it’s designed to aid performance (no EPO in the ingredients, though!!!).Bonking is easy to avoid as long as you understand how to fuel your body adequately. Cycling burns up calories quickly and you need to keep your energy levels high throughout a ride so that you can avoid fatigue. Our bodies can only store a limited amount of carbohydrate, which is what provides energy, and no amount of carb-loading in the days leading up to an event will see you through a challenging ride of 2 hours or more.
The great thing about energy bars and gels is that they’ve been developed to be easy to consume on the go, they’re easy on the stomach and they provide sufficient quantities of carbohydrate to give you the energy you need. As long as you monitor how much you are consuming as the hours go by, you’ll be able to keep up a steady pace and feel good. What you don’t want to do is to consume too much, which could lead to stomach cramps and the premature end to that day’s sportive.
It’s important to remember that you need to eat ahead of the time when you are likely to need extra energy – you have to allow for digestion. So, although starting to nibble at an energy bar 30 minutes into your ride might seem ridiculous, it’s really not! Most energy bars are designed to be consumed gradually over the space of an hour – it’s commonly accepted that the body can utilise about 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour – so you can keep nibbling every 15-20 minutes and supply your body with a steady source of energy. Later in your ride you might want to switch to gels, particularly if you start to feel that you don’t want to eat but need a fast fuel injection.
Needless to say, knowing what sports bars and gels you like and what your stomach will or won’t tolerate is something you need to test out well in advance of a sportive. And trying something you like the look of because it’s available at a feed station isn’t a great idea, either – especially if it doesn’t agree with you. There is a huge range of specialist cycling nutrition on the market, but the biggest brands are probably High5 and SIS, both of which offer the full gamut of energy bars, gels, drink supplements and post-ride protein recovery products.
Finally, another important thing to remember is fluid intake. Make sure you drink alongside your pre-ride meal, and keep yourself well hydrated throughout the sportive – aim to drink approximately 500-1000ml every hour. It’s worth carrying two bottles if you can, one water and the other an electrolyte fluid which will replace electrolytes lost through sweat and help you avoid muscle cramps.