Eating habits of (pro) cyclists: the weight debate
We hear about the weight loss of riders as they prepare for their big objectives of the season and it’s become part of the norm for cycling commentary. But what about the other effects of eating in the quest for racing success?
(This is the online version of a feature from RIDE #68, published in May 2015. Get the digital edition of RIDE #68 here.)
The Damage of dieting (from RIDE 68)
– By James Stout
Who can forget that day when Bernaud Hinault took on protestors blocking the route of the Tour? Le Blaireau, fists flailing, threw himself at the assembled – and angered – French proletariat. An intimidating physical presence, the burly Breton gave as good as he got, be it in sprints or scuffles with shipyard workers. Now imagine some of the protagonists of today’s peloton in the same situation. The twig-like arms of one of the Schlecks, the pipe cleaner legs of Froome, or Wiggins’ bulbous elbows which look like they’d break even if he was on the giving end of a punch. These are not the working class heroes of decades gone by – they look more like they work on a catwalk than a construction site. At some point in the recent past cycling’s famous “forçats de la route” and the working class “forçats de la faim” referred to in the Internationale diverged.
Cycling stopped being an escape from a life of working class poverty and became middle class leisure. However in some ways, the tables have turned: today it’s the cyclists who look like slaves to hunger, and the working men who look on aghast at the emaciated athletes.
You can’t help but notice the change in pro cyclists’ bodies in the past decade. The Indurain-esque shapes of yesteryear are no longer. Sure, those “big engines” gained more from a pharmaceutical turbo boost than the toy trains of today’s peloton but there’s more here than meets the eye, or the needle. We’ve moved on from an era where it was necessary to abuse your body with steroids and EPO to succeed but today’s ultra-lean Grand Tour winners aren’t exactly approaching the sport with wellbeing or longevity in mind. One could argue that modern cycling’s “diet devil” forces far more damaging consequences on the long-term wellbeing of those who pin on a dossard in today’s Tour than the “doping devil” of years gone by.
This phenomenon can be traced back decades, and indeed cyclists have always been far from corpulent. Still, the real arrival of the heroin chic Grand Tour contender can be traced to Wiggins’ ride to fourth place at the 2009 Tour de France. Those who doubted his breakout performance pointed to the usual suspects: the old guard was far from changed, they claimed. But for the argyle-wearing disciples of pro cycling’s first “diet not drugs” transformation it seemed to all add up: watts at threshold remained the same but several kilos had been dropped from the w:kg equation. Ipso facto the smiling, swearing track star and part-time road domestique we had come to know became the skinny, swearing Tour contender some in the media called ‘Twiggo’. All over the world young cyclists – and not so young cyclists – looked on as Bradley hauled his protruding ribs up the Ventoux; they put down their beers, stepped away from the biscuits and decided that they too could tip the w:kg ratio in the right direction.
There have always been superstitions regarding diet that have run amok in the European peloton. These rules are enforced with a zeal that would make the kosher community wince in sympathy. I recall racing on French teams where the crust, but not the interior, of a baguette could be consumed. Cheese was okay but the same cheese melted had “three times as much fat”. Beer was off the cards but wine was totally kosher… Our team director took on the role of chief rabbi, hovering over the race buffet with a stern expression and a ready anecdote of the last time someone had put butter on toast before a six hour race in the Alps.
Some Italians would stop riders from eating between the stage and supper. Recovery be damned. More than once I’ve passed energy bars to riders on a WorldTour level Italian team and watched them try to consume or conceal 1,000 calories of rectangular food in the closing 20km of a hectic stage; they knew the long hours of transfers with a rumbling stomach only too well. The difference here is that directors deprived riders of food. We knew this was stupid. As soon as the director turned his back, all manner of contraband emerged from suitcases, laptop bags and, on more than one occasion, shoes.
This isn’t the same as riders depriving themselves of proper, healthy nutrition on a chronic basis. When guys are smuggling croissants from breakfast in their podium shoes for after the race, it’s weird and a bit gross, but at least those sweaty pastries represent a healthy relationship with food and an acknowledgment of the simple fact that you can’t take out what you don’t put in.
When riders begin starving themselves, that’s when we stop talking about directors’ orders and start talking about eating disorders. Competitive cycling and restrictive diet have always gone hand in hand. This is partially due to the obvious benefits of not hauling excessive mass uphill. There’s also a mental game at play: the personality that enjoys suffering out training, that thrives on early nights, missed parties and early alarms on weekends also feeds on the restrictions and privations brought from weight loss.
It’s about crafting and controlling your body, about manipulating it and forcing it to obey your desires, not its biological programming. Your body screams “stop” about 30km into a 40km time trial and it doesn’t make a secret of its feelings once you start to drop into low single digits of body fat either. The same mentality that laughs at weaker riders who get dropped on climbs can easily laugh at the individuals who cave in and binge on cookies and pies.
The feeling of control, of superiority and of overcoming the biological is common – if not compulsory – at the top level of the sport. The mapping of this attitude onto the dinner table however can have drastic consequences.
Winning is a rewarding thing but what isn’t attractive, desirable, rewarding or fun is what comes with weight loss. It starts with hunger pangs, mood swings, and spectacular bonks, then it gets worse. For every Grand Tour winner with a pointy ribcage there are piles of young men with dramatically reduced testosterone levels, lowered metabolism, high cortisol, osteoporosis and depression, not to mention a disordered relationship with food that lasts a lifetime. And that’s before we even begin to talk about the abuse of thyroid medication, caffeine and painkillers that helps the squeaky clean and super lean peloton of 2014 roll on its emaciated limbs.
Sure, few people are putting needles filled with EPO into themselves (at least we hope so) but have we really arrived at a sport which is healthier and safer? Or have we taken the doping devil and turned it into a new, less expensive, more widespread and possibly more damaging trend? This pernicious and dangerous tendency reaches much lower down the competitive pyramid and does much more long term psychological, and often physical, damage.
Some of weight loss is projecting an image. Nothing says I’m-taking-this-shit-seriously more than going to bed with your stomach growling, and nothing puts the claws into a mate you’ve just dropped better than matching his mocha with a doppio espresso. But when weight loss is just about looking better and climbing faster than your mates or your competitors, it’s unlikely to veer into the unhealthy realm. When the motivation becomes internal, problems begin. When you have to be thinner than yourself a week before, you start down a slippery slope.
After beginning this article I reached out to friends on social media and at races. The battle between a physical need for fuel and a psychological need to starve is painful to watch – those were the guys who took offense at my asking. What surprised me were the lads who came forward, not all emaciated climbers but many of them bearing upsetting stories of anorexia, bulimia and extreme caloric restriction. Some were kind enough to sit down with me and share their stories; what follows is a fraction of what I found out…
My friend Guy East is a professional six-day rider with an impressive palmares including the UIV cup, he raced on the road with the Bontrager-Livestrong team in 2009 and Optum in 2010 and previously competed on the Belgium-based under-23 US national team (from 2006-2008). After a local race in Mexico (which Guy won from a two-up break and in which I grovelled home to finish eighth) we sat down over pizza and beer to talk about issues with diet and exercise. He was brave and forthcoming; he let me record our talk and didn’t refuse a single question. He shared how weight loss began simply out of the competitive environment of the team house; just as you want to train that bit harder and race that bit better than your team-mates, so you want to get that bit thinner as well.
Guy recalls his particular eating patterns vividly. “I’d get up and plan my ride; say I’m doing three hours, at 800kj an hour that’s 2,400kj. I’d eat 3,400kj beforehand, just eating junk: pizza, handfuls of M&Ms… logging all of it. Stuffing myself because it would force me to get out and ride.
“If I didn’t ride I’d get fat and that was the worst thing that could happen to me.
“Then I’d go and do my ride, and I’d left myself 1,000 calories [but] eat 800. I always tried to go under.”
Obviously neglecting to compensate for basal metabolic rate and under-eating even for calories burned through exercise, Guy rapidly lost weight. Soon though this pattern of restriction and control wasn’t enough. He had a causal chat with a team-mate where the issue of bulimia came up as a problem in the sport. Soon enough this too was a part of Guy’s regime. He’d over-eat on rest days and then purge.
Guy East is the first to admit that this wasn’t a healthy or happy version of himself. All he thought about was food and yet eating made him feel guilty. What’s more compelling is that Guy is faster now than he was in the depths of his obsession with weight and leanness – weighing more and training less, as well as in full time work/education.
Guy’s colleague and former USPRO crit champion Brad Huff agrees. Having raced some 20kg lighter than he is now, Huff asserts that he’s never had more power, or better results. It has been a long journey for him from an injured and depressed young man to the successful pro I’ve been fortunate enough to race and train with.
“When I was an amateur racer at an age of 19 I was selected to do a USA national team race in Japan,” Huff told me. “I was dropped fast on the first day. I came home questioning why I had been dropped and, after staring for hours at the super skinny pros of the time (in the late 1990s), I came to the decision on my own to lose weight.”
Brad went from a strong 72kg rider to someone who weighed in at 62.5kg. (He recalled the exact figure.) Despite this weight loss his season went badly, with regular injuries. Throughout this, glimpses of his true ability would shine through (he surmises it was largely due to the enforced time off, even though he was so fanatical about burning calories that he once trained in a stability boot for four hours) so he kept going. “I would go on rides at a stiff pace and try not to eat any calories for two-and-a-half hours and only then have maybe half a Powerbar for the next hour or two. I would go to sleep starving! I would dream of food.
“If I woke up because I was hungry I would allow myself half a grapefruit or a small drink of soy milk.”
Brad did all this on his own without consulting a coach or any supervision, steaming all his food to avoid extra fat and riding for three hours on no breakfast.
It was only in a nutrition course at university that Brad noticed he had every symptom of disordered eating that was listed, along with a deep depression at not being able to train. “I bottomed out and terribly strained my Achilles on a run. Yes, a run. I was obsessed with training and I was doing anything possible to burn calories and keep fit.
“The sad thing is that friends attempted to reach out and give me guidance; my mother used to notice how thin my hair was getting when she cut it every month. I would just change the subject or tell her it was because I was training so hard, or that she was too worried… To me, none of my friends understood my goals or rode at the level I was at.”
This attitude – the idea that nobody else gets it, or that one is part of an “elite” club – is highly characteristic of disordered eating and, sadly, is reinforced every time a young man or woman sees an emaciated figure on top of the podium at a bike race.
I asked Guy why he thought that weight became such an issue for so many riders. Guy hit on a common theme amongst many of those I spoke to: self-esteem.
“As a bike racer you’re only as good as your last race. You race 80, 100 times a year and if you’re good you win four or five.” The rest of the time a competitive cyclist has to find another way to justify themselves, other victories to celebrate, other reasons to value and love themselves.
A team thrives on this climate; winners are worthwhile and results are everything. As a result riders who aren’t performing question their ability and worth both as riders and as people. They try everything and anything – be it diet or doping – to get faster and as they restrict their intake of food they get slower. This leads to a spiral of low self-esteem, lowering caloric intake and lowering performance. This unhealthy cycle continues to reinforce itself until something breaks. And what breaks is rarely the results drought and often the rider.
Guy had this low point and had the strength to recognise it was happening to him; he took a year in a church group in Argentina to recover. At first he said he would fast, partly for his faith but also to feed his disorder. He said it was only six months after he put down his bike that he began to realise that people valued him for the person he was and that “they couldn’t care less that I had been a pro cyclist, or that I’d raced with Lance Armstrong”.
Only stepping out of the bubble and realising that he wasn’t trapped within it helped Guy get to the healthier, happier and faster place he is today. Brad shared Guy’s sentiment, I asked him his advice for the rider reading this article and suffering from the same issues he did. Brad was adamant in his response: “Education and acceptance in what is really healthy is the only way to break the cycle.”
It’s the obvious that we often ignore but Brad reiterated the lessons he had from his experience of eating disorders. “I would say ride your bike. Enjoy it. Love it. Find fulfilment in it, but do not allow it to limit your worth or value in life. You are who you are and that is why no one will ever be able to match you. Eat, ride, don’t ride, laugh, and enjoy the life you have created for yourself because no one else will in this incredible selfish sport we live in.”
For many amateur riders the bike is, first and foremost, a tool for weight loss. They ride their bike to better health. This is how I make something approaching a living, working with people living with type 2 diabetes and obesity and using cycling as a way of empowering them to enjoy healthy, active lives. But this is not what I’m talking about in this article. I’m talking about the weight-obsessed, chocolate-dodging bloke on the club ride. A few weeks ago you were shocked you could see his veins, with the passage of time you could see his ribs and boney angles that simply weren’t there before, but what you can’t see is his smile.
Extreme caloric deprivation, especially when conducted without expert supervision, can be incredibly dangerous and offers very little in performance terms but at some point this ceases to be about going faster and becomes about getting thinner. Suddenly being dropped becomes a trigger to eat less, a rest day spin has to burn 1,000kj and the idea of stopping for a muffin is as abhorrent as shooting meth. The horse is leading the cart now and where once the weight loss was to improve performance the riding is now to burn more calories and lose more weight.
Other local riders shared stories which, although they occurred at a different level and began with a different impetus, still confirmed a lot of what Guy and Brad experienced. One friend shared that “it was really entirely on my own. I was never particularly athletic growing up, never good at sports and did kind of geeky/nerdy stuff”. For him, the discovery of a sport which rewarded studious dedication came as a welcome relief. Soon power meters and calorie restriction seemed like an obvious step to the analytical mind. “I weighed and logged everything. If I ate out, I would eat half of it, and then take the other half home and weigh all the pieces. I also ate a lot of packaged foods because they were easier to log.”
At first this dedication is rewarded with results and even compliments as desk jockeys see their muscles emerge from beneath years of lattes and chocolate digestives. “For a while as I lost more and more my performance got better.” That’s all well and good but the speed and severity of the weight loss took an inevitable toll. “I just dug myself into a hole and had no muscle left to climb out of it… I first just tried to eat as little as possible, then I started figuratively purging via excessive exercise, then I started binging, and then I started actually purging.” Very quickly a hobby can become an obsession and that obsession an addiction. In this case this addiction led to psychiatric treatment and even today, worries about slipping back into the patterns which seem incredibly difficult to ever fully move on from.
Another local rider shared his story of caloric restriction from the age of 15, aspiring to look and ride like the pros he saw on television. Neither of these riders would ever have doped or had access to doping products, neither made a living racing, but both have permanently damaged their bodies and their relationships with food and other people.
Certain teams and certain directors are well known in this regard. They reinforce a rider’s negative self-image, reward and encourage drastic weight loss methods, and limit riders’ diets, even during races. I’m sure that, for the directors, this is about performance but the psychological detriments for the riders should not be ignored.
I can think of one prominent US-based WorldTour team which seems to be responsible for more eating disorders in young men than any other causal factor I’ve come across. I’ve seen the emails, the texts and heard the phone calls and post-race berating. This isn’t encouragement towards a common goal, this is bullying. It’s not right and it’s not safe.
After writing this I feel a lot closer to a lot of my friends and colleagues. I also feel like something needs to be done. We look at a ‘clean sport’ as the be-all and end-all. We don’t think in terms of morality anymore but in terms of black and white, clean and dirty. But as moral individuals we should step back and ask why we want a ‘clean’ sport and what we want to cleanse our sport of.
Whilst I’ve never used doping products, I know people who have and I’m not buying the line that it’ll kill you in your sleep (neither will a single peer-reviewed study). What I do object to is asking someone to take unregulated pharmaceuticals to entertain us. Similarly, I don’t think it’s right to force someone into a long-term eating disorder. Food is one of life’s pleasures and one of life’s very few necessities – to take that from someone is cruel. To inflict the long-term mental and physical issues associated with starvation and exercise is likewise immoral and unnecessary. To prey on the insecurities and low self-worth of the young, aspiring athletes who end up with a damaging and addictive cycling/dieting habit is, morally, little different to profiting from the consumption of harmful drugs. And, quite simply, we need to stop both.
– By James Stout