The Cyclist’s Diet
What you have in the legs all begins with training and nutrition.
–By Matthew Accarrino, team chef for Holowesko|Citadel p/b Hincapie Sportswear
Racing bicycles is hard enough on its own without thinking about everything else life throws at you. Fitness, tactics, and luck all have their roles to play. As an amateur racer I can appreciate firsthand the challenges beyond training and riding. You have to have the right equipment in top condition. You have to have your kit, ready to go—especially when that road race kicks off at 7 a.m. and the drive to the race is two hours!
The guys of Holowesko|Citadel have an entire team of skilled drivers, mechanics, soigneurs, and directors to help them get ready to ride. They are, after all, preparing to endure some of the toughest bike races in North America. Pro teams also sometimes have a cook in the fold, and that’s where I come in.
Though I spend most of my time in the kitchen as a professional chef at my San Francisco-based Michelin Starred Italian restaurant SPQR, I have spent the last few seasons (when not chasing my own dreams on two wheels) traveling with Holowesko|Citadel and looking after what they eat “on race.” Similar to cooking in the restaurant, proper planning is when cooking for a team.
The team asked me to share some of what I’ve learned along the way and what my professional kitchen experience has added to the mix. Here are some tips for the setup, as well as general guidelines when cooking for athletes:
Typical Cyclist’s Menu \
Pre-race : breakfast, smoothies, granola and cereals, oatmeal, eggs, yogurt
On-bike : rice bars, panini, cakes, gels, chews, bars, hydration, a soda when you need it)
Recovery (arguably the most important meal, rice bowls, tacos, grain salads, pastas
Dinner : for me the most satisfying meal and the most creative, a balance of complex carbohydrates, protein and lots of vegetables
Dessert : Some yogurt with honey and fruit or other protein-rich smoothie can be a great dessert, and the extra protein is thought to help muscles stave off degradation as you recover and get some rest
Tips, Tricks, Strategies \
Get organized with a menu plan, but be flexible and shop for the best (freshest, minimally processed) ingredients. Like tactics in bike racing, even when you have a great plan, don’t be afraid to make decisions in the moment for the best results. Planned on grilling salmon but the salmon does not look so good. Consider tuna, or switch up the day that you prepare that meal—go with the next day’s dinner plan instead.
Shop in intervals. I prefer to shop for two to three days at a time. This allows you to maximize time spent cooking. You can make the sauce for tomorrow while cooking for tonight.
Pick a theme. Especially for dinners but oftentimes for recovery, I like to incorporate themes to my menus. Greek Day, Taco Day, Pot Pie Day, BBQ, Thai. Having a framework gives a natural structure to a meal and inspires creativity. It also keeps the menu changing day after day. Rice, paella, risotto and rice noodles are similar but provide enough thematic variation to keep the interest level up.
Cook seasonally. Look for organic fresh fruits and vegetables. Generally locally grown produce will be fresher and less expensive and in better shape. Oftentimes I leave vegetable side dish ideas open so I can quickly make a plan while shopping.
Don’t fear the freezer. I don’t often spend much time in the frozen food aisles, but sometimes high-quality frozen vegetables end up being the best option (they are generally picked and rapidly processed maximizing available nutrients for athletes). For example, I often reach for frozen peas, as they are sweeter and much less work than shucking fresh peas. One other place I often save time is buying bulk frozen fruits for smoothies, as you’ll need less ice.
Buy minimally processed foods. Simple “clean” calories are generally the way to go. An athlete’s diet needs to be simple and predictable.
Texture is a main ingredient. Juxtaposing texture is key. The crunch of nuts topping a salad or the contrast between a crunchy layer of breadcrumbs on a baked vegetable gratin makes food a pleasure to eat. One of my favorite go-to ingredients for adding crunchy texture is adding toasted buckwheat to granolas, or as a sprinkle over salads, proteins, or pastas.
Spice it up. In the professional kitchen, we talk about building in layers of flavor. You can do this with spices by marinating proteins, seasoning sauces, or adding to starches (cumin rice, saffron risotto). Spices don’t generally require refrigeration, travel easily, and weigh comparatively little. I prepare spice blends ahead of time and travel with them or ship them ahead when cooking out on the road.