Perfect nutrition on the bike is something that even the most seasoned riders struggle to master. Dedicated cycling nutrition might be energy-rich, include a perfect proportion of protein and the best balance of glucose to fructose, but if it sits in your pocket uneaten, it’s as useful as a chocolate teapot.
As the old saying goes, eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty, but that’s easier said than done when your focus is on chasing wheels and staying upright through corners.
What makes proper nutrition even harder is that what works for one rider might cause a Tom Dumoulin-esque incident in another. Worse, cycling food has to be a trial-and-error affair, and the only way to find out if a product works for you is to eat it and see what happens – barring obvious things like allergies and dietary restrictions.
Finding what’s right for you
Finding the right cycling nutrition can be daunting, especially as you scroll through pages and pages of isotonic this, and bio-synergy that, in both caffeine-free and caffeine-added versions.
The food and drink we’ve listed below are products that the Cyclingnews team liked when it comes to taste, effectiveness and how it sits in your stomach.
Stop eating bars that take more energy to chew than they give you, and gels that taste mildly radioactive, and scroll down for our favourite cycling food and drink, or jump to the bottom for a few key things to keep in mind about cycling nutrition.
Torq’s Organic Bars are some of the best-tasting energy bars we’ve come across to date (especially the sundried banana flavour), and they’re easy to chew and digest.
Made from organic ingredients, they’re okay for veggies and vegans; the Torq bars utilize a blend of glucose-derivatives and fructose, which provide fast-acting energy, and are hypertonic, meaning that the sugars don’t need a bunch of fluid to make their way to your muscles.
Each bar has 30g of carbs, and fits into the brand’s wider ‘unit’-based fuelling system, which calls for 2-3 units per hour of food/gels/drink – each of its products contains 30g of carbs, all using glucose derivatives and fructose. The Torq Organic Bars come in mango, sundried banana, zingy apple and zingy orange flavours.
Clif Bar makes a ton of bars, drinks and the like, but their original rolled oats-based bars are one of the staples we continue to stuff into our jersey pockets before almost every ride. Available in flavours ranging from your classic peanut butter and chocolate chip, to bolder options like cool mint chocolate and caramel toffee with sea salt, there is no shortage of variety.
The bars are based around simple sugars, 9g of plant-based proteins and fats, from nuts, seeds and oils, to keep you feeling full. The best part about Clif Bars, however, is that they’re available almost anywhere, so when you’re four hours deep into an eight-hour epic, and you pull up to a gas station in the depths of a bonk, it’s a safe bet you’ll find a Clif Bar on the shelf.
As Donna Meagle and Tom Haverford famously said on Parks and Recreation, “Treat yo’self,” and when you tear open a Rawvelo Organic Energy Bar on a ride, that’s exactly what you’re doing. The dense bars are halfway between an energy bar and a homemade brownie, and use ingredients with a naturally high sugar content to keep you rolling.
The ingredients list is composed solely of things a fifth grader can pronounce on the first go, and the bars are calorie-rich, with a bit of protein and fat to keep you full. They also have a low glycemic index, so the energy boost won’t just be a flash in the pan.
The basic idea behind a gel is that they’re easy to ingest – and digest, so that your body can quickly absorb and deploy sugar to your muscles. Most, however, require water as a transport vehicle to help your small intestine absorb the carbs efficiently. SIS’s Isotonic Energy gels are formulated to be consumed without water in order to get carbohydrates into your system as quickly as possible.
Each 60ml gel contains about 22g of carbs, and a runny consistency, although they are a bit lumpy – as a warning for the type of person for whom texture alone can turn your stomach to look elsewhere.
GU energy gels have a two-pronged approach to staving off hunger flats: a simple sugar in the form of fructose for a quick jolt, and maltodextrin for a slower release kick, which also makes for what we’d describe as a velvety mouthfeel – not too globby, and but also not liquidy.
Beyond the sugars, GU energy gels have citrates and branched amino acids, which also act as a fuel source, claimed to aid in recovery and improve mental performance. Some flavours also contain caffeine. While GU no doubt has some of the best-tasting gels, like the salted caramel flavour, we are also big fans of the “tastefully nude” flavour-free gel.
In addition to the small single-serving disposable sachets, GU also offers its gels in a bulk 15-serving sachet, that can be transferred to an environmentally-aware reusable ‘gel flask’.
Using what PowerBar calls a C2Max Dual Source Carbon Mix (fructose and glucose) PowerBar’s PowerGels are vegan, and available in five flavours, with and without caffeine.
Each serving contains 26g of carbs and 200mg of sodium, to help replenish electrolytes lost in sweat. Of the gels we’ve come across, the PowerGel is on the thicker end of the spectrum, almost needing to be chewed, but the energy comes quickly, and they aren’t overly hard on the gut. We are big fans of the Trash Chain, which keeps the rip tab attached to the rest of the packaging when you pull it open, to help reduce litter.
Rumour has it that when Dr Allen Lim first developed his Secret Drink Mix (SDM), which we now know as Skratch Labs’ Hydration Drink Mix, WorldTour squads were dumping out their sponsor-provided drink mix and filling the containers with SDM because the riders preferred it. They could use it and still appear sponsor-correct.
The Skratch Labs Hydration Drink Mix is a light product, meaning that it’s focused more on replenishing electrolytes than calories. Flavoured with real fruit, the taste is light, too. It’s comparatively low in sugar, with only 4g per 100ml, and Lim also tailored the electrolyte profile to match what’s lost in sweat with 100mg sodium, 80mg potassium, 100mg calcium and 80mg of magnesium per litre. The drink mixes are verified non-GMO, gluten and dairy-free, vegan and even kosher, too.
Nuun Sport is another light sports drink that’s focused on replenishing electrolytes, with 300mg of sodium, 250mg of potassium, 25mg of magnesium and 13g of calcium, while only containing a single gram of sugar and 15 calories per serve. The brand does make a more traditional calorie-heavy Endurance sports drink, too, but we prefer the low-cal Sport version.
Nuun Sport comes as an effervescent tablet in a portable tube, which fits nicely in a jersey pocket and is perfect for mid-ride refills. The tablets come in heaps of flavours and leave the contents of your bottle lightly carbonated, which is surprisingly refreshing on a big day out.
With 36g of carbs and 220 mmol/L of sodium per serving, the SIS Go Electrolyte drink will keep you pushing through to the end of your century cramp-free. Designed to provide just the right amount of calories and hydration needed to restore what’s lost on a long ride, the Go Electrolyte drink mix is vegetarian, and gluten, lactose, wheat and nut-free, and available in raspberry, orange and lemon-lime flavours.
The drink mix is also certified through the Informed Sport programme, meaning that it’s analysed through the best anti-doping labs to ensure you don’t get pinged for a banned substance you’ve unknowingly ingested.
Jelly beans are wonderful – except for the buttered-popcorn flavour. Luckily, Jelly Belly doesn’t make their Sport Beans in that putrid flavour.
Sport Beans are more than just your standard sugar-packed legumes: they’re made with sodium and potassium to help you replenish what you sweat. The beans also have a serving of vitamins B1, B2 and B3 to help your body burn carbs and fat, as well as vitamin C, which is said to stave off oxidative damage in muscle cells.
Switching up what you’re eating is paramount – not only mentally, but to help you perform, too. Made from mostly brown-rice syrup, Clif Bloks Energy Chews are essentially high-performance fruit snacks that provide carbs and electrolytes in a soft, chewy and delicious medium.
Each sleeve contains six blocks, which total 200 calories, 48g of carbs and 100mg of sodium, and the packaging is designed for easy, one-handed eating. Available in 10 flavours, the trouble with Clif Bloks is that they taste a little too good.
There is something to be said for highly tuned mixes of sugars and electrolytes designed for fuelling high-performance athletes, who are at the pointy end of the sport. The thing is, the vast majority of us aren’t high-performance athletes, and slightly less refined sources of sugars will not only provide more energy than you’ll need to fuel your ride, but will also leave a much smaller dent in your wallet.
Having said that, all gummy snacks are not created equal, look for those which are made using glucose syrup and fructose made from fruit juice, not high fructose corn syrup. We’ve had great luck fuelling with Welch’s Fruit Snacks or Kirkland Fruity Snacks, which you can buy at Costco or on Amazon.
How to choose the best energy food
Watch your carbs
When you’re looking to fuel your ride, it’s important to remember that the human body can only absorb between 60g and 90g of carbohydrates per hour, depending on the sugars themselves, which is why you’ll see bars and gels touting 2:1 ratios of glucose to fructose. If you consume more than this amount, your body won’t be able to use this extra fuel, and it’s likely to make you feel sick.
Sports drinks are a particular sticking point to watch out for as this is the easiest place to overload your carb intake and cause gastrointestinal distress. Stick to lighter drinks that put more of a focus on rehydration than fuelling, and we would even go as far as saying that you could water them down a bit, too.
When to bring food
Just because you’ve been out for a four-hour ride doesn’t mean you should stop at McDonald’s on your way home and scoff down two Big Macs – for more reasons than one.
The same goes for fuelling during your ride: if you’ve been out for 90 minutes or less, you probably don’t need to bring food. If you’re riding longer, then look to ingest about 30g of carbs per hour.
Bar vs gel vs drinks
The intensity of your ride will likely determine in which way you’d do best to take on nutrition.
Solid foods usually sit well early in a ride and on lower-intensity efforts. As the duration and intensity of your ride goes up, your body focuses less energy on digestion, so gels and sports drinks are key here as your body needs to do less processing to get the sugar to your muscles.
There’s nothing wrong with real food
Our list here is all pre-packaged food, which is fantastically convenient. However, there’s nothing wrong with a PB&J sandwich, a banana or some dried fruit as riding food. If you’re prepared to think ahead and prepare, the Feed Zone Portables cookbook has heaps of great and nutritious recipes for ride food that you can make at home.