One of the first things I get asked when talking about my time on the circuit is, “What do the pro’s really eat?”
~ published in Bicycling Magazine (Issue 4 • 2021)
Food for athletes used to be simple: get a giant bowl of pasta the night before a big race (and maybe for breakfast too), but now it’s a much more complex equation. Athletes think about food and nutrition differently; they eat to recover and not just perform.
I have always considered myself a foodie and enjoyed spending time in the kitchen, so much so that I cooked for the Specialized athletes for four years ‘on the side’ while also fulfilling my other duties. These meals didn’t have the flare that one would expect from a trained professional, but I learnt a lot from research and the advice of seasoned chefs in the industry.
Having to navigate food allergies, specific eating plans and picky-eaters while offering meals that provide nourishment and comfort in a foreign country is no small feat. While I enjoyed cooking the meals, the planning and sourcing of the ingredients to cater for 14 plus people over five days was always the most stressful part of the race week for me. If you think an XC start is hectic, wait till you see the team soigneurs racing into the small superette parking lot as they open to snatch the limited fresh meat and produce for the day. If you missed out, it would be a sometimes 30-minute drive one way to the next grocery store.
Grocery shopping in Albstadt was always stress-free, with a great supermarket that rivals Woolies (even stocking Amarula, a special treat for me). Food shopping highlights were finding Ostrich in a small Lenzerheide supermarket and the blueberry bagels in Mont St Anne. Nove Mesto was always challenging; having to Google Translate labels always took an extra hour as I once almost bought rabbit instead of chicken. FYI – Pickled pigs tongues are available at the Mont St Anne supermarket, and I didn’t need Google Translate for that one.
Breakfasts at the hotels were usually a bit of a lucky packet, so most teams had a standard breakfast box with non-perishables like muesli, cereals, peanut butter, Nutella and honey to add to the yoghurt, bread, cheese and eggs that the hotel usually provided.
We had a small kitchen in the team truck, and I would cook lunch for the team from Wednesday to Sunday, plus dinners back at the chalets if we stayed in self-catering accommodation. Ingredients permitting, I’d try to keep the meal plans as simple as possible to appeal to the multicultural team and then add a few home reminders like tacos (on a Wednesday *gasp*), rhubarb and apple pie and Koldskål (Danish yoghurt dessert).
Standard lunches in our camp would consist of a protein, usually beef or chicken, grilled veggies, two salads and bread with cheese, prosciutto and balsamic glaze. Jaro was a big fan of parmesan, so I would need to stock up each week.
We’d also usually have a few leftover bananas, so I’d make gluten-free banana bread with dark chocolate and walnuts as a treat on race day morning, which was always a hit with the athletes.
Dinners would be a little more lavish and include salmon, lasagne or grilled steak, again with veggies, salads and bread. I would also grab a couple of bottles of red wine, and dark chocolate was a little treat for after dinner.
I did my best to introduce the team to a few key South African staples; Chicken-a-la-king, my signature potato bake and loaded garlic bread. I’d always promised to make a bobotie, but unfortunately never managed to track down a bottle of Mrs Balls in Europe. The team was eventually treated to the South African classic when they came over for the Absa Cape Epic, and they said it was “lekker”.
With any event, but more so with multi-stage events, there is always a risk of picking up a viral bug, and as we’re all very aware of how fast these can spread, we would limit contact with anyone outside the immediate team bubble. Because of this, we would have meals prepped and delivered every day from Cape Town to avoid having the riders exposed in the Food Tent. We were always well-stocked with proteins, fresh fruit and veggies, bread, avos, cheeses, chilli oil, dark chocolate and red wine, not to mention the special requests for Haribo, Speckled Eggs and biltong.
I have always been a big believer in the power of food and how it can help athletes recover, much to the dismay of the finance department. When you work with athletes, particularly at stage races, you quickly realise that one of the most critical performance factors is who recovers fastest for the next day’s stage. They’re always eating to put back what they spent today and then building credit for tomorrow.
It’s all about what you eat and how much of it at the end of the day.