Cycling Chow: Fast Fuel For The Road

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Lavash wrap with roasted chicken, avocado, roasted tomatoes, romaine lettuce and labneh.
Lavash wrap with roasted chicken, avocado, roasted tomatoes, romaine lettuce and labneh.

As an Interactive Producer for KQED Science, I've always been drawn to cover a range of subjects about the natural world. Health and wellness-related stories interest me in particular -- and this month happens to be National Nutrition Month -- as I'm an avid cyclist. When I'm not behind a computer, you'll more often than not find me riding one of my bicycles.

One challenge I decided to undertake this year is completing as many of the routes organized by the San Francisco Randonneurs as I can. (Randonneuring is a type of cycling endurance event that originated in France; check out this website for more info.) My third event on the calendar is the Russian River 300k coming up this Saturday. My husband and I will be pedaling 186 miles within a 20-hour period. That's a lot of time on the bike -- and we'll need to eat a lot of calories to keep us going.

I'm generally not a fan of sports drinks, energy gels or bars that athletes typically rely on during training sessions or competitive events. (There are some exceptions I'll make when it comes to bars, see my list further down in this post.) Many of them have a lot of artificial ingredients, additives and preservatives and frankly, aren't really that appetizing to me. Some of them disagree with my stomach, especially ones that contain stimulants like guarana. I prefer to eat food that looks like, well, food -- so that means I'll avoid purple sugary liquids, gelatinous packets of goo and waxy energy bricks. For me, a big part of enjoying a meal is the psychological aspect. I just don't feel as nourished when I eat junk food or a lot of processed, prepackaged products (although pizza and burgers definitely hold a dear place in my hopefully healthy heart.) So lately I've been brainstorming ways to make healthy, portable meals in the small amount of spare time that I have during the evenings or weekends.

I recently acquired a copy of sports physiologist Allen Lim's book, "The Feed Zone," a cookbook specifically geared towards serious cyclists (although his recipes can be used by anyone who leads an active lifestyle.)

The Feed Zone Cookbook

"There is an overwhelming amount of scientific and real-world evidence that demonstrates that a diet rich in carbohydrates is critical to success in endurance sports," Lim writes in the introduction of his book. "Carbohydrates are stored in the body as liver and muscle glycogen. Without it, an athlete's ability to perform at high intensity is severely diminished, and when it is depleted the dreaded bonk is a distinct possibility."

Many athletes 'carbo-load,' or build up their stores of carbohydrates in advance of an event. But are there carbs that are better than others? Lim feels there's really no one-size-fits-all strategy and also discusses one of the more popular trends within health circles today -- gluten-free eating -- and his experimentation with the diet professionally.

"In the 2008 Tour de France, the Garmin cycling team did something that no other team had done before -- the team went almost entirely gluten-free, or, more correctly, wheat-free. The idea came about when some of our doctors hypothesized that going wheat-free would help reduce the inflammatory load on our riders over the course of the race."

Lim concludes that the results were mixed and it's best for individuals to listen to their own bodies to determine whether a bowl of pasta or quinoa will provide the best energy source in the long run.


For my own diet, eating mostly yeast-free and gluten-free generally works best for me. I feel less bloated and sluggish when I limit my intake of white bread, pasta and pastries. So I rely more on whole grains, tortillas, lavash and multi-grain bread as carb sources, along with fruits and vegetables.

The tricky part with my meals-on-wheels is figuring out how to carry as much food as possible in the small bag I have mounted on my handlebars.

Hopefully I can cram a ton of food into this bag for Saturday!
Hopefully I can cram a ton of food into this bag for this Saturday!

While there are mandatory stops along the way where we can buy prepared food -- we're required to get receipts at designated stops such as supermarkets as proof we're riding along the route -- it's faster, cheaper and oftentimes more delicious to eat our own homemade meals (although our lunch of flank steak bruschetta and tomato soup from The Cowgirl Cantina was superb.)

Here's a small sampling of what I've brought with me on recent rides:

  • Peanut butter, strawberry jelly and banana sandwiches on whole wheat bread
  • Whole wheat lavash with roasted chicken, roasted tomatoes, romaine lettuce, avocado and labneh
  • Hummus on whole wheat pita with cucumber and tomato
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Tangerines and small apples
  • Baby carrots
  • Dried nuts and fruit
  • ProBars, 18 Rabbits and Bonk Breakers (I've found these brands to be the tastiest and most wholesome energy bars and great for low sugar emergencies.)
  • I tend to avoid most dairy products and chocolate as they don't keep as well in my bag, so I'll pick up those items during the ride.

For the 300k, more PB & J and lavash sandwiches will be the staple items of our meals as they don't get soggy and are super filling.

Lavash wrap with roasted chicken, avocado, roasted tomatoes, romaine lettuce and labneh.
I pack my wraps in a lined, reusable snack bag.

I'm also adding mini-burritos to the mix (made with roasted chicken or tri-tip, black beans, brown rice, avocado, roasted tomato salsa, sauteed zucchini and peppers).

roasted chicken burrito

And here's one of Lim's famous recipes: rice cakes. I adapted his version and made mine with brown rice, Niman Ranch ham, eggs, scallions wrapped with seaweed and omitted the sugar and cheese.

seaweed burrito

seaweed burrito

Future combinations I'd like to try would be a brown rice burritos made with sauteed onions and ground turkey, spinach, dried or fresh cherries and cashews wrapped in a tortilla.

I've made this brown rice and ground turkey dish with sauteed red onion, spinach, fresh or dried cherries and cashews before and think it would be a great burrito filling.
I've made this brown rice and ground turkey dish in the past and think it would be a savory burrito filling.

I'm also a big fan of quinoa and have used a wide variety of ingredients in the past to make an assortment of salads.

Roasted chicken quinoa salad with roasted peppers, sheep and cow's milk feta, mixed olives, scallions, spicy pork sausage and sherry vinegar.
Roasted chicken quinoa with roasted peppers, sheep and cow's milk feta, mixed olives, scallions, spicy pork sausage and sherry vinegar.

Other potential candidates include roasted sweet potatoes with steak and arugula in a lavash wrap and roasted salmon, avocado and sesame rice balls. I'd also love to make some of my own energy bars. Lim includes recipes for sweet rice cakes in his book, including these variations: fig & honey; chocolate, peanut and coconut; almond and date.

So the next time you're out on the bike, need to pack snacks for a hike or a camping trip or just want something to bring with you to eat before or after a workout -- try some of these alternatives to candy bars and potato chips. And let me know if you have any great recipes of your own in the comments.


El Camino CX is in full #randonnerd mode!