A History of Grand Tour Nutrition

Ray English settles back in the worn club sofa of reflection and muses over the changing times and peculiar diets of the pro cyclist from yesteryear.Compared to their predecessors, starting from that first Tour, the current generation of Tour riders enjoys a five star lifestyle on the road. They have team buses that are hotels on wheels, filled with every modern convenience including a chef. These are not chefs that learnt their trade at a fast food chain but professionals through and through, an integral part of the team.

Modern teams employ nutritionists and dietitians who monitor the individual needs of the riders and design the meals with scientific precision. The musette of today’s mid-race feed contains hi-tech energy bars and gels plus maybe a sports drink. Need extra drinks during the stage? Then just drop back to the team car for more, then maybe toss away the often half full bidon that hopefully some fan will souvenir.

There was a time when drinking more than the bare minimum of water was frowned upon as it was believed that too much water diluted the digestive juices and caused a loss of energy.

In the early Tours when the ultra long stages saw riders on the road for often in excess of 12 hours, the riders not on a team; the ‘individuals’ or ‘touriste-routiers’ as they were known, would simply stop during a stage for a sit-down feed of soup and bread and maybe some very sweet black coffee. A cafe along the route would offer riders a meal and race fans would patronise the cafe to meet the riders and hear their Tour tales. Losing time for these individuals was irrelevant as many of them were going to finish hours behind the stage winner anyway and that 20 minute or so stop meant nothing; just finishing is what really counted! In those days it was no problem being fed if you were on a pro team as like today everything was catered for, your sponsor picked up the tab but those individual riders had to pay their own way—from food to overnight lodgings. Some may have been lucky enough to have had family or friends living in a stage town, or have been befriended by a fan that accommodated them free thus saving them money. But for a great many individuals the money ran out before the legs did. Some even had to ride home as they could not afford the train fare!

After World War II the Tour became far less brutal, there were no stages over 400km and few over 300km long and scientific diets for riders were still a few generations away. Mealtimes for the men of the Tour revolved around steak and at those early post war Tours it was horsemeat. Actually horsemeat was preferred by the riders as it was far less fatty than beefsteak because the horses were mainly former working beasts and deemed fitter animals. The problem was that steak took three hours to digest, or so was the thinking of the day and steak was eaten for breakfast as well as dinner so it was necessary to consume the breakfast steak three hours before the start of a stage. This was OK on the shorter stages but if the day’s stage was, say, 260km, with between seven and eight hours in the saddle, riders could be looking at an 8am start. Take off three hours and riders could be facing steak and rice at 5am!

An hour before the start of the stage a top-up of bread, and jam (no butter) might be eaten. Ever noticed that old time jerseys have front pockets too? Well these were filled with sugar cubes and dried fruit for instant energy – energy bars and gels were for the world of sci-fi back then. Riders were permitted two bidons and filled with such things as a mixture of watery rice, very sweet with raisons plus one with just water. A small hip flask often contained a rider’s personal choice of ‘boost juice’, often a mixture of strong sweet black coffee and cognac.

Once on the road the musette handed up to riders at the feed zone(s) would typically contain two rice cakes, two fruit tarts, two bananas, two peaches and two oranges plus more sugar cubes, it was lucky that the pockets on those wool jerseys had plenty of give in them! If a rider needed more food they could help themselves to the fruit on the trees in the roadside orchard. As these were the times of the two-bidon ‘rule’ they were refilled, not discarded. On hot days there would be a continuous line of domestiques dropping off the back of the peloton to refill bidons in any way they could find; village fountains, town horse troughs (fresh water having been added prior to the Tour passing), garden hoses, and the cafe. On particularly long hot stages riders would raid cafes for bottles of anything non-alcoholic and ride off with up to six bottles at a time stuffed into pockets and inside the jersey. ‘So what?’ you might say, but this was the age of the glass bottle and the Tour organisers outlawed it for obvious reasons and fined teams caught in the act. 

Because so much effort was put in to bidon refilling the water was rarely, if ever, used for external purposes. The only water a rider poured over their head was that handed up by a spectator because a rider could not be sure if it was anything other than plain water, as fans of rivals were known to pass up spiked water. (To this day a rider may accept ‘water’ from a spectator but only to douse himself.)

Drinking water was a valuable commodity not to be wasted, or so thought one Roger Hassenforder. ‘Hassen’ as reporters used to call him, won eight stages of the Tour during his career and spent four days in the yellow jersey in 1953. During one hot stage the amicable Hassen was asked by a rider for water and Hassen obliged. Much to his astonishment the rider poured its precious contents over his head before handing the empty bidon back. The next day a jovial Hassen rode alongside this rider and held out a bidon that was instantly accepted and again poured over his head but this time to Hassen's great amusement, for prior to the start of the stage Hassen had found at the team’s hotel reception a bottle of ink!  The rider was no doubt a marked man, literally the rest of the stage.

In the time before the helmet, the humble cotton cap was king and on hot days cabbage leaves were much sought after. Fitting the shape of the head, two or three cabbage leaves were placed under the cap and during the stage the hot sun would draw the moisture out of the cabbage leaves instead of the head and it was thought that this would prevent sunstroke. At the Tour, steak was not just meant for eating. It was considered a remedy to ease saddle soreness; a thin slice would be sewn into the shorts covering the tender area.

Many team managers of previous generations had quirky beliefs. One would only allow his riders to eat the yokes of eggs and then only raw, another would forbid the eating of bread crusts, but smoking at the dinner table was quite common! One manager would orientate his riders’ hotel beds north/south to assist digestion and recuperation, another would move all the beds of his riders so the head boards were as far away from the light switch as possible, maintaining the electrical waves given off by the switch were not letting the body relax.

While we in 2013 might snigger at the eccentric ways of riders past, I wonder if future generations will look back on our ways and methods and say, ‘It must have been weird racing in those times!’

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