How Cycling Works: Living on the Bike


Lunch time! Photo: MissingMaine.wordpress.com

Now that we’ve covered all the basics of racing a grand tour, what about how the riders “live” on the bikes? There is food that needs to be eaten, nature that needs answering, water that needs to refilled, plus clothes layered on and off. All of these things have to happen while riding a bike at speeds many sane people would consider insane. But, for pro cyclists, it’s just part of the game.

Food

Cyclists eat a lot. A lot, a lot. Especially cyclists that are riding in a three week race. They are constantly shoving food in their face to replace all the calories lost through racing. While 3,000 calories a day is recommended for an average man, a pro cyclist can burn up to 5,000 calories a day. To consume enough calories to replenish those lost calories and supplement of the next day’s racing, a racer has to be eating all the time. This means eating on the bike as well as off of it. To replenish a rider in the middle of a long stage, riders pass through a feed zone. In the feed zones, team soigneurs (French for “care giver”) stand by the side of the road with musettes full of food and water bottles. The bag is called a musette because it resembles the type of small bag with a shoulder strap often carried by soldiers or travelers. The soigneur stands at the side of the road with a musette in his/her outstretched arm and as the peloton comes barreling down the road at top speeds, a rider from his/her team will snatch the musette out of the soigneur’s hand. They’ll quickly hold up another bag, and the process is repeated. When the rider gets the bag, he’ll loop it around his neck and carry across his chest and proceed to empty the bag into his jersey pockets. He might not take everything, depending on what he likes to eat when he’s riding. Whatever is specifically in the bag, it will be something that contains lots of carbohydrates, the most magical of all the organic compounds when it comes to refueling the body.

Here’s a good video that Garmin-Transitions (now Garmin-Cervelo) did about how they feed their riders:

They’re allowed to take food outside of feed zones, from team cars.

An assisted pee break. Photo: IG Markets Cycling Facebook

When nature calls…

Now that we know how they feed themselves on the bike, what about bathroom breaks? They’re on their bikes for 4 or 5 hours a day, drinking tons of water- nature is going to call eventually. There are two options- on the bike or off the bike. Often, after the break has been established and the pace in the peloton has settled down, the leader or another higher placed GC rider will go to the front and indicate that it’s pee break time! Then, anyone with a need pulls over to the side and takes care of business. Those that don’t, continue riding, but at a sedate pace which allows those stopped to catch back up easily. A rider can just stop at the side for a pee break any time, if the pace is sedate enough that it will be easy to catch back up. However, often it is not possible to take the time to stop. So this means peeing on the fly. This usually involves moving to the back of the group and off to the side, usually with a teammate. The teammate will help stabilize the rider in need of a pee break and the rider will do his business. It ain’t easy, and requires some serious bike handling skills, but these guys are pros for a reason. In general, pee breaks (or “nature breaks” or “comfort breaks” if you’re a Eurosport commentator) are respected as a time when no one attacks or pushes the pace, and if it’s perceived that this is not respected, people can get angry. While it is considered very bad form for the TV crews and photographers to take pictures of these events, it is sometimes caught inadvertently by the TV cameras. This is more likely on Eurosport than Versus, as Eurosport spends more time on the race and less time on commercials. The strange twist to these pee breaks is that it’s technically against the rules to pee in public. There is at least one or two riders a day that get fined for “public urination.” I’m sure this is very subjective, as urinating in public is really the only option during races. However, I suspect it has something to do with how close to spectators the rider chooses to have his comfort break.

Water

While food is mostly delivered to the peloton during specific points, water is something that needs to be consumed throughout the race, especially on hot days. The riders are surely drinking more than the two bottles that fit on their bikes- this means they need someone to get water for them. During a race, if a rider wants water, he’ll usually go back to the team car and collect some bottles. A team leader will rarely go back for his own bottles- usually a domestique will collect as many bottles as he can carry to distribute to his team leader and teammates. Mostly this involves stuffing as many bottles as possible down his jersey!

So, now you’ve had a three part introduction to how cycling works. Let me know in the comments if there’s something about cycling that still baffles you…

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. I think your own experiences with biking are more interesting than this stuff. This is all stuff either everyone knows or you can find elsewhere. Tell us more about your own rides and your experiences as a new cyclist!

    Reply
    • Mattias

       /  June 25, 2013

      Actually, these three posts taught me a whole lot since I’m a total cycling newbie. I had the pleasure to watch Tour de Suisse passing by the city I’m currently living in and that made me curious about how the sport really works. I knew that the riders belonged to a number of teams but didn’t know their exact purpose and I had no idea about tactics. Now I will certainly enjoy watching cycling much more than I did before. I’ve pretty much only glanced at cycling during the olympic games.

      Thanks a lot to the author of the above mentioned blog posts!

      Reply

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