Thoughts on the use of EPO and blood doping in professional cycling

On Thursday July 17th yet another high-profile cyclist was thrown out of the Tour de France when Riccardo Ricco was taken into custody by the French gendarmes after he tested positive for a synthetic variant of EPO.  This post is in no way intended to express sympathy for Ricco or to argue that what he apparently did was justified.  As the rules currently stand EPO is a banned substance.  Riders who use it are cheating and they should be kicked out of the race.  Unless the drug test was a false positive, Ricco got what he deserved.  Throw the bums out.

The issue I want to consider here is not whether Ricco should have been punished, but whether blood doping and the use of EPO should be prohibited as forms of performance enhancement.  They are currently banned and there are good arguments for continuing to do so.  However, I think there is an alternative way to look at doping and EPO that should be considered.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in competitive sports is an enormous problem.  Many professional sports are addressing the problem by identifying banned substances, instituting testing procedures for those substances and legislating penalties to be applied to athletes who are found to have used the banned drugs.  From professional leagues that are more interested in maintaining the image of being anti-drug than in actually dealing with the problem, to drug tests that are often not conclusive, to athletes that lie about their drug use or insist they didn’t know they were taking a banned substance the problem of performance enhancing drugs in sport seems almost impossible to solve. 

And this is only the tip of a much larger iceberg.  I think consideration of this issue opens up a world of deeper questions about what constitues performance enhancement, whether some practices that are currently considered as illegal forms of enhancement might be acceptable or even desirable at some levels of sporting competition, and what functions we want different levels of sporting competition to fulfill in our culture.  Consider the following.

One of the desired ideals for sporting competition is that the competitors should begin from a level playing field, that none of the athletes be given an unfair advantage over the others.  The competition begins on a level playing field and the athlete who has trained harder, who understands the game better, who is more skilled, who is better able to maintain focus during the heat of the battle wins in the end.  At least that’s the way it should be.  A fundamental objection to the use of performance enhancing drugs is that they upset this level playing field by giving the drug user an advantage that is not due to his training, knowledge or skill.  Is this always true?  It depends on how you look at it.

The amount of oxygen carried by the blood is an essential determinant of performance in sports.  Oxygen is used to both carry energy to the muscles so that they can perform the work the sport requires and to carry waste products away from the muscles.  Oxygen carrying capacity is especially important in long term endurance events such as road racing in cycling where athletes must sustain very high levels of performance for hours without a break.  Many world-class athletes in high endurance sports have used artifical means to increase their oxygen carrying capacity in order to gain what can be a substantial competitive advantage.

Red blood cells

Oxygen is carried in the blood by red blood cells (RBCs) and an increase in the density of RBCs in the blood can greatly improve performance in endurance sports.  The two methods most commonly used to do this are blood doping and the the injection of EPO (erythropoietin).  Blood doping involves extracting blood from a donor, concentrating the blood so that it has a high proportion of RBCs, freezing the concentrate and then thawing it and injecting it into the athlete before the competion or during the competition in the case of multi-day events such as the Tour de France.  The donor can be either the athlete himself (autologous blood doping) or someone else with a compatible blood type (homologous blood doping).  EPO is a hormone that is naturally produced by the kidneys and that stimulates the production of RBCs in the bone marrow.  EPO can also be made in the laboratory and this type of pharmaceutical EPO can be injected under the skin to increase the body’s RBC production.  Ricco was charged with taking a variant of pharmaceutical EPO called CERA.

The use of EPO or blood doping can be difficult to detect.  Subcutaneously injected EPO typically cannot be detected 3 to 4 days after injection yet it has its maximum effect stimulating high levels of RBC production approximately 3 weeks later.  For that reason, banning an athlete for EPO use usually depends on catching him with EPO paraphanalia in his possession.  In Ricco’s case, the manufacturer, F. Hoffman-La Roche, worked with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) to develop a test for the drug.  Homologous blood doping (using someone else’s blood) can be detected by DNA differences between the donor and the athlete’s RBCs.  Autologous blood doping (using your own blood) is extremely difficult to detect and no tests are currently available that are considered reliable enough to use in competitive sports.

In addition to relying on blood tests that are specific for EPO use or doping many professional sports use hematocrit as an indicator of illegal performance enhancement.  Hematocrit measures the proportion of the blood volume that is composed of RBCs.  Hematocrits above a certain level are taken to be abnormal and are officially used as indicators of doping or EPO use.  The UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), the organizing body of professional cycling, has set 50% as the upper allowable hematocrit level.  If a rider tests with a hematocrit above 50, he is banned from competition. 

It is often cited that the “normal” hematocrit range in adult males is between 41 and 50.  This is the two standard deviation range which encompasses approximately two thirds of the general population.  The upper level of the three standard deviation range for hematocrit is 54.  Approximately one third of the general population falls outside the two standard deviation range that is cited as “normal”.  More to the point, approximately one sixth of the general population (about 16.6%)  will have naturally occurring hematocrit levels above 50.  We can also expect that those individuals with higher than normal hematocrit levels will be disproportionately represented in the population of endurance athletes because the increased oxygen carrying capacity of their blood gives them a natural advantage in endurance sports.  The UCI recognizes this problem by allowing exceptions to the 50 hematocrit rule for cyclists who have a long and consistent history of hematocrit measures above 50 as indicative of a naturally occuring high hematocrit level.

All professional endurance sports ban both EPO and blood doping as illegal forms of performance enhancement.  Should they do this?  If we consider them as a means of gaining an unfair advantage over the opponent, which is the way they are currently used, the answer is clearly “yes”.  However, I think another perspective is possible. 

Everyone has a naturally occuring hematocrit level that is genetically determined.  This natural hematocrit is not subject to training, it is what it is.  Natural factors such as training at high altitude or anemia, and artificial factors such as the use of EPO and blood doping can temporarily increase or decrease hematocrit but they do not affect the base hematocrit that each of us is born with.  This means that independently of any steps the competitor may take to increase hematocrit, some endurance athletes have a competitive advantage because of their genetics.  In other words, with all other things such as training regimen, skill level, knowledge of the sport, strength of will and competitive focus held equal, the endurance athlete with a naturally high hematocrit will have an advantage over the athlete who was born with a low hematocrit. 

With regard to hematocrit, a critically important factor in endurance sports, the playing field is not level.  The low hematocrit athlete starts at a disadvantage that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that is relevant to the sport.  It’s not about training regimen or intensity, it’s not about knowledge of the sport, the competition or the opponent, it’s not about trained skills and it’s not about heart, will or desire.  It’s about which sperm happened to fertilize which egg when the athlete was conceived.

Suppose we shift the common perspective on the use of EPO and blood doping.  Rather than think of them as a means to unbalance the competition by giving an athlete an unfair advantage, suppose we think of them as medical technologies we can use to level the playing field so that some athletes don’t begin the competition at a marked disadvantage because of their genetic inheritance?  Viewed from this different perspective, EPO and blood doping could be used to bring all of the athletes up to the same hematocrit level so that the competition could be decided on the basis of factors the athlete can control such as training, knowledge and desire. 

Under the current system EPO and blood doping are used surreptitiously by some athletes to give them an unfair advantage over their opponents.  These techniques unbalance the playing field.  However, if we make EPO and blood doping available to any athlete who wants to use them, these technologies can eliminate a naturally occurring advantage that benefits some athletes but not others.  The technologies level the playing field.

How might EPO or blood doping be used in this way?  Set a hematocrit level as a cut off point such as the level of 50 currently used by the UCI.  Competitors may use any means they wish such as training at altitude or using EPO to bring their hematocrit up to this level.  The athelete is tested before every competition, or in multi-day events such as the Tour de France before every stage, and they must have a hematocrit level below the cut off.  Under this system hematocrit level would function like weight levels in wrestling or boxing.  If you don’t make level, you can’t compete in the event.  You’re not labled as a cheater, fined and banned from the sport.  You simply cannot compete in the current event because your hematocrit level gives you an unfair advantage. 

This approach to the problem has several advantages.  First, by reorienting our thinking away from the view that these medical technologies are a means of introducing unfair advantage to the view that they are a means of eliminating unfair advantage we reorient the relationship between the athlete and his sport.  The athlete is no longer a cheater who is afraid of discovery and the organizing body of the sport is no longer treating its athletes like criminals to be caught.  Second, medical technologies that currently are used in secret and not in the best and safest of ways would be used in the open and in much safer conditions.  Third, as athletes strain to get as close to the cut off point as possible without going over and being eliminated from competition, our knowledge of how to use technologies like EPO and blood doping would increase and the conditions under which these technologies can be safely used would become better understood. Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, a playing field unbalanced by genetic factors is leveled so that competitions are less likely to be determined by the DNA of the athlete’s parents and more likely to depend on what the athlete has done to prepare for the event.

The underlying issue here is how professional sports in general and cycling in particular should respond to advances in our scientific understanding of the anatomical and physiological factors that affect athletic performance and the medical technologies that are developed from this understanding.  New technologies in the fields of drug treatments, prosthetics, and genetic engineering have the potential to substantially alter human capabilities and performance levels. How should sport respond to this advancing knowledge?  One possibility is that medical technologies could be evaluated individually to determine whether they can be used to enhance fair competition if made available to all of the competitors as opposed to unbalancing competition when they are only used by those who are willing to cheat.

Is this the right way to think about EPO and blood doping?  I don’t know but it’s worth considering.

Cycling Nutrition: Eating After the Ride

Post ride recovery in Ireland

The information in this post has been revised and substantially enhanced in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on  The revisions include new information about the relationship between protein and carbohydrates in post-ride recovery based on research published after this post was written. The book also has new sections devoted to rehydration and glycogen, protein, and electrolyte replacement following the first hour after you get off the bike. For information about Nutrition for Cyclists and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again.  Laura and I have had the good fortune to go on several bicycle tours that last one to two weeks.  The tours are advertised for advanced or experienced riders and typically feature hilly or mountainous terrain and daily rides in the 60 to 125 mile range.  You ride from place to place and a van carrys your luggage.  The other riders on the tour are almost always experienced cyclists, at least in the sense that they have been riding for many years and are used to riding long miles.  These tours usually schedule a day or two off when the riders are free to do whatever they want.  This has always puzzled me.  Why would experienced cyclists pay the steep cost of going on one of these tours, go through all the hassle of getting their bike to some exotic location, and then spend a day or two not riding in terrain that provides spectacular cycling?  The people who run these tours obviously know more about it than I do because by the third or fourth day of the tour almost all of the riders are noticeably lacking in energy and enthusiasm, are irritably fretting about why they feel so tired, and are looking forward to the break.  Meanwhile, Laura and I are riding extra miles every day because we’re having so much fun, are fresh and ready to go every morning, and are typically the only ones out on our bikes on the day off.

What’s going on?  Why are we riding more miles with less overall fatigue than almost all of the other riders?  I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain the answer lies in post-ride nutrition.  Many of these other riders are active members of their local cycling clubs.  They shine on organized centuries and long weekend rides with members of the club.  After the ride everyone goes out for ice cream or pizza and beer.  They are clueless about post-ride nutrition and have given no thought at all to how what they eat when they get off the bike can affect how they will ride the next day and the day after that.  They finish the first day in glycogen debt and fail to adequately replenish their glycogen stores before the next day’s ride.  Every day the situation gets worse and the riding becomes more unpleasant until by the third or fourth day their blood sugar levels are so low they’re grinding it out with their head down and need a day off to physically and mentally recover.  All of this can be avoided if you pay attention to what’s happening in your body when you get off the bike and take advantage of the opportunity your body gives you to prepare for strenuous activity on the following day.  Most of it comes down to what you eat in the first 30 to 40 minutes after you get off the bike.

When you finish a long ride your glycogen stores are exhausted and you are very likely to have low blood glucose.  Your body responds to the glycogen debt by going into overdrive to replace the missing glycogen.  Excess glucose in the bloodstream is converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles and the liver.  Under normal circumstances insulin is used in this conversion process.  However, after an extended period of exercise when the muscle glycogen stores are exhausted an abbreviated and accelerated glycogen-storage process kicks into gear that converts glucose into glycogen and stores it in the muscles without the need for insulin.  This period of intense glycogen production and storage lasts for 30  to 60 minutes.

In order to take advantage of this brief period of accelerated glycogen storage the system must have blood glucose that can be converted to glycogen.  And there’s the problem.  When you finish a long or intense ride you are almost certainly low on blood glucose.  Your system is ready to rapidly and efficiently replenish your empty glycogen stores but it doesn’t have the glucose it needs to make the glycogen.

The solution is to flood your system with carbohydrates that can be quickly converted to blood glucose which will in turn supply the accelerated glycogen production and storage mechanism with the glucose it needs.  Although the enhanced glycogen production mechanism will operate for roughly 60 minutes after exercise has stopped, keep in mind that it takes time for carbohydrates in the stomach to be broken down into useable blood glucose.  Food you eat during the second half of that 60 minute window may still be in the stomach being digested when the enhanced glycogen-storage process ends.  The first 30 minutes after you get off the bike are critical.  If you are going to fully replenish your glycogen stores for the next day’s ride, you must ingest enough carbs during those 30 minutes to flood your system with glucose.  If you don’t, it doesn’t matter what you eat for the rest of the day; you will be building on a weak foundation and you won’t have the glycogen reserves you need to ride with strength day after day.  This cannot be stressed enough; you have to reload your system with carbs during the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.

How many carbs do you need to eat during the critical 30 minutes?  Current thinking holds that you should aim to ingest one half gram of carbohydrate for each pound of body weight during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike.  This is easy to figure out; simply divide your weight in half and eat that many grams of carbs.  For example, I weigh about 160 lbs so I need to eat 80 grams of carbs within 30 minutes of getting off the bike.  There is also some evidence that combining these carbs with protein may facilitate the glycogen production and storage process.  The recommended ratio of carbs to proteins is 4 to 1.  Thus, at 160 lbs I need 80 grams of carbs and 20 grams of protein.

Eating enough food to provide this much carbohydrate in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike can be very difficult.  The 30 minute part is much more important than the specific amount of carbs and protein part.  If you can’t manage to choke down the full recommended amount, eat as much as you can, but make absolutely certain you do it in the first 30 minutes after you get off the bike.

You can eat any kind of food you like as long as it’s high in carbs.  Simple carbohydrates that can be more quickly broken down into blood glucose are better than complex carbohydrates that take a longer time because you need to get the glucose in the blood stream within a short window of time.  There are two key factors that will end up driving your 30 minute carbohydrate feast; the food has to be available immediately when you get off the bike, and you have to be willing to eat it.  The carb sources you’ve been eating on the bike will work equally well during this critical 30 minute window but you may be sick and tired of sports drink, energy gel, low-fat fig newtons or whatever you’ve been eating by this time.  Laura and I drink a Endurox - picture from accelsport.comrecovery drink called Endurox that contains carbs and proteins in the recommended 4 to 1 ratio.  We find it’smuch easier to drink a large number of carbs than eat them immediately after a long ride.  It’s also very easy to have the drink ready at the end of the ride.  Endurox comes in a powdered form that you mix with water.  We premeasure the powder, put it in a baggie, and carry it with us on the ride.  Water is almost always available at ride’s end and we simply mix the powder with fresh water in our water bottle and chug it down.  Although the manufacturer would have you believe otherwise, there’s nothing special about Endurox other than that we like the way it tastes.  A number of companies make recovery drinks that provide huge carbohydrate loads for immediate post-exercise glycogen replacement.

After the critical 30 minute window, try to continue to ingest carbohydrate at regular intervals throughout the remainder of the day.  Eat small amounts steadily rather than eating nothing and then pigging out at dinner.  Avoid alcohol because it will interfere with the uptake of glycogen and will also dehydrate you.  Avoiding alcohol is especially important immediately after the ride when the body is in the critical glycogen restocking period.

What you eat during the 30 minutes after you get off the bike is probably the single most important factor affecting how you will fare if you’re riding more than 90 minutes a day for more than 2 days.  If you get the carbs you need during this 30 minute window, you can ride for days and days without problems; if you don’t, you’re most likely going to be tired and out of energy by the third or fourth day.

For more information about what to eat (and what to avoid eating) after a ride, see Eating After the Ride Part 2.

Cycling Nutrition: The Bonk

The information in this post has been moderately revised and combined with information about cramping, dehydration, and electrolyte loss in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on  For information about Nutrition for Cyclists and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

So . . . you know that muscles burn glucose for fuel, your body stores enough glucose in the form of glycogen to fuel about 90 minutes of moderate exercise, and you need to ingest carbohydrates to provide more glucose for longer or more strenuous rides.  You know about what to eat and when to eat it to get the carbs you need while you’re on the bike.  But you keep hearing about this “bonk” thing.  You keep hearing you’ll bonk if you don’t get the carbs you need.  What’s this bonk everyone keeps talking about?  Believe me, you don’t want to know.  At least you don’t want to know on the basis of firsthand experience.  Reading about the bonk so you know what it is and how to avoid it is good.  Having a bonk is not good.

Eat before you're hungry

“Bonking” is what cyclists call hypoglycemia which is the medical term for abnormally low levels of blood glucose.  You bonk when you have exhausted your glycogen stores, haven’t ingested enough carbs to produce more blood glucose, and are still riding the bike.  Anyone can bonk if they don’t eat properly on the bike.  Lance Armstrong, who probably knows as much about cycling as anyone on the planet, got wrapped up in the race on a stage in the 2000 Tour de France, forgot to eat, and bonked on the climb up the Col de Joux Plane in the French Alps.  The only reason he didn’t lose the Tour de France that day is because he had an iron will and an inhuman capacity to suffer.  Afterwards he called it the worst day on the bike he’d ever had.

Bonking can be especially deadly for cyclists because your muscles aren’t the only things in your body that burn glucose for fuel.  Your brain burns glucose too.  That means that not having enough glucose in your blood to fuel the system has mental and emotional effects in addition to physical effects.  If blood glucose levels drop too low, the body will act to protect the brain and will begin to shut down the muscles first.  However, the muscles won’t completely shut down before the brain begins to be affected and the mental and emotional consequences of bonking can be more dangerous to the cyclist than the physical consequences.

When you bonk, physical exertion becomes extraordinarily difficult.  Your muscles don’t have the fuel they need to operate effectively and forcing them to work becomes more and more difficult.  You feel extremely weak and lethargic.  You may tremble and shake uncontrollably and sweat profusely.  You feel dizzy and light headed.  Your sense of balance is upset.  You may have heart palpitations.  You will probably feel ravenously hungry.  On the mental and emotional side you will probably feel nervous and anxious.  You may become confused and disoriented.  You will have low emotional control and will become hostile, belligerant and easily irritated.  You may experience overwhelming feelings of being defeated, hopeless and unable to go on.  Your awareness of what’s going on around you will shrink and can arrive at an extreme form of tunnel vision in which the only thing you’re aware of is the spot on the road ahead that you’re staring at.  You may have difficulty speaking.  At the extreme, hypoglycemia can produce seizures and coma.  In a word, it sucks.

What do you do if you bonk?  You need to get your blood glucose levels up and you need to do it quickly.  Ingest simple carbohydrates that can be rapidly processed into blood glucose by the digestive system.  The best source for these kinds of carbs that you’re likely to have with you on the bike is a sports drink like Gatorade.  Other sources of simple carbohydrates include energy gels (make sure you drink plenty of water with these), sugar cubes or sweet candy like gumdrops or jellybeans.  Complex carbohydrates like energy bars will take longer to process into blood glucose and will only provide relief in the longer term.  If you catch the bonk early, you can keep riding while you  refuel.  If you let the bonk go too far, get off the bike until you recover.  You don’t want to be riding when your sense of balance is bad, you’re disoriented and you’re unaware of what’s going on around you.

After you’ve bonked and begun to recover, pay careful attention to what you eat for the rest of the ride and make sure you keep your glucose level up by regularly and frequently taking in fast absorbing carbs.  Sports drinks are very good for this.  Perhaps the hardest part of reacting to a bonk is mental.  You need to try and be aware that you’re not thinking clearly and not being as aware of what’s going on around you as you need to be to ride safely.  Forcibly arouse yourself from your lethargy and pay extra attention to what’s happening around you.  Of course this is easier said than done; it’s not easy to be aware that you’re not thinking clearly when you’re not thinking clearly.

Whether you’ve started to bonk or not, try and get in the habit of monitoring yourself for the early signs of a bonk.  The ride beginning to feel like a chore?  Getting irritable and angry?  Not paying as much attention to what’s happening around you?  If you catch it early and replenish your blood glucose before it gets out of hand, you can usually keep riding safely and effectively.  If you have a regular riding partner whose riding abilities and demeanor on the bike are familiar to you, be aware of their condition as well.  A rider who isn’t thinking clearly is likely to misinterpret or misunderstand what’s happening to them in the early stage of a bonk.  Help them out.  Be aware that you may have to treat them carefully as they may be experiencing increased levels of irritability and hostility combined with decreased emotional control.  If you think you might be bonking, tell your ride partner so they can help you.

Most of the time bonking happens when you’ve ridden for a long time and haven’t been eating properly.  However, a bonk can also happen in unexpected circumstances.  Laura and I once rode in a week-long cycling tour through the Rocky Mountains in the Glacier National Park area in Montana and Canada.  We approached this tour as a cycling vacation rather than a training opportunity and rode at a much slower pace than we usually do.  We also stopped and had lunch mid-ride with other riders on the tour which was something we had never done before.  The lunches were great with good company and good food but we had no experience in how to incorporate eating a meal like this into a long ride.  The first time we had lunch mid-ride I completely screwed it up.  We continued riding after lunch and when we were about 20 miles from finishing I began to experience the early stages of a bonk.  What had happened?  I hadn’t pigged out at lunch but even a small lunch was much more than I would typically eat during a ride.  My stomach was full and the idea of eating either didn’t occur to me or, if it did, it wasn’t attractive.  Although my stomach was full, it was full of mostly protein and fat which could not be broken down fast enough to provide the energy I needed to finish the ride.  I was getting very little glucose from the food I’d eaten and my glycogen stores were exhausted so I started to bonk and didn’t recognize it for what it was.  Those last 20 miles were miserable; the temperature had dropped, we were riding directly into a strong headwind, and I was completely demoralized and shivering uncontrollably by the time we reached the lodge where we were scheduled to stay the night.  Fortunately, the lodge had an enormous fire roaring in the center of the main area with a bench-like hearth running around it on all four sides.  While we waited for the van to arrive with our luggage, I sat huddled by the fire in a private little world of misery slowly recovering and getting warm.  The lesson I learned?  You can bonk on a full stomach if your stomach’s full of the wrong things.

As unpleasant and dangerous as bonking can be, the good news is that it’s easily avoided.  Start your clock as soon as you get on the bike and eat regularly and properly throughout the ride and you’ll never have to experience a bonk.  Eat before you’re hungry, eat before you bonk.

Cycling Nutrition: Eating on the Bike

The information in this post has been revised and enhanced in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on  The enhancements include increased attention given to how fats are processed during the ride, an easy-to-calculate metric for evaluating whether different foods are likely to make for good on-the-bike eating, and an extended section on keeping hydrated during the ride. For information about Nutrition for Cyclists and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

I’m continually amazed at the things I see cyclists eat during and after rides but am never surprised to see the effects ranging from loss of energy, through loss of concentration leading to mistakes and sometimes Juan Antonio Flecha grabbing a musette bag of food during the 2007 Tour de France - piscture from daylife.cominjury, to a full-fledged bonk.  The basic roles played by glycogen storage, blood glucose and the extraction of glucose from ingested carbohydrates are well understood as is what you need to do to avoid nutrition-based problems while you’re riding.  That doesn’t stop riders from falling prey to these problems all of the time, however.  Sometimes cyclist’s ideas about nutrition are based more on currently popular nutritional fads than sound knowledge.  Sometimes riders have an emotional commitment to eating particular foods and don’t want to change.  And sometimes you know what to do but you just can’t bring yourself to do it.  Whatever the reason, ignoring basic endurance nutrition almost always means trouble.

As detailed in another post, muscles burn glucose for fuel and the body stores glucose in the form of glycogen which can be broken down into useable glucose when working muscles need an increased fuel supply.  The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise.  If you are going to ride more than 90 minutes, or if you are going to experience periods of high intensity riding, such as strenuous hill climbing, on a ride of less than 90 minutes, you are going to need to get glucose to fuel your muscles from food you ingest during the ride.

What kind of food should you eat?  The answer is well known and well supported by decades of research into endurance athletics.  Carbohydrates.  Why carbohydrates?  Primarily because their chemical structure is such that they can be broken down quickly and efficiently into useable glucose.   Glucose can be derived from fats and proteins as well as carbs and fats might seem to be an especially good source of energy because fats have roughly twice the number of calories as carbs or proteins.  The problem with both fats and proteins is that the process of breaking them down to extract useable glucose takes a long time and is inefficient.  You have to burn more energy to extract glucose from fats than you do to extract it from carbs.  In fact, fat metabolism (the process of breaking the fat down) requires carbohydrate that could have been more efficiently burned for glucose if wasn’t used to break down the fat.  Moreover, and possibly of more importance to you while you’re on the bike, it takes a fairly long time to extract glucose from fat or protein.  If you eat fat or protein loaded food during a ride, the ride may well be over by the time the fats and proteins have been processed to the point where you can get energy from them.  In the meantime, all the energy used in breaking down the fats hasn’t been available for powering the muscles.  Carbs, on the other hand, can be broken down quickly and efficiently to provide the glucose needed to keep going on the bike.  They are absolutely essential for the long-distance cyclist.

Where do you get the carbs you need during a long ride?  Some high-carb foods like pasta and rice are impractical to eat during a ride; you need high carb, low fat foods that you can easily carry with you on the Raisin - good source of carbs and easy to eat on the bike - picture from azarsahand.combike.  Good on-the-bike foods include dried fruit like raisins or dates, bagels, and low fat bite-sized cookies.  Energy bars are a terrific source of carbs.  For example, a single Powerbar has 45 grams of carbohydrate and only 2 grams of fat.  There are also energy gels made specifically for endurance athletes such as Power Gel or Goo that have very high doses of carbs.  If you eat high density carb supplements like energy bars or gel, make sure to drink plenty of water with them or they will sit like sludge in your stomach and you won’t get the quick transfer of carbs into blood glucose you need.  Another excellent source of carbs are sports drinks like Gatorade.  These drinks are usually loaded with carbohydrates and although they are marketed as important sources of electrolytes, the carbs they supply are probably of much more importance for the endurance cyclist.

When do you eat?  A common cycling mantra is “Eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty”.  This is excellent advice.  By the time the body reacts to low levels of fuel or fluid and sends hunger and thirst signals it’s too late.  Rather than stopping and eating a large amount of food (such as lunch) mid ride, nibble high carb foods frequently throughout the ride.  This not only provides immediate glucose, it can help protect the body’s glycogen stores; if the muscles are burning glucose from the low-fat fig newton you just ate, they’re not burning your stored glycogen.   Try to ingest some carbohydrates every 30 minutes or so.  Start eating during your first hour on the bike.  The sooner you begin drawing needed energy from food intake the longer you can keep a reserve of stored glycogen.

How do you carry the food?  Eating on the bike isn’t easy, especially in the first hour when you probably won’t feel hungry.  Stopping to eat makes eating even more of a hassle which makes it more likely you’ll skip it.  Bad idea.  When pros like the rider in the picture at the top of this post ride in a race, they have feed zones where they pick up a musette bag filled with enough food to get them through the next segment of the race.  You won’t have this luxury so you’ll have to carry nibble food in a fanny pack or your rear jersey pockets and learn to eat while you ride.  Because I don’t like to hassle with getting food out of wrappers or putting uneaten food away while I’m riding, I usually bring bite-sized foods with me on the bike.  If I have something larger like a Powerbar, I cut it up into bite-sized pieces before the ride.  To get at food easily I put it in a baggie and then roll the baggie up without sealing it.  When it’s time for food, I simply unroll the baggie, reach in and pull out something to eat.  No fuss, no muss and no garbage like food wrappers to put away when I’m done.  It takes a surprising amount of practice to get in the habit of eating regularly on the bike.  Practicing eating may sound like a crazy idea but it’s very easy to forget and run into trouble later.  Note the time your ride starts and make yourself nibble some food every 30 minutes.

What’s the best kind of food to eat on the bike?  Disciplining yourself to eat by the clock on the bike is difficult.  It can be a hassle to get out the food, riding with food in your mouth can be unpleasant, and sometimes eating can be the last thing you feel like doing.  For all of these reasons one of the most important considerations when deciding what kind of food you should bring with you on the bike is whether or not you’ll actually eat it when the time comes.  Having some kind of goo, gel or energy bar with you that is marketed as “scientifically proven” to be the optimal energy source for the endurance athlete and is endorsed by famous cyclists is useless if you won’t eat it because you think the stuff tastes like shit or feels disgusting in your mouth.  It’s easy to find an excuse not to eat when you’re on the bike.  Bring food that is mainly carbs but bring food you like.  It’s better to get a little fat with your carbs by eating a low-fat bite sized cookie than getting no carbs at all because the thought of a mouthful of Goo makes you want to puke.  Experiment with different foods to find a combination that is high in carbs and low in fats and proteins that you will eat while you’re on the bike.

Can I have too many carbs?  If you’re going to be ingesting large amounts of carbohydrate during the course of a ride, you should be aware that high concentrations of carbohydrate in the stomach can cause gastrointestinal distress such as nausea.  The more you rely on dense carb sources like gels and energy bars, the more you’re likely to run into this problem.  If you listen to live broadcasts from multi-day stage races like the Tour de France you will frequently hear reports of professional riders that are having gastrointestional problems during the race.  Individuals vary widely in their sensitivity to carbohydrate concentration so you will have to experiment to find your limits.  If you’re feeling nauseous, drink water to reduce the concentration of carbohydrate in your stomach and lengthen your feed time until you feel better.

What happens if I don’t eat?  Ingesting carbs while you’re cycling isn’t always easy and it it isn’t always fun but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to have the energy you need to finish your ride.  Failing to take in the carbs you need can lead to pronounced losses of energy and strength, reduced awareness of what’s going on around you, and increased irritability and hostility, all combined with the feeling that finishing the ride is an unbearable and impossible task.  In other words, you could bonk.  Not eating can turn a pleasant ride into an unpleasant one or a challenging ride into a nightmare.  Eat before you’re hungry and continue eating throughout the ride.

The ride’s over, now what?  If your’re going to ride for two or more days in a row, what you eat iimediately after a ride is as important as what you eat during the ride.  Find out about post-ride recovery here.


Cycling Nutrition: The Basics – Glucose, Glycogen and Carbohydrates

More information about the basics of fueling the muscles and hydration can be found in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on  For information about the book and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

While proper nutrition is one of the most important factors affecting long-distance cycling on a day-in, day-out basis, there is so much misinformation out there that knowing what to eat and when to eat it can be Burning glucosedifficult.  Part of the reason for this is that it’s early days yet for nutrition science; much remains to be learned and nutritional theories are often revised as new information becomes available.  Another reason is that the subject of sports nutrition is confused in the minds of many with the subject of dieting.  Unfortunately, dieting in the US is a multimillion dollar industry that is fat with fads and outright foolishness.  Finally, many cyclists seem to have a deep emotional commitment to their cycling-related eating habits and resist change.  In these Cycling Nutrition posts I’ll try to present nutritional information that is based on research found in peer-reviewed scientific journals on nutrition and cycling and endurance sports in general.  In this post we look at the basics of how muscles are fueled that underlie every discussion of nutrition for cyclists. In other posts we examine eating during a ride, eating after the ride, and bonking.

Muscles burn glucose for energy.  The longer you ride or the faster you ride, the more glucose your muscles need for fuel.  When you get on the bike and start pedaling, the demand for glucose for your leg muscles increases and a signal goes out to the body to start supplying the glucose you need.

Glycogen and glucose

Where does the glucose come from?  The body doesn’t store raw glucose.  Instead, it makes glucose from other substances.  Glucose can be derived from breaking down stored fat and protein.  Subcutaneous fat (the excess fat stored under the skin) is an especially good energy source because fat contains roughly twice the number of calories as either protein or carbohydrate.  This means you get more fuel in the form of blood glucose from breaking down a gram of fat than from a gram of either protein or carbohydrate.  Indeed, breaking down stored fat to increase the level of blood glucose is the reason why exercise leads to weight loss.  The problem with relying on breaking down fat to produce glucose is that the process is relatively slow and energy intensive.  Metabolizing (breaking down) fat can be a useful long term source of energy but it is too slow and inefficient to support immediate and short term demands for glucose to fuel ongoing athletic activity.

In order to have fast access to glucose when needed, excess glucose in the blood is stored in a form known as glycogen.  Glycogen can be quickly broken down to supply glucose as needed.  The main storage locations for glycogen in the body are the muscles and the liver.  Liver glycogen is volatile in the sense that it doesn’t last long.  This is because liver glycogen serves as an energy source for the entire body.  When liver glycogen is metabolized the glucose that is produced enters the blood stream and can be used any place in the body where it’s needed.  If you go to bed with with liver glycogen stored at maximum capacity, a large proportion of it will be gone when when you wake up because it was used to fuel the body’s needs while you slept.

Muscle glycogen is more stable in the sense that once stored it remains in place much longer.  This is because muscle glycogen does not enter the bloodstream.  The glycogen stored in an individual muscle can only provide glucose for that muscle.

So, you’re pedaling along burning glucose derived from glycogen stored in your liver and your cycling muscles and everything’s just peachy.  Until you run out of stored glycogen.  The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate intensity exercise.  What happens when that glycogen is used up?  Where do your muscles get the glucose they need to keep working?  Some of it can come from fat that has been slowly breaking down while you’ve been riding but that won’t be enough to supply your needs.  Once you’ve exhausted your glycogen stores, most of the glucose you need is going to come from what you’ve been eating and drinking during the ride.  This is where carbohydrates enter the picture.

Basic nutrition for any endurance sport such as cycling is primarily about carbohydrates for the simple reason that carbs can be broken down to supply glucose much more quickly and efficiently than either fats or proteans.  While you’re on the bike you need a steady supply of carbs to both fuel ongoing activity and stretch the time before your stored glycogen is completely exhausted.  When you’re off the bike you need carbs to replace the glycogen you burned during the ride you just finished.  For anyone engaged in an athletic activity that lasts for 90 minutes or more, carbs are what basic nutrition is all about.



Cycling with Cars: Riding the Line

Many new cyclists or cyclists who are thinking about using their bike to commute to work are anxious about riding in the road with traffic.  It’s not as scary as it looks and in many circumstances riding with Cycling in traffic - picture from labreform.orgcars is actually safer than riding in segregated bicycle lanes or what are euphimistically called “bicycle paths”.  If you’re going to be at all serious about road cycling or are going to commute to work you are going to have to share the road with cars.  How to ride a bike in traffic can be a controversial topic that generates discussions informed by passionately held ideologies and beliefs.  The advice and opinions expressed here are based on many years and tens of thousands of miles spent sharing the road with cars.  I ride with cars every day and I don’t want to be killed, maimed or seriously injured on the bike.  These are some of the ways I’ve found to most effectively accomplish those things.  Keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules about riding in traffic.  You have to evaluate and adapt to each situation separately.  Riding safely with cars involves riding the line and riding defensively among other things.

The first question you have to ask if you’re going to ride in the road with cars is where in the road you should ride.  People who are not used to riding with traffic are likely to say, “as far away from the traffic as I can get.”  That seems like it makes sense but in most cases it’s exactly the wrong thing to do.  Why is that?  One of the most important things to keep in mind when sharing the road with cars, maybe the most important thing, is that it is absolutely essential that the drivers of the cars see you and be aware of you.  This seems so obvious that you might wonder why it needs to be mentioned at all.  The reason is that drivers generally aren’t looking for cyclists, they’re looking for other cars, and it’s very easy not to be aware of something that’s right in front of you when you’re looking for something else.  To see a terrific example of what I’m talking about, check out this video.  It’s only about a minute long and it’s very cool. . . . .  See what I mean?  You’re already wearing that bright and garish jersey to make yourself more visible to the drivers, you also need to ride where they have a better chance of both seeing you and being aware of you.

Riding the line

So where should you ride?  On the outer (right hand) edge of the driving lane, not on the outer edge of the road near the curb.  Many roads have a solid white line that separates the roadway from the shoulder.  You should ride as close to that white line as you can.  Depending on road conditions and the width of the shoulder, you can ride on either the roadway side of the line with the cars or the shoulder side of the line but you should try to stay close to the line.  It’s also a good idea not to get in the habit of riding directly on the line.  Road markings are usually made using a plastic or epoxy based paint and they get slippery when wet.  You’re more likely to have your wheels suddenly go out from under you on a wet road when you’re riding over the painted lines on the road.  If you get in the habit of riding directly on the painted line in dry conditions, you’re likely to unthinkingly ride on the painted line when the road is wet as well.  Practice riding to either side of the line.

Road debris - picture from humantransport.orgOn a road with a paved shoulder of even a few feet, the closer you ride to the outside edge of the roadway, the further you move away from the area of the road the driver is watching.  The drivers may be able to see you but they will be less likely to be aware of you.  In addition, the closer you get to the edge of the roadway the more likely you are to run into road debris like stones, rocks, gravel, sand, sticks, glass, garbage, bits and pieces of metal and other junk that has been swept to the side of the road by rain and passing cars.  Riding through this stuff is dangerous and you want to avoid it whenever possible. 

Unless a road is extremely narrow, traffic lanes are usually wide enough for a car to comfortably pass you when you are riding on the road side of the line.  On roads with virtually no paved shoulder like the one in Road with no shoulderthe picture at the left, you have no choice but to ride on the road side of the line.  However, even this country road is wide enough that passing shouldn’t be a problem.  If there is no line at the side of the road, ride near the outer edge of the roadway but not so close to the edge that you’re having to weave in and out of the traffic lane in order to avoid road debris.

When you’re riding down a street that has an occasional car parked along the side you want to avoid the temptation to weave out to pass the car and then drop back in toward the curb once the parked car is behind you.  When you drop in toward the curb the parked car is blocking you from the field of view of drivers who are behind you.  If there are several parked cars spaced at intervals along the side of the road, a rider who weaves in and out to pass the cars is popping in and out of the driver’s field of vision and this can be very dangerous for the cyclist.  The solution is to ride far enough into the road to pass the parked cars and stay there.  When approaching a parked car, try and see if there is someone sitting in the car who might open a driver’s side door and hit you as you go by.  People rarely look for cyclists when they’re getting out of their car and this type of collision happens more often than you might think.

Riding near the line is only part of what you can do to maximize your safety when sharing the road with cars. How you ride the line is also important.  You want to ride a smooth, steady line without weaving back and forth.  There are several reasons for this.  If you’re weaving around you may be pulling out of the driver’s zone of awareness when you go one way and into the line of traffic when you go the other.  Another benefit of riding a smooth, straight line is that it gives the driver coming up behind you confidence that you know what you’re doing so that they can reliably predict where you’re going to be when they pass you.  Think about what’s it’s like when you’re driving and come up behind a cyclist.  If the bike rider is wobbling all over the place, passing them can be a nerve-wracking experience.  If they’re riding straight and sure, passing is usually no problem.

Holding to a straight, sure line when you ride is a valuable skill for the road cyclist to have for many reasons and one of the best ways to practice this skill is by riding the line along the side of the road.  Part of this skill involves learning to turn and look back over your shoulder to see what’s behind you without straying from your straight line.  When you turn to look over your shoulder, there’s a tendency to drift in the direction you’re looking which means drifting into the line of traffic.  You can practice line riding skills like looking over your shoulder when you’re riding the line and there’s no traffic behind you.

Remember that the drivers don’t want to hit you almost as much as you don’t want to be hit.  You can make their job easier and increase your level of safety by riding the line in a straight, smooth and sure fashion.

Cycling Gear: Cycling Shorts and Jerseys

Everyone’s seen them – those people on road bikes with the bright, garish jerseys and the skintight black lycra shorts.  Uptight people are offended and bluster about shameless displays of asses and body fat.  Cyclists at crest of US Hill in New MexicoInsecure men make sarcastic homophobic comments.  A lot of people think the cyclists look ridiculous.  A lot of other people just think the cyclists are weird.  A few people realize what’s really going on.  Cycling apparrel is some of the most functionally designed clothing on the planet.  Everything about it is there because it serves a useful purpose and how well it serves that purpose can sometimes mean the difference between an enjoyable and safe ride or a painful and dangerous one.

If you are new to cycling the first thing you need to do when thinking about wearing cycling clothes is forget about what you look like.  Well-designed cycling clothes are skin tight and very few people look good in skin tight clothes.  Your ass is fat, your thighs are fat, your stomach and hips are fat and there’s no hiding any of it in cycling shorts.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s not about how you look, it’s about how you ride.

Cycling shorts aren’t absolutely necessary but they are strongly recommended.  When considering the benefits provided by cycling shorts it’s important to think about what’s going on with your legs, ass and crotch when Women's cycling shorts - picture from coloradocyclist.comyou’re riding.  You spend most of your time on the bike seated on the saddle with your legs pumping up and down.  Every up-and-down motion produces friction and rubbing where your ass, crotch and thighs are in contact with the saddle.  The typical recommendation for road riders is to try and maintain a cadence of 85 to 105 revolutions per minute.  Say you’re a new rider, however and are riding at a cadence of 60.  That means your legs are going up and down 3600 times during an hour of riding.  A tiny amount of rubbing or chafing where your body meets the saddle that would be unnoticeable when repeated one or two hundred times can develop into raw, abraded skin that can range from uncomfortable to very painful after thousands of repetitions.  Keep in mind that 3600 repetitions of the same movment is a conservative estimate.  Two hours on the bike at a cadence of 90 produces 10,800 repetitions.

Cycling shorts are designed to minimize or eliminate chafing and rubbing.  Regular pants and shorts usually have a seam that runs front-to-back through the crotch.  If you ride wearing regular clothing this seam will produce rubbing and chafing and will put extra pressure on sensitve areas in the crotch.  Cycling shorts also have a seam down the center but the rider is protected by padding on the inside of the shorts.  Good cycling shorts will have a padded crotch that is usually supplemented with additional padding on the sit bones (the bones in the pelvis that bear much of the rider’s weight when properly seated on a bicycle saddle).  The padding not only cushions the rider but protects from abrasions caused by the seams in the shorts.

The skin tight fit of the shorts is also designed to eliminate chafing.  Loose fitting shorts can crease or bunch up between the rider and the saddle.  Every tiny crease can produce raw, abraded skin.  Loose shorts or pants will also introduce an additional source of friction and rubbing as the material of the clothing slides and moves between the rider and the saddle.  Bicycle shorts are designed to be skin tight to eliminate these two problems.  They are too tight to crease and bunch up and they are too tight to slide between the rider and the seat. 

Cycling shorts also fill an additional and very important function – they wick moisture away from the skin.  Think about what the environment is like in your crotch while you’re riding.  Hot, wet and dark.  Germs love this environment, they thrive there.  If you ride even semi-regularly it’s virtually impossible to completely avoid some degree of chafing.  Infection can turn a slight abrasion that is no more than a minor, short-lived irritant into a nightmare.  Cycling shorts are the single best thing you can do to prevent this from happening.

Cycling shorts cover a broad price range from the very cheap to the very expensive.  Like all cycling gear, I expect you reach a point of rapidly diminishing returns before you get to the most expensive shorts.  That being said, I wear fairly expensive shorts because I’ve had my crotch torn up by wearing cheap, poorly fitting shorts on a long ride.  That’s a mistake you only make one time.  There’s no particular brand or model that can be recommended to everyone because comfort depends on how the construction of the short matches up with the rider’s anatomy.  Shorts come in men’s and women’s models but some women wear men’s shorts and vice-versa because it’s more comfortable.  It doesn’t matter what the manufacturer calls it, it matters how comfortable you are wearing it.

When you buy shorts, start by following the manufacturer’s recommendations vis-a-vis size and fit.  Remember that a little too tight is better than a little too loose.  You wear cycling shorts without underwear.  In most cases underwear will completely defeat most of the benefits cycling shorts are designed to provide: underwear has abraiding seams, it holds moisture rather than wick it away, and it produces slippage and extra friction between the rider and the saddle.  Even if you wear underwear that you think doesn’t have these problems, don’t wear it with cycling shorts.  Never wear unwashed shorts, there are germs in there just waiting to attack your crotch.  Wash the shorts after every use

Cycling jerseys are not as essential as shorts but they are very useful.  They’re designed to be form fitting for two reasons.  Like shorts, they’re made of a wicking material that draws moisture away from the rider’s Cycling jersey - picture from performancebike.comtorso.  This plays a very important role in keeping the rider cool.  When you exercise you generate heat and the body works hard (and burns calories) to shed this heat in order to keep core body temperature within a safe range.  Sweating is an essential part of this process.  When the sweat evaporates it helps cool the body.  Form fitting clothing that wicks the sweat away from the skin surface facilitates evaporation and hence cooling.  More efficient cooling helps to prevent dehydration from excessive sweating and dehydration can be deadly.  Literally, deadly. 

The second reason jerseys are form fitting is to reduce air resistance.  The faster you go, the greater proportion of the energy you’re expending is being used to overcome air resistance.  Loose fitting clothing increases air resistance and at higher speeds can make cycling much more difficult than it needs to be.

In many ways the most important function served by the jersey is related to safety for cyclists who share the road with cars.  Bright, loud jerseys are designed to attract attention.  Specifically, they’re designed to make the rider easier to see by someone who is driving a car.  Far and away the most important source of danger facing the cyclist who rides with traffic of any kind is that the driver doesn’t see the cyclist.  Jerseys are designed to help overcome this problem.  When choosing a jersey, don’t pick colors or patterns that blend in with your surroundings.  Be loud.  It’s not about how you look, it’s about not being hit by a car.

An undergarment or base layer can be worn under a jersey and often should be if cycling in cool or cold conditions.  The undershirt should be skin tight and made of a wicking material.  Don’t wear a cotton t-shirt under a jersey.  Likewise, sports bras that wick are good, regular bras that don’t wick are not.

It used to be that all cycling jerseys were cut pretty much the same way.  Recently, however, jersey manufacturers have begun producing different jerseys for the American and European markets.  In Europe where cycling is much more popular than it is in the US and many more people both ride and are knowledgeable about cycling, jerseys are cut the way they’ve always been.  For the US market where people tend to be less knowledgeable about cycling, fatter, and more concerned with how they look on the bike, jereseys are often cut more full in the waist.   If the description of the jersey says soomething like “European cut” this is what they’re talking about.

While neither are as essential as a cycling helmet, cycling shorts and jerseys serve very useful and important functions.  Of the two, the shorts are more important for making the ride more comfortable and for keeping you on the bike longer today and making it easier to get back on the bike tomorrow.  They’re not designed to make you look good, they’re designed to make your ride easier, safer and more enjoyable.