Time trial vs mountain stage: How the pros optimally fuel for both

We asked Soudal - Quick-Step's nutritionist, Maaike Polspoel, how riders will fuel for a time trial compared to a mountain stage at this year's Giro

Time trials have been a prominent feature at this year's Giro d'Italia, with over 70km of road designated for the race against the clock. Remco Evenepoel from Soudal - Quick-Step was widely favored to win the time trials before the Grand Tour began, and he proved predictions right by emerging victorious in both the opening time trial and the 35km TT on stage nine. He took control of the maglia rosa after that stage and seemed to have a chance of winning the third and final time trial and the race overall, until he tested positive for Covid and had to withdraw from the race.

However, the Giro is not solely about time trials. The route capitalises on Italy's most iconic mountain ranges, setting the stage for grueling days of climbing. With two essential elements needed for success in the Italian Grand Tour, how do teams approach fueling for each stage? And how does the fueling strategy differ for time trials?

Maaike Polspoel, the Soudal-Quick-Step performance nutritionist and sports dietitian, provides Rouleur with insights into the team's fueling strategy.

Getting ahead of the game

Three weeks is a long time, and having to ride over 3,000km during those three weeks requires a lot of energy – energy that only the world’s top cyclists understand. Ensuring that on a day-to-day basis riders have enough fuel to sustain such energy isn’t just a quick bowl of pasta before making their way to the start line, strategic planning goes into each day by the team’s nutritionists, and Polspoel says getting ahead of the game is key to success. 

“Our fuelling strategy for both time trials and longer stages actually starts a few days in advance. We always look at previous stages to check how well fuelled the riders are and if they’re recovering well. If they recover well, when they come to the time trial, they’ll know that they are ready to put the power down,” Maaike says. 

Evenepoel wearing the red leaders jersey before the time trial at the Vuelta in 2022

“The evening before a time trial in a stage race, our riders will eat everything we need them to. This will normally be pasta with some protein, with the pasta being the carbohydrates that they’ll need for energy the next day. We try to make really nice dinners for the riders because if you are in a long stage race, by the end of it, you're really tired of eating the same stuff. 

“We actually have a special catering service called Cotton Kitchen, and they make sure that the food looks really appealing for the riders and therefore nicer for them to eat. We also make the calculations of what energy they’ll need for the next day by looking at what the riders did the day before.” 

Breakfast of champions

Most people have been taught that breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day, but it is especially important when you are facing a gruelling day in the saddle. With most stages starting around midday and a time trial being a super hard effort in a short amount of time, nobody wants to see what you just ate mid-way through your TT, so how does the rider’s first meal of the day alter when they’re facing this kind of intense effort? 

Jersey pockets are always great snack holders 

“With a time trial breakfast is less important, instead we focus more on a pre-race meal which the riders will have a few hours beforehand,” Maaike said. “This will be a little bit of rice or pasta, with few vegetables to make sure there is little fibre. Before the time trial, when the riders are warming up, they’ll then take on some extra fuel. 

“We have a sports nutrition sponsor called 6D, and they make sure we have everything we need for optimal fuelling. So right before the time trial, riders will have an isotonic sports drink for hydration and a gel that contains a certain amount of carbs that are easily digestible to give them that extra boost.

“Before a mountain stage, breakfast is much more important because that is the pre-race meal. Rice pudding is popular amongst the team because that is something they don’t often make at home. That is definitely one of their favourite things to eat for breakfast, alongside pancakes. If you want a few extra brownie points from the riders, pancakes will do the trick.”

Eating on the job

Fuelling is a full-time undertaking and in order to sustain the rider’s energy levels, they need to ensure they have enough food and drink on them to keep levels high. Polspoel mentioned that she always needs to remind the riders on the team to keep eating and drinking, otherwise they’ll be too focused on the riding itself and forget – leaving them to completely empty the tank. 

Teams like Soudal - Quick-Step luckily have sponsors who supply gels, bars, nougat and energy cakes. That is what's inside those musette bags we see being passed around the peloton. 

“On mountain stages we tend to use these products as they give the riders great variation, and we do this in addition to isotonic fueling because hydration is really important. For time trials this is different as riders do not fuel during the race, only before.” 

Fuelling during a long stage is vital for keeping a rider's energy levels up

However, TTs aren’t all the same and in this year’s Giro there is a variation. For example, stage nine was 35km in length with little to no elevation. Whereas stage 20 is shorter in length but has a steep 7km climb at the end. Would fuelling change in this situation? 

“The two time trials have a different approach, yes, but they will be almost the same in terms of time," says Maaike. "For the longer, flatter time trial we will make sure everything is done beforehand, but for the time trial with the climb, we might choose to hydrate or fuel at the base of the climb to ensure the riders have sufficient energy.”

Recovery is key 

After such a big effort, whether that be going all out in a TT or slogging it away on the mountains, riders will need to replace the energy and nutrients they've used for the day. 

“The biggest difference in the post-ride meal is the energy expenditure,” Polspoel says. “During the TT, energy expenditure will be way less than a mountain stage. For example, in a time trial, energy expenditure may be 2000 kilocalories, whereas a mountain stage would be double that. So riders will need a bigger meal after a long stage. 

“Their meals will consist of the same elements, just different portion sizes. So, this would often be a 6D recovery shake and then a meal from our catering team which would be carb-focused, and this is on any day of a stage race.”

Read more: How to recover like a Grand Tour rider

Riding eating during race

Polspoel stresses the important of eating for the work you are doing 

If you are taking on either a time trial or endurance race, Polspoel shares her top tips when it comes to fuelling: 

    • Hydrate. It may sound silly but a key thing to do is look at your pee. If it’s really orange, that means you need to drink way more. So before your race, go to the toilet and then you can check whether you need to drink more. 
    • Fuel the night before. Make sure you have a really good meal rich in carbs with some vegetables that are easy to digest.
    • If your race is in the afternoon or evening, fuel through the day. Have a breakfast that is easy to digest, nothing too high in fibre, so porridge may be something you want to avoid. Then you can have foods like bread or rice three hours before your race. 
    • Energy right before. You can have sports drinks or gels but make sure you have tried these beforehand! 
    • Try different carbs. You don’t just have to eat rice and pasta, sometimes foods like rice pudding and pancakes are just as good and more tasty! 
    • Enjoy bike racing and fuel well. 

*Cover image by SWPix.com

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