Writing about food always feels somewhat uncomfortable to me, as I’m not a foodie. Much like you shouldn’t trust a skinny chef, I suppose you need to be sceptical of taking food advice from me. Well, to a point. You see, sooner or later – especially when touring – you’ll stop caring (or at least care considerably less) about food’s visual presentation, and you’ll become more interested in replacing the calories you’ve burned.
Cycle touring is a great way to burn calories, and you’ll be surprised by how much calories you do burn. Depending on the terrain, and the weight of your laden bike, as well as the speed you’re travelling at, burning 3 000 calories in a day really isn’t a great deal.
On top of that, you have to add your Basal Metabolic Rate – basically how many calories your body needs per day, even if you’re doing nothing, just to stay alive. That could be anything from 1 500 calories upwards, depending on your unique circumstances.
Remember, ultimately – no matter how much all you foodies may enjoy your food – the true function of food is to fuel our bodies, and when cycle touring, you’re going to need to keep that engine fuelled.
Please note: I am not a doctor, nor a nutritional expert. If you want expert advice, there are far better people than me to talk to. All I can do is tell you about my experience, and what I’ve learned. Guidance, not strict instructions, as it were. You will need to find what works best for your own body, and unique needs.
Cyclists have a term, called “to bonk”, and runners call the same thing “to hit the wall”. It refers to that awful, draining feeling when you’ve depleted your body’s blood sugar levels, and it can leave you going from full of energy, to being unable to stand, within a matter of minutes. In extreme cases, it can cause you to become disoriented, have poor balance or even fall unconscious.
IMPORTANT: If you’re diabetic, you will already know far more than I do about managing your blood sugar levels. If in doubt, ask your GP for advice, and listen to them, not me. Equally, you need to consider any food intolerances and allergies you may have, and not simply blindly follow what I wrote here.
Anyone can bonk, and everyone will bonk, if they don’t take steps to manage their blood sugar levels. There’s a top-secret, never-before-revealed, highly-confidential strategy to do so.
OK, I lied about it being a secret. These things have been studied in great detail, and there are no secrets.
There is, however, a rock-solid strategy for avoiding the dreaded bonk: eat little, and eat often. Importantly, eat before you get hungry.
All your life, you’ve been taught not to eat between meals, and to stick to three square meals per day.
Well, when cycle touring, or long-distance cycling, you need to forget that advice, and snack all the time. There are valid reasons why ultra-distance cyclists tend to have food bags strapped to their handlebars, so they can continuously eat, while cycling.
Cycle touring is way more relaxed than ultra-distance riding, and I’d encourage you to stop often, get off the bike, do some stretches, and eat. This is the one time in your life when calorie-watching means trying to ensure you consume enough calories, and not reducing your calorie intake.
If you bonked while solo-touring, in the middle of nowhere, you could be in real trouble, so always carry emergency snacks of some sort. Chocolate, Jelly Babies, Fruit Pastilles, and even a bottle of Coke are all options. For me, my emergency food is energy gels, but not everyone likes those. Whatever you take as emergency calories, test it at home! Especially with energy gels, some people find they can have undesirable effects, and having to find an emergency toilet, while bonking, won’t be fun.
Your body will lose a surprising amount of fluid. On a hot day, that could be through sweating, but even on a cold day, you’ll lose a great deal of fluid simply by breathing. It is vital that you replace that fluid, as dehydrated muscles perform poorly.
As with eating, the secret is simply this: drink little at a time, but drink often, and importantly, drink before you feel thirsty. Oh, and fill your water bottles at every available opportunity. Yes, even if they’re almost full, as that next refill stop you’re relying on might not be available when you get there.
Everyone knows about proteins and carbohydrates, and I won’t bore you with a lecture about the difference, but you do need to ensure you get both. The temptation will be to stuff yourself full of sweet things every chance you get, but that’s neither sustainable, nor healthy. You need balance, else all you’ll get is a sugar rush, followed by a sugar crash (a.k.a. reactive hypoglycemia).
Now please, please don’t fall for for hype – there are no “superfoods”, no matter what OK Magazine claims (and yes, they also lied about the alien babies). What you’re after is a balance that will boost your blood sugar in the short term, back to healthy levels, and provide slow-release sustenance to keep you going.
I’ve seen people experiment with all sorts, but my advice here is simple: Provided you don’t have allergies or intolerances, try packing peanut butter sarnies. They’re simple to make, don’t need to be kept cold, easy to eat (the practicality of food becomes increasingly important on tour) and taste nice. If you mix either jam, or golden syrup in with the peanut butter, you have your sugar boost taken care of, too.
Bananas are another great option, and as an added bonus, they’re full of potassium, too. Most people don’t realise it, but bananas are full of sugar, with a single medium-sized banana containing around 16g of sugar. Importantly, your body will digest bananas quickly and easily, and they come pre-packed in their own, natural container.
I usually make flapjacks (recipe further below, though it’s not vegan) to take with, as I love them, the oats help keep me going, and I make them absolutely loaded with sugar and syrup. Often, I’ll mix chopped nuts and dried fruit into the mix, too, and for variety, try adding some vanilla essence.
Also, flapjacks don’t need keeping cold, and will last well in your panniers.
To cook, or not to cook, that is the question
Let me start off by saying there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not cooking while touring. I read about a group who cycled LEJOG (Land’s End to John O’Groats, in case you didn’t know) by plotting a route from Morrison’s to Morrison’s, because they could buy a large fry-up in the supermarket’s cafés. That worked for them, and that’s all that matters.
When you’re cycle touring, it’s your tour, and there’s no wrong, or right way to do it. Simply do what works best for you, and if that means buying meals every day, then that’s fine. As long as there’s somewhere on your route to buy the meals from, of course.
If you’re going more off the beaten track, you’ll need to carry food with you, and your options will be to carry food that can be eaten without cooking, food that needs to only be warmed, or rehydrated, or to properly cook a meal from scratch.
What’s best for you will depend on your culinary skills and preferences, and how much cooking gear you’re prepared to carry along. I will say this: never underestimate the value of a warm meal at the end of a long day.
I will offer you a tip here – when stopping for a meal, with more riding to do, do your utmost best to not stop for more than 30 minutes, else you’re going to find it hard to get going again, and your legs muscles might feel like they’ve turned to lead.
There are only four ingredients:
500g porridge oats
500g salted butter
250g soft brown sugar (it’s not runny sugar)
3 to 4 tablespoons of golden syrup. The more syrup you use, the more gooey the flapjacks will be.
Melt the butter (chopped into smaller chunks), the sugar and the golden syrup in a saucepan, over low heat. Take your time here, and keep stirring until there are no sugar crystals any more. At that point, remove the saucepan from the heat, and slowly add the oats, stirring as you go.
Once all properly mixed, so all the oats is covered with the sugar, butter and syrup mix, leave it to stand, and switch on the oven to 180 degrees (around gas mark 6) then wait for it to preheat.
Cut some greaseproof paper and line a baking tray with it, then scoop the flapjack mix into the baking tray. Ideally, you want it around 2 cm thick.
Once the oven’s heated, stick the baking tray in, on the middle shelf, and bake for around 15 minutes. When you take the flapjacks out, the mix will be semi-liquid – don’t worry about that. It’s not undercooked, and will solidify as it cools down.
Leave it to stand and cool, and as it cools, cut into slices of your preference. Once fully cooled, remove and enjoy.
For variation, and extra protein, mix in chopped nuts (peanuts, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts all work well), or mix in some chopped up dried fruit of your preference. You can also try adding some vanilla essence to the mix.