This page contains advice about how to stay well-fueled when doing self-supported bikepacking races in unfamiliar regions without wasting too much time doing so.
I cannot offer any specific nutritional advice about what you should and shouldn’t eat because I have very minimal knowledge in that domain, but there are many good resources available on this topic. For instance, the article “12 cycling nutrition ‘truths’, analyzed” at BikeRadar and the chapters in the “Ultra-Distance Cycling” book.
Using a specific nutritional plan is fine during training, but doing so is almost impossible once the race is on. Fortunately, most bikepackers do fine by adopting a simple strategy of eating frequently (3 meals is often not enough) and eating whatever tastes good, is easily available, and has a decent amount of calories. If you’re not already experienced then learning what strategies work for you to stay fueled over multiple long days on the bike should be one of the goals of doing Long-Distance & Multi-Day Training Rides.
Many of the fastest bikepacking racers have commented that doing such a race can be more like an eating contest than a bike race. This reflects the fact that an important aspect of a racer’s physical ability is how capable their body is at processing the extreme caloric intake that is needed to sustain the energy needed to keep pedaling for so many hours every day.
Kristof Allegaert, three-time winner of the Transcontinental Race (TCR), approaches the topic of nutrition by focsuing on time management. He said in an interview that although he expects that his energy requirements when riding 450 km per day were at least 10,000 calories per day; finding, buying, and consuming that much food would waste too much time. He therefore estimates that he eats about 3,000 calories per day and reported having lost about 7 kg in 8.5 days during the 2016 TCR.
Running at a calorie deficit similar to Kristof’s would leave many people feeling exhausted and lethargic most of the time. In the 2016 TCR, at least two people scrathed from the race before halfway specifically due to problems caused by not being able to consume enough food and/or liquid to maintain their energy, but they did not stop until they collapsed. This highlights why it’s important to decide what fueling strategies work best for you during your training and pay attention to how your body reacts to different approaches.
Precise estimates for the number of calories burned per day for a typical TCR rider are difficult to make, but it is likely to be in the range of 6,000 to 12,000 calories. Estimates of how many calories most people can absorb per hour are about 200 to 300, making about 4,000 to 7,000 calories per day. This demonstrates why it is important to try to eat at every opportunity, when on and off the bike.
How quickly energy levels can go up and down during the race, during a single day, and even during a single hour is quite impressive and often unpredictable. Staying as well fueled as possible will help to ensure that the energy lows are not as bad as they could be, but they will still happen. Long training rides should teach you that even if your energy is extremely low two-thirds of the way through a ride, if you continue to take onboard fuel then you may start to feel great again before the ride ends, so try to keep this in mind when you are going through those difficult moments.
While discussing common sources of food while on the road below, I focus on the important goal of maximizing time efficiency and optimizing your overall rate of progress (including all stops) rather than just thinking about your cycling speed when on the bike.
It’s a good idea to leave extra space in your bags to carry some food with you. If not, then you’ll have to find somewhere to buy food almost every time that you’re hungry, which can cost a lot of time, or you may not eat as much and then lack energy. Having space in your bags also means that if you find a large grocery store then you can buy decent food to take with you, which is likely to be better than the random snacks found at convenience stores and petrol stations. I showed elsewhere that the extra Weight of carrying some food has a minimal effect on riding speed.
You should start the race fully loaded with enough food to last a decent amount of at least the first 24 hours. Searching for food and grocery stores during the first day of the race is not so sensible because that could have been done the day before when the clock was not ticking. On the first day of the race, you should focus on riding, not shopping.
When Route Planning, it’s possible to zoom into Google Maps or use Street View in some countries to find out which towns have grocery stores and to make sure that your route passes them. When shopping in grocery stores, you will notice that there is an optimal store size that maximizes efficiency – too small and it won’t offer many options, too large and you’ll waste time walking around finding things and possibly waiting in a long queue to pay.
Instead of wandering aimlessly around a grocery store, a lot of time can be saved by planning what you want to buy, grabbing only those things, and leaving quickly. This is obviously more difficult to do when in a foreign country with unfamiliar options, but it is still a good idea to have a focused strategy.
In my first year doing the TCR, I brought a small camping stove and lightweight pot. I sent this home after 5-6 days when I learned that this was not bike touring and I didn’t have time or energy to find the food and cook for myself. My eating equipment is now far more basic – a plastic camping spork and a tool with a small knife, a Leatherman Squirt PS4 (Amazon), which also includes some of my Bike Tools. I really enjoy cereal, especially muesli, so my luxury item is some powdered milk and a collapsible plastic bowl (Amazon) so that I can have my favorite snack whenever I get a chance, especially at breakfast time.
A tip that I learned from Mikko Mäkipää, the only person to complete every edition of the TCR, is to have a sit-down meal every day. Surviving on food from petrol stations and convenience stores doesn’t work for everyone, especially not for two weeks. Having a real meal in a restaurant helps to keep your energy levels up and your diet more varied and complete. Mikko doesn’t only do this for the nutritional/physical gains – he believe that the psychological gains are even more important. It’s likely that you’ll spend nearly all day trying not to waste any time and optimizing all actions and decisions to keep on your desired Schedule & Goals, so having a sit-down meal once a day and briefly forgetting about the time pressure can be good for your mental well-being. This is sage advice from an experienced rider, but he did admit that even he doesn’t achieve this goal every day.
McDonald’s restaurants may be somewhere that you would never consider visiting at home, but you may soon discover why so many racers report visiting them so often. The attractions are a menu that is somewhat familiar, hot calorie-dense food that is served very quickly, a dining area in which you won’t feel awkward even if you’re quite filthy after being on the road for so long, free wi-fi, and good bathrooms. Very few regular restaurants in Europe can reliably offer all of these important characteristics. Pizzerias, kebab shops, and other fast-food restaurants can also provide hot, calorie-dense food almost as quickly as McDonald’s, but their other characteristics are less certain. In other parts of the world, there is more of a variety of fast-food chains to choose from, but in some places (e.g., France), there’s normally only McDonald’s.
Despite the advantages of fast-food restaurants, standard restaurants have other advantages and the advice below should help you to not waste too much time in them. First, a town with one restaurant is likely to have several more close-by, so you should choose wisely. Typically, the more basic-looking restaurants will prepare food in a faster, more basic way and will typically only offer options that don’t take overly long to prepare, so a basic restaurant is often preferable to a place that looks more upmarket/fancy. Pizzerias tend to fall into this category, which is why they are also popular with bikepackers.
Try not to stop at restaurants at their busiest times of day so that your order doesn’t have to wait in a queue behind many others. If every table is already full then that is a bad sign unless everyone appears to have finished their food rather than waiting for it.
Another tip is that if you want to eat multiple food courses then ask for them all to be delivered at the same time or as soon as each is ready, rather than waiting for each one to be served individually. You can also ask for the bill and pay for it while waiting for your food instead of at the end – the server will think that this is a bit odd, but it shouldn’t be a problem.
Most bikepackers find that one main dish is not enough, and so they order two dishes at once. They may choose to eat one dish in the restaurant and ask for the second to be put directly in a box that they can take away with them for later, thereby making their next meal fast and efficient. Again, pizzas are a popular option to order as the take-away meal because they travel quite well (the pieces can be inverted and stacked to make them easier to transport, or ask for a calzone).
Language in restaurants in foreign countries can be a major concern. It’s not uncommon to be unsure of what you have ordered, or for something to arrive that is nothing like you expected. Open-mindedness and adaptability are therefore important traits to have. You can also adopt the tactic of not even trying to understand the menu, but simply get the idea across to the waiter that you need a large and filling meal, and let the waiter take care of deciding what is best for you.
Eating a lot of calorie-dense food can cause digestive problems for some people when they have to get back on the bike immediately. Try to time meal stops so that they are not immediately before a big effort like a major climb – pushing relatively softly on the pedals for a while will allow more blood to go to the stomach to improve digestion. Incorporating such food stops into your training rides will help you to know how your body tends to react and what foods do and do not work for you.
Bikepackers occasionally report instances of food poisoning that prevent them from riding for 24 hours or more. There are many websites that have tips on avoiding food poisoning, including this one, and here are some tips on what to do if you do have food poisoning.
Other people have had bad reactions to what would normally be quite normal items. For instance, one rider who decided to have his first energy drink two weeks into a race to stave off drowsiness was immediately ill and couldn’t eat anything for 24 hours afterwards because his stomach was such a mess. Be careful and don’t try anything too different than what your body is used to! However, you often can’t find the exact types of fuel that you are familiar or comfortable with when in new regions, so be prepared to be adaptable.
As mentioned above, some people have had problems digesting enough food to keep them from collapsing due to exhaustion. However, most of these instances were due to a combination of factors including heat, dehydration, or sickness. Figuring out your nutrition, digestion, and how to consume sufficient calories should therefore be a very important part of your training and prepartion before doing an ultra-endurance ride or race.
In some parts of Europe, many smaller grocery stores close over lunch. Closing times are extremely variable but some shops can close as early as 11:30am and some won’t open until 4:00pm. In other places, shops will only close for 1 or 2 hours over lunch, or not close at all. It’s difficult to give any general guidelines because it so variable. Whether shops open on Sundays also varies by country (e.g., everything is closed on Sunday afternoon in France and all day Sunday in Switzerland).
Restaurants may also have inconvenient opening hours, with many being closed outside of regular meal times, which in Mediterranean Europe may mean not opening until 7 or 8 pm. If you’re looking for food late in the evening, some bars serve food later than do many regular restaurants. In the mornings, bakeries are often the first places to open.
There are many vegetarian and vegan bikepackers. Doing a self-supported race across multiple countries is more complicated for them than for those who eat meat, but many have done so successfully. Some people prepare a card or a screen on their phone with a message translated into each language explaining that they cannot eat meat. Many vegans have reported needing to resort to being vegetarian during such races because they can’t be sure of the ingredients of many foods and have a hard time getting enough calories from the limited options in which they have confidence in the ingredients.
It’s possible to start a bikepacking race with enough sports drink powder to last the first few days to give you some easy-to-digest, liquid-based calories. Although I haven’t had much success finding places to re-stock my supply of drink powder while on the road, there are alternative drinks that are readily available.
Most bikepackers tend to drink a lot of Coca-Cola because it contains a lot of sugar, some caffeine, and tastes really good to an exhausted cyclist. You should also consider milk and fruit juice. Milk has an excellent mixture of calories from carbohydrates, protein, and fat, which makes it quite easy to digest. Fruit juice has more natural sugars than artificial sodas and also contains other vitamins that might be missing from the otherwise poor diet of the typical bikepacker.
Some people use coffee or other caffeinated drinks to manage their degree of tiredness, which is discussed on the next page about Sleeping Strategies.
The amount of liquid needed while doing ultra-distance cycling will vary widely between participants, but a participant in the 2017 TCR recorded everything that he consumed and later analyzed the data, see here. During his 16 day ride of about 4000 km, he consumed 122 liters of liquid (which includes 5 liters of beer), at a rate of between 5 and 11 liters per day. It should be noted that there was a major heatwave in southern and eastern Europe during the race (it was even nick-named Lucifer), with temperatures often going above 35 C.
Remember that in self-supported races, no outside support is allowed from people that you know or from other racers, including providing food or drinks. If people do want to come visit you during the race, they are encouraged to do so at the checkpoints. Some race fans come to the route, or those who are living on the route, give supplies equally to all racers who pass, which is normally allowed. Racers shouldn’t share food between themselves except inside an official pair.
Your body doesn’t only need food to recharge, but also rest, so the next page covers Sleeping Strategies & Equipment.