I weighed myself the other day. I had to ask my fiancée for the scales. She didn’t want to give them to me but I said it was just this one time because I was curious how heavy I was. I could tell she didn’t believe me. I could tell I didn’t believe me either. So I stepped on the scales and looked down. I’m not sure why I did it, I knew nothing good could come of it…
I never used to think too much about what I ate. When you’ve got a metabolism like mine you don’t really need to. For those of you who don’t know what I look like, think of the skinniest ProTour riders, like Janez Braikovic or Jelle Vanendert. Pure climbers with less fat than a butchers pencil. Well that’s what I look like. And when I was at school, like most children, healthy eating wasn’t the option I chose. Chocolate bars, cakes, fizzy drinks, sweets, I enjoyed them all. And I still never put any weight on.
It wasn’t until I got more seriously into my cycling that diet even cropped into my head. Along with my more accomplished team-mates such as the Downing brothers, at the start of one season I went to do a fitness test. And I had my first introduction to fat callipers. If you don’t know what these are, make sure you keep it that way. So despite only weighing 59.7kg for my 1.78m height, which is ridiculously light, I was informed I was 9% body fat. And it turns out professional cyclists should be 6%. Well that was certainly a shock to the system, to be told that eating half a packet of chocolate chip cookies a day was making me fatter than I should be. This wasn’t good at all. So like any slightly stupid person would do, I just stopped eating things with fat in. This turned out to be not bad for my riding, I even started winning big races. I also started to get very hungry.
The next year I raced in Italy with the national team. And if ever there’s a place to have food issues, Italy is it. On the one hand you have pizza, pasta, ice cream, some of the best tasting foods in the world. And on the other you have races up huge mountains against a peloton of riders that look like they’ve just escaped from a concentration camp. If you’re conscious of your weight, don’t go to Italy. If there are fat people there, they must keep themselves hidden away somewhere.
Climbing is all about physics. You have the power you can produce and you have your weight and the ratio of the two decides how fast you can climb. There’s two ways you can improve your power to weight ratio, increase your power, or lose weight, or in an ideal world, both. This is easier said than done, because sometimes a decrease in weight can mean a decrease in muscle mass resulting in less power. So it’s a balancing act between the two. Unless you ride for an Italian team, in which case it’s lose weight, then lose some more weight, and when u have done that, yep you’ve guessed it…
Luckily in my first year in Italy I was surrounded by normal people on the GB team, although that didn’t stop them doing some slightly crazy things. We regularly did a hill test up a climb called Monte Serra which all the top pros use to test their form. The idea being that each time we did it, we each had to try to beat the best time, or in my case try to beat Ivan Basso’s best time. In case your wondering I didn’t beat Basso’s record, but I did get close. But that sort of ability is well into my past now so we won’t dwell on that.
This constant pressure to perform on the timed hill effort did result in at least one rider getting a bit carried away. After a training ride he would cook himself 30g of pasta to have with his salad. As I ate my 200g of pasta I did try to point out that cooking such little pasta didn’t seem worth the effort. GB stopped doing the hill test after that, it was decided that it encouraged riders to get too obsessed about losing weight.
One thing GB riders did seem to like doing was something called the fruit diet. This involved having a day where they had one piece of fruit for breakfast, two for lunch, and three for dinner. Along with 1/3 pint of milk at each meal. This was apparently good for shifting a kilogram in a day. I never tried it myself, I’m not a big fan of fruit.
So while my time with GB may have seen me get very lean, and down to about 57kg, I was still eating pretty normally and certainly not starving myself. The following year saw all this change.
In 2007 I rode for a top Italian Elite/U-23 team. Living in a team house with all your team-mates can only be described as claustrophobic. It’s a bit like being in the army, except that you don’t have people shooting at you. There’s something slightly unnerving about knowing your team manager or team president could come round at any moment, though that did result in some comical moments too.
In my team the secretary of the team bought all the food for the house, and then in the evening a local couple would come round and cook dinner for us. To say that dinner got repetitive would be an understatement, pasta following by chicken (or once a week steak) and some kind of vegetable. No doubt about it, it’s good food for a bike rider, but it’s not fun when you have to eat it every day.
At the start of the year we got taken to see the doctor for a fitness and fat test. I won’t tell you too much about the doctor now, but he might crop up in a later blog. So after these tests it turned out I was 7% body fat and with a power to weight close to what I needed for ProTour level. So far so good, until the team president got involved.
It turned out that some of the riders in the team were slightly more than 7% and this resulted in the president telling all the riders they needed to lose weight. So the little jam tarts we had in the cupboard for eating on long rides were taken away and we were told we would be visiting the doctor again in a month to make sure we were on the right track.
It was at this point that my problems began. Rather than thinking as the leanest rider in the team I didn’t need to do anything, I decided to lose some weight. I’d read in an interview with Mikhail Ignatiev that he trained over lunchtime so he could cut out that meal. Brilliant I thought, that’s my solution. I can honestly say missing lunch is only for idiots, you might lose weight but you will also spend most of the afternoon in your bed counting down the minutes until dinner time. It’s not much fun.
So while I may have been responsible for my own craziness, I wasn’t helped by my teams ridiculous Italian ideas either. Italian teams ruining riders isn’t something new. When Jamie Burrows raced as an amateur it was alleged that his team manager Locatelli put a lock on the kitchen door so the riders couldn’t eat without his approval.
The same manager now has a new team which according to one rumour is banned from using their regular hotel for training camps. The hotel wasn’t happy with the amount of rubbish outside the riders windows. The reason for all this rubbish was the riders used to take food Locatelli wouldn’t let them eat like biscuits and chocolate and put them in a plastic bag. The rumour said that if Locatelli came to check their rooms for illegal food they would launch the bag out of the window before they let him in.
Another story is that if he finds a rider eating something naughty the whole team had to go out for a ride even if it's dark, with the boss driving behind with the headlights on so they can see where they're going. Quite often I would see riders from this team in races with only one bottle cage on, given that we raced in 40 degrees celsius heat a lot of the time I can only imagine what minor offence they must have committed for the manager to take one of their cages off.
While my team wasn’t quite this bonkers there were a few incidents. One time the woman who cooked for us did us sausages as a treat. During dinner the president arrived so our cook shouted at us to hide the sausages quick before he saw them. On another occasion when eating at a hotel the night before a race, we went to dinner without our manager and sat down to a delicious tasting meal of roast potatoes and pork. Nothing wrong with that you’d think. Well when the manager arrived he went ballistic at the hotel staff telling them we should have been eating pasta and chicken instead.
Post race was another area they were out of date on. Instead of a recovery drink and a sandwich like British teams would have, we had nothing. Maybe a drink of coke or water but no food. This was fine if the race was close to home, but I remember one time we had a 3 hour drive after the race and by the time we got home I was close to passing out. I always made sure I had my own food in my bag after that.
In most Italian races alongside the prize money you also get huge hampers of food and sometimes really random things like a pillow or a duvet. If it was food like pasta or meat we got to keep it, but if it was biscuits or treats then the manager would confiscate them before we could eat it. Eventually we started hiding the good stuff in our bags before we got back to the team van from the podium so that we could keep it for ourselves.
The foods we weren’t allowed to eat seemed a bit random though, as going out for pizza was fine, and my team-mates thought nothing of eating 5€ worth of ice cream at the local ice cream parlour after dinner. The other thing not to be eaten was the inside of bread. We used to get a freshly baked loaf each evening for dinner but then for reasons unknown we used to pull out the dough in the middle and just eat the crust. I’ve heard a few theories why they did it but none of them made sense. All I know is that rather than being the weird English guy who eats the inside of his bread, I started taking out the middle too.
As the year went on I got lighter and lighter, to the point where people started telling me I had to eat more. My fiancée got pretty upset about it, she was worried what it was doing to my health and she pleaded with me to put on weight. My parents tried to get me to eat cakes as they were worried too, but all I could think about was how any extra weight would hold me back on the climbs.
As it turned out being so light wasn’t bad for my racing. I flew up the hills and felt strong on the flat. It wasn’t something that would have worked long term though, eventually my health would have failed. My mind wouldn’t have lasted much longer either, starving yourself isn’t particularly enjoyable.
Luckily I came back from Italy and away from that obsessive environment and I started eating normally again. And more importantly I started enjoying food again without worrying what it was doing to my weight.
And as for what the scales told me when I looked down the other day, well it turns out I’m a bit heavier than I used to be. There’s only one thing for it. Looks like I’m going to have to increase my power…
Thanks for reading.