Here's the thing about bike racing: When you go from leading the race to sliding face-first across the pavement—usually in just a matter of chaotic seconds—all you really want to do is curl up with a cookie. But at 90 percent of races, the only eat-your-feelings option in your jersey pocket is a brick of energy bar.
Not at the Tour of California, though. If you have to be scraped off the pavement with a spatula, there’s a cookie waiting with your name on it. In fact you don’t even have to crash to get a cookie. Lentine Zahler, aka “Skratch Labs’ Cookie Lady,” is the Oprah of cookie dough. Every morning before the race it’s: “You get a cookie! You get a cookie! EVERYBODY GETS A COOKIE!”
“We’ve mixed like 400 bajillion so far,” jokes the pro-triathlete-turned-pastry-chef-turned-cookie-pusher. (Technically, the number of cookies she’s baked in the past few days of the stage race is closer to 2,500, but when you’re mixing batter in hotel rooms at midnight, it’s hard to keep track of how many you’ve made.)
In 2013, Skratch Labs, the whole-foods-first endurance fuel company, inked a partnership with the Tour of California. It was a move made by race organizers to ensure riders got high quality, delicious meals at their host hotels—something that doesn’t always happen in Europe.
“It's kind of ironic, French bike racing cuisine is horrific,” says pro racer Ted King. He adds, “Hands down the best race food is at the Tour of California. It's killer, the Skratch team does a great job; I think a lot of the European riders look forward to coming to California because the food is so outstanding."
Skratch was tasked with both cooking snacks and meals for riders during the day and overseeing the dinners served at night. In the past, Chef Biju Thomas ran the show. But after opening a curry restaurant in Denver earlier this year, he passed the baton to Zahler.
She’s the perfect person for the job. After a career as an iron-distance pro triathlete, Zahler attended pastry school at Le Cordon Bleu. Originally she planned to return to racing post-culinary school, but working in fine dining didn’t allow much time for training. At a race she bumped into the founder of Skratch Labs, Dr. Allen Lim. “He was like my hero because he was creating healthy recipes for athletes,” she says. Eventually she snagged a job at the Boulder company.
During the Amgen Tour of California, Zahler and her team were in the kitchen each day by 5 a.m. “We get in and get two giant rice cookers going,” she says, adding that there’s a ton of rice, coffee, and more crude jokes than should probably be told before 6 a.m.
Skratch Labs always makes both sweet and savory cakes that the riders can stuff into jersey pockets. The savory cakes pair up rice, Bragg Liquid Aminos, a generous smear of Justin’s Maple Almond Butter, and bacon. The sweet cakes, meanwhile, usually mix together lime zest, coconut milk, and some sort of berry.
After the rice cakes are made, cut and wrapped (and there’s a very specific way they have to be wrapped in order to be eaten while peddling), Zahler turns off the rice cookers and focuses on stage two: the post-ride meal. “On days where there’s a long transfer between the end of the stage and the hotel we provide a meal for the athletes to eat in the cars,” says Zahler.
Athletes have come to look forward to these meals, and if they don’t get them, they get pissed. Zahler says that a few days ago a team didn’t realize that Skratch would be cooking food at the finish line. Planning ahead, the team ordered boxed lunches for its riders. When the team managers got to the finish line and saw Skratch’s trailer, they realized their mistake. But instead of simply letting the riders choose which option they wanted, the managers took the Skratch meals and ate them themselves.
“When the riders found out they flew off the handle. People got pissed,” says Zahler. For good reason too. A typical Skratch meal is something like Parmesan-and-black-pepper fried rice with egg, tomato, corn, and fresh avocado salad, or a chicken teriyaki and tomago egg burritos with a kale and herb salad, or—on rainy days—pork braised over rice with a blueberry and fennel salad. “Even the soigneurs [the term for the team members who pick up and distribute meals], who have no business eating a 400-calorie rice cake, can be found trying to get one,” says Zahler.
But the real highlight for everyone is the cookies. Last year, Zahler made a batch—full of chocolate chips, pecans and coconut—on a whim. They handed them out, not expecting it to go beyond that. “But the riders kept asking for them,” she says. “So I said, well I guess we could make more at the hotel tonight.” Using a super sub-par Holiday Inn kitchen, she and her colleagues whipped up several more batches. The riders destroyed them. This year they made 16 different varieties.
“I really love sneaking dessert into these guys' diets because they totally crave it but think they shouldn’t have it. And I don’t believe in shouldn’t,” says Zahler—especially when it comes to cookies.