Strange Cycling Fuels

Bored of the bar? Go faster and save money with these unusual race-day foods.


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The 6 Weirdest Cycling Fuels

We’ve grown up on a diet of energy bars, lab-formulated drinks, and factory assembled gels. Don’t get us wrong—they work. Heck, they sometimes even taste pretty good. But there’s nothing like real food—even if it’s junk food—on a long century ride or before the start of a race to settle your stomach and fuel your ride. With the help of Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs, an “active nourishment company” famous for helping train professional cyclists like Taylor Phinney, and Stacy Sims, the chief research officer and a co-founder of Osmo Nutrition, we selected five of the best and most surprising ways to hack your cycling diet.

Hot Tamales
Bidon Moonshine
Salty-sweet PB&J
PayDay Bars
Pasta Rounds

The Weirdest Cycling Fuels: Hot Tamales

Spicy. (kraftworkin)

Your average energy gel isn’t an ideal food source, says Sims. While they’re easy to slurp down at the end of a race or during a fast portion of a training ride, densely sugared foods can dehydrate the body and facilitate overheating, she says.

Gels are often comprised of maltodextrin, a longer molecule that requires final processing in the liver, which releases more heat. Surprised? Just check out your gel’s wrapper. It recommends you take in 8 to 10 ounces of water per serving to prevent dehydration, which is nearly impossible during a training ride.

A handful of Hot Tamales, on the other hand, are made of sucrose, a sugar that’s easier to digest and less likely to lead to overheating or a bloated stomach, Sims says. Popping a handful of Hot Tamales, glucose tablets, or Jelly Beans gives you the sugar rush you need without sending you to the port-a-potty mid-race.

The Weirdest Cycling Fuels: Bidon Moonshine

Add orange for flavor.
Add orange for flavor. (WGyuri)

You can make a tasty sports drink at home to fill up your bidons (otherwise known as bottles) with. Just keep in mind the main objective of any effective on-the-bike drink: hydration, not carbo-loading, says Sims.

An overload of sugar in your drink—just as in your gels—can cause a nasty chain reaction of GI distress and even cause dehydration. Focus on getting your calories through your food, and make sure your drink mix actually hydrates you.

For the perfect homemade solution, mix 16 ounces of water with eight teaspoons of table salt and add a dash of lemon or orange juice for flavor. “The sodium’s there to help you absorb the water, while the juice adds a bit of Vitamin C,” which helps your body make the most of beta-alanine,” a naturally occurring beta amino acid that has pronounced effects on high-intensity performance, Sims says.

The Weirdest Cycling Fuels: Peanut Butter & Nutella Sandwich

A tasty mix.
A tasty mix. (Michael Wifall)

Not everyone can manhandle a sandwich while racing down a mountain pass, but going for real food during long training rides can provide the ideal mix of macronutrients “preventing that big sugar rush by giving your body a number of things to break down at different rates for a continuous source of energy,” Sims says.

One of her favorites: A salty take on a childhood staple, the PB&J. Ditch the whole wheat bread for simple white bread—it has less GI-distress-causing fiber—and coat one slice of bread with Nutella and the other with your favorite nut-butter spread. Then, sprinkle a dash of salt between the slices. “It’s a sustained fuel for when you don’t want or need quick hits of sugar,” says Sims. It’s also delicious.

The Weirdest Cycling Fuels: Bacon

Some assembly required.
Some assembly required. (David Prince; food styling by Megan Schlow)

There’s a stigma against eating real food while exercising, “but I’ve seen many athletes achieve their peak performances,” without packaged bars and gels, says Lim. The reason why: It’s often easier—and tastier—to get the ideal low-fiber (for GI safety), high glycemic index (for rapid absorption), and high-moisture (for easier chewing) mix in real food than packaged bars.

Sushi rice is perhaps one of the tastiest foods to meet all three criteria. It’s incredibly absorbent, allowing you to pack in a ton of flavor, Lim says. Mix with bacon, and you have the perfect on-the-bike meal.

Simply combine cooked bacon, sticky rice, cashews, and raisins into cakes and cool thoroughly (click here for the full recipe) for a salty but energy-filled bar. If you have a sweet tooth, layer mascarpone, honey, and banana between two layers of white sushi rice instead.

The Weirdest Cycling Fuels: PayDay Bar

It's all about the peanuts.
It's all about the peanuts. (zJMAC)

If you’re bonking on a ride and the only thing in sight is a gas station, head directly for the candy isle and pick up a PayDay bar, says Sims. While it’s not exactly real, wholesome food, PayDay bars are made without fructose syrup, unlike the majority of the candy bars on the market. They’re easy to digest, loaded with carbs, and carry an extra punch of protein to help get you home after even the hardest of rides.

The Weirdest Cycling Fuels: Pasta

Think cycling, and pasta probably comes to mind—just not for an on-the-bike food. But think again, says Lim. Unlike your average bar, pasta is moist, making for easier chewing. And because it doesn’t come loaded with added sugar, it’s less likely to cause GI distress.

Avoiding a mess while riding is easier than you’d imagine: Simply bake the pasta (after it’s been cooked) in a muffin tin for an on-the-go sized round. For best results, mix a gluten-free pasta with quinoa, and moisture-adding olive oil. Wrap it in some parchment paper and you’re ready to hit the road.

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