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Back to Basics – Fuelling with Booze and Cigarettes

By Jiri Kaloc

Early days of cycling nutrition were wild! There were no nutritionists, no team chefs, not even team members to help out! Riders had to fend for themselves. That’s why things like smoking to “open up” lungs, hydrating with beer, or drinking 11 litres of hot chocolate per day weren’t unusual. Let’s look at what cycling nutrition used to be like compared with today.

Eat anything you find along the way

For example, the Tour de France of the early 1900s had no specific food stops or pit crews. Riders just stopped along the road to refuel with an outside assistance, something that would get you disqualified in modern times! And the foods they chose to eat were also very different.

The 1904 Tour de France winner, Henri Cornet, consumed 11 litres of hot chocolate, 4 litres of tea, champagne, and 1.5 kilos of rice pudding a day, according to The Science of the Tour de France: Training Secrets of the World’s Best Cyclists. These numbers might look crazy today but the 5-hour-long modern Tour de France stages are nothing compared to 18 hours a day spent in the saddle that riders had to endure in the early 1900s.

Cigarettes to open up the lungs

In the 1920s, cyclists also smoked cigarettes while riding, especially before steep climbs, in hopes of opening up their lungs. We can only guess if it had real effects. But regardless, that practice gradually went away as more research showed the true effects of smoking on health.

Alcohol for a more fun ride

It was a common practice to drink alcohol while competing in endurance cycling all the way until the 1960s. Riders drank various drinks from beer to wine to champagne, for both hydration and, reportedly, a more fun ride. While one beer won’t hurt your hydration status, we now know that there are much more effective ways of hydrating. But when it comes to the fun aspect, if riders today had to ride 18 hour stages, who knows, maybe alcohol would be fashionable again.
Today’s cycling nutrition has come a long way but it’s good to look back to fully appreciate it. In this month’s series, you will have a chance to do that and learn some recipes from the old times to try them yourself first hand.

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