The TCR Diet: What Do You Eat When Racing 4000-Kilometers Across a Continent?
September 13, 2023
The Transcontinental Race (TCR) is a self-supported cycling adventure across Europe. To reach the finish within the cut–off time, riders need to average over 200 kilometers a day. Can you imagine how much food you need to eat to keep going for 200+ kilometers a day, for over a week? I could, and as the type of person who starts looking forward to my next meal right as I’m finishing up my current one, it actually seemed like quite an exciting challenge. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that racing across a continent is hard work, but my imagination was distracted by the thought of so many opportunities to fuel up on exciting local food!
With that seed planted, I was keen to chat to Jesko, an editor on the komoot Collections team who had just completed the 2023 event. I wanted to hear about his food adventures during an ultra-endurance event.
Approximately two minutes into our conversation, my naivety was brutally exposed.
Eating like a teenager left at home alone
Eat what you can get. Calorie-dense. Available. Digestible. Petrol stations … read my notes from the first half of the conversation.
It turns out that everything I imagined to be the fun bits – Street food! Local delicacies! – are the things most experienced endurance riders do their best to avoid. There is little time for sit-down meals, and even less time for the digestive hazards posed by unfamiliar food.
A far cry from a cultural culinary adventure, Jesko confessed that his TCR diet bore more resemblance to a menu put together by a teen who’s been left at home alone. With a small touch of shame (his word), he confessed that he survived 13 days on the bike by eating little more than candy bars, salted crisps, and biscuits (turns out the key to a balanced diet is equal parts sugar and salt). Sandwiches were a luxury item.
Things were starting to make sense to me. Here I will confess that I wasn’t quite as naive as I professed to be in this intro, but over the years I have seen pictures and heard stories of riders eating “surprise” meals on endurance events due to language barriers and a general lack of choice when riding through remote terrain. When I looked through the recent press photos of TCR food though, I clicked through photo after photo of biscuits stuffed into cockpit bags and crisp packets in shirt pockets. Where were the photos of helmeted riders wrestling unidentified street food into their ulcerated mouths? It didn’t exactly inspire my creative juices. Until I started asking questions.
Strategies for eating enough
Chatting to a colleague who runs, I was pointed in the direction of a meme he’d spotted some time ago. The athletics club runner meticulously plotted out his mile-by-mile fuelling strategy with scientific precision, while the ultra-trail runner burnt the rule book with outrageous calorie-dense combinations – cheese quesadilla dipped in chicken soup if I remember correctly. It made me realize that while I had heard people talking about the importance of route planning strategy, and seen the photos of people bivvying in the middle of traffic circles or lying under a space blanket on the side of the road (and, naturally wondered if I have the grit to do the same. Answer: definitely not), I had never given much thought to the food situation. But now, faced with all these photos of crisps, I was finally curious.
Someone on the internet told me that burning so many calories requires constant eating, making these big-distance events feel as much an eating competition as a cycling one. Jesko, agreed:
“...Just because of that whole trying to save time thing, what I was trying to do was to get as many calories as I could in one stop. I would go for places where I could find drinks and food, and also because I had limited space on my bike or in my pockets, I was just looking at calories.”
Just looking at calories… I thought to myself. It dawned on me then that breakfast, lunch, and dinner probably aren’t concepts on the road either. Affirmative. “My watch is beeping, so I guess I'll eat a few more biscuits,” is how Jesko described his meal times to me – if you can call them that. The only time the monotony of fueling was broken was when his body, on auto-pilot, drew him mysteriously to the dairy fridge, where he’d pick out a yogurt or bottle of milk, gulp it down and carry on his way.
Food gets emotional
It seems that for the most part, where ultra-endurance cycling events are concerned, food takes on a utilitarian quality in the extreme – even people who might be foodies at home are reduced to low-risk, easy-to-find calories that can be quickly tucked into their bikepacking set-up. And, on the rare occasion where food takes on meaning beyond “calories,” that meaning can be disproportionate to the food itself. Another colleague who completed the TCR a few years ago told me he found himself fighting back tears on a petrol station curb at the discovery that the yogurt he’d bought did not come with a spoon. A few minutes later, having fashioned one from a piece of cardboard, he’d felt like a hero.
Having had some challenging rides myself (albeit not up against the clock), I can empathize with the emotional state where little things feel like Big Things. I also understand the need to balance your resources and focus all your energy on just moving forward. After these conversations, it seems to me as an outsider looking in, that the adventure is more about where your mind goes, rather than where your physical body (specifically your stomach) goes. But even though it’s now abundantly clear to me that cycling competitively across a continent does not represent a culinary opportunity, my mind cannot be entirely distracted from the idea of food. It keeps going back to that meme I heard about: Energy gels vs. quesadilla and soup. Throw in the option of Jesko’s TCR diet (biscuits and crisps), and the choice is still a no-brainer. In case you’re wondering, I’d go quesadilla dipped in chicken soup. Every. Single. Time.
Image credits (top left to bottom right): Header: Tomás Montes; Photo 1: Charlotte Gamus; Photo 2: Bea Berlanda; Photo 3: Charlotte Gamus; Photo 4: Tomás Montes; Photo 5: Tom Gibbs; Photo 6 & 7: TCR media; Photo 8: Charlotte Gamus
Words by Catherine Sempill
Catherine is the Content Manager for the Adventure Hub. She grew up exploring the wide open wild places in South Africa. Now based in the UK, she walks, cycles and runs her way around the English countryside (at an exceptionally relaxed pace).