When Mathieu van der Poel crossed the finish line at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, he celebrated by raising his hands off the handlebars held in place by a leg holding some vital information.
As viewers of the tech show posted by CyclingTips from the race may have noticed, a print table mounted to Van der Poel’s trunk laid out his feeding plan for Ronde van Vlaanderen.
While the practice of printing course details on an easy-to-read guide to the stem is a long-standing tradition, creating a structured feeding plan there is less common—and all the more interesting given how Van der Poel played today. In the wake of his victory, CyclingTips did some research to get more details on Van der Poel’s food plan for Flanders, and came up with some great insights into the Dutchman’s approach.
As Alpecin-Fenix performance director Christophe de Kegel explained to CyclingTips, being clear about all the details about time and what the riders will be consuming can make a huge difference in the race.
“The general principles around this are that in a long race like the Tour of Flanders, more than six hours of power production, the feeding window is critical. So timing and the overall amount of things feeding and energy intake are critical,” said de Kegel. “When I explain it to the passengers, I compare it a little to sleep. If you miss two hours of sleep, if you miss that opportunity, you will never be able to get it back.
“The same goes for nutrition for sure, when you’re in such a high-intensity race. That’s why we set a timing, based on kilometers or hours of the race or something else, based on the amount of carbohydrates most of the time. That is the energy and the amount of carbohydrates they need To get in from hour to hour, because if you miss something in the second hour of the race, you’re going to pay cash at four, five or six of the race. So it’s just a reminder to the riders. We have a lot of riders who keep track of that really well on the label.”
The value of a strict approach to nutrition has been clear to the team for some time now. As such, De Kegel and his colleagues put custom plans together and attached what they call “nutrition labels” to the riders’ trunks belonging to the Amstel Gold Race won by Van der Poel in 2019.
“We’ve had this nutrition plan for a long time, the label, because it’s really important,” de Kegel said. “I think, if you saw what happened to Matthew van der Poel in Harrogate, in the world, it was just a fueling issue. We have to avoid these things as much as possible, which is why we have a reminder that the principle is well integrated into the team at the moment.”
Van der Poel’s nutrition label from Flanders offers a glimpse into how Alpecin-Fenix conveys a passenger’s feeding plans via simple icons, with each icon representing a particular feeding method.
Any guesses about what it is 🙂? pic.twitter.com/49jKzpT0kD
– Zach River (@zachnehr) April 4, 2022
As CyclingTips understands, filled circles are rice cakes, rectangles are energy bars, jelly-like graphics are, well, gels, and bottles are bottles of energy drink. The smiling face emoji visible at the 200km mark – shortly before Oude Kwaremont’s penultimate ascent – is a gel of caffeine. In each fuel method, different colors represent different options.
Using this relatively simple method, Alpecin-Fenix can inform riders of what and when they will consume during the race. As the Van der Poel nutrition poster in Flanders explains, the method of fueling evolves over the course of a given event.
“Depending on the timing of the race, the type of carb changes a little bit,” de Kegel said.
“It changes from, at the start of the race, you see rice cakes and bars on the stem, and that moves up a little bit to gels and things that are easier to grab a little faster and absorb.” [is] A little faster towards the final of the race.”
Finally, they contain a lot of calories in the form of carbohydrates – and they are truly Too much for Van der Poel specifically, whose elite physical attributes include an elite ability to process fuel. As explained by De Kegel, Van der Poel consumes between 100 and 120 grams of carbs per hour in a race like the Tour of Flanders.
Using the traditional conversion of four calories per gram of carbohydrate, that’s 400 to 480 calories in carbs per hour for the Flanders winner, a little more than the average cyclist consumes on the ride.
“You can train your gut to maximize absorption. If you only ask a tourist to eat 90 grams per hour, he might not be used to it and his gut isn’t really trained to eat like that much, and he might have stomach issues,” de Kegel said.
“We know a bit about the limits individually from rider to rider based on the testing we do in early season training camps and also based on racing experience. Most riders are between 80 and 100g to tolerate an hour of carb intake. Mathieu is in this segment A bit exceptional in that it absorbs up to 120 grams – which it also really needs, because we all see the power it provides from hour to hour. So it burns it off, which is why refueling is so important.”
Notably, De Kegel notes that differences in a jockey’s nutrition plan from one race to the next are mostly driven by the temperature of the day.
“The kind of how you get carbs is different if the temperature is 10 degrees or 25 degrees, because if the temperature is 25 degrees, you get the same kind of carbs more smoothly, so with more bottles and less rice cakes, for example,” he said. De Kegel. “Flanders has been a bit cooler so the bottles are not the main priority, you give them more rice cakes at first for example. That can change from one race to another.”
The plan clearly worked out well on Sunday, as Van der Poel vaulted to his second race win. It’s been another success for a method that has worked so well with Alpecin-Fenix for some time now, and given the track record, it seems counterintuitive that the team will continue to use their “nutrition labels” for the foreseeable future.