Cyclists, calories, and chaos: the elusive pursuit of leanness

Adam Phelan Columnist

By Adam Phelan, Adam Phelan is a Roar Expert


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    Australia's GreenEdge Cycling Teams' Luke Durbridge, Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen (AAP Image/Benjamin Macmahon)

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    For scores of young sports people – footy and basketball players, swimmers and the like – a dream physique involves the typical hallmarks of athletic ability: big biceps, six packs, broad shoulders, and large powerful legs.

    For the aspiring endurance road cyclist however, with dreams of racing up the mountains in the Tour de France, this desired physique differs substantially.

    Instead of the well-built, large and muscular body shapes seen in other sporting codes, many cyclists’ consider ribcage outlined torsos, twig like arms and sunken cheeks – epitomized by the likes of Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and Luxembourger Andy Schleck – as features that constitute an idyllic body type.

    Bike racers want to emulate the multitude of slender, shredded, skinny and shaven legs that fill the professional peloton in Europe.

    They want the unused weight situated on their arms and their chest to vanish. They yearn for bodies that are road mapped by veins. Big arms? Pfft. Pecks? Useless.

    Why do cyclists chase after this ambition for leanness (as obtaining the said physique will obviously do nothing to assist one’s chances of getting a girlfriend)? The answer lies with one simple and important concept: the power-to-weight ratio.

    The power-to-weight ratio is simple to understand and has an unmistakable benefit: the more power you have at the lightest weight possible means you will climb better.

    It is therefore a cyclist’s desire to get rid of excess fat, to be lean and light, all while not losing too much power. A simple task, surely? Well, not quite.

    At times, this pursuit of leanness gives rise to an unhealthy obsession with weight. Some riders forget and ignore the ‘power’ aspect in the power-to-weight ratio. The notion of being lean and powerful is frequently skewed in a cyclist’s mind; often the appearance of being lean or skinny takes far more precedence than actually riding well.

    Soon eating can turn into a competition of how few calories one can consume, and of what food should be thought of as: fuel.

    This ‘starvio diet’, as some cyclists term it, can send a rider spiralling down into an energy-less, power depleted, moody and sickness-prone mess. Instead of gaining a performance advantage the opposite occurs, leading to the mental crack and then binge eating.

    Obviously this isn’t the case for every cyclist. For the most part, riders will eat right and train hard; they achieve leanness and don’t lose too much power. Some are also big and muscular (while still being lean).

    Many riders realise they will never be hill climbers or Grand Tour winners – they understand that they are not Alberto Contador; instead they focus most of their attention towards power.

    Nevertheless, this unhealthy get-lean-at-all-costs approach is a trap that is easily fallen in to.

    I know of a few riders trying to drop a few kilograms that would – on returning home from a six and half hour ride – simply nibble on a small plate of vegetables (and nothing else).

    I also know riders who would scale all aspects of their life by a measure of how ‘lean’ something was.

    And I know others who will skip meals irrespective of how heavy their training load is at any given time.

    Why? It’s the ‘lean’ thing to do.

    With the Australian cycling summer of racing, featuring climbs such as Arthur’s Seat in the Jayco Sun Herald Tour and the infamous National Championship climb out at Buninyong, several riders will be trying desperately to avoid the calorie-dense Christmas festivities and New Year shenanigans.

    For lots of riders in Australia, the National Championships is the time they try hardest to be lean. It is one of the few races in the year where professional and domestic riders can come head-to-head in a race that is both lengthy and hilly.

    My advice for those chasing their lean goals? Have a bit of common sense. Avoid extremes. Train hard and enjoy riding your bike.

    Unless you are planning on racing up Alpe d’Huez or Stelvio Pass, having that one extra kilogram, with the benefit of having a little extra power, will probably do you the world of good.

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    The Crowd Says (6)

    • December 21st 2012 @ 7:40am
      bruski said | December 21st 2012 @ 7:40am | ! Report

      Here is an article that I read a couple of weeks ago which may add to your article.

    • Columnist

      December 21st 2012 @ 10:30am
      Adam Phelan said | December 21st 2012 @ 10:30am | ! Report

      Thanks, I think Cycling Tips has touched on this topic a couple of times. It’s interesting to get that perspective from the professionals, and to see how they differ.

    • December 21st 2012 @ 4:54pm
      toddo said | December 21st 2012 @ 4:54pm | ! Report

      you have to remember though – its easy to drop a kilo off ya body then it is to lose a kilo of weight from the bike 😛

      • Columnist

        December 21st 2012 @ 5:15pm
        Adam Phelan said | December 21st 2012 @ 5:15pm | ! Report

        Well that’s true .. I’d struggle to get a single gram off my bike (they do a pretty good job at keeping them light!) 😛

    • December 21st 2012 @ 6:57pm
      Wesley Hurrell said | December 21st 2012 @ 6:57pm | ! Report

      Very nice article Adam! With the right nutrition strategy you can significantly increase your power without necessarily increasing your weight.

      • Columnist

        December 21st 2012 @ 10:33pm
        Adam Phelan said | December 21st 2012 @ 10:33pm | ! Report

        Definitely agree. Nutrition is a very powerful thing in cycling.

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