When Mathieu van der Poel crossed the finish line at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, he celebrated by raising his hands off handlebars held in place by a stem bearing some vital information.
As sharp-eyed viewers of the tech gallery that CyclingTips posted from the race may have noticed, a printed table affixed to van der Poel’s stem laid out his nutrition plan for the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
While the practice of the printing course details on an easy-to-read guide on the stem is a time-honored tradition, putting a regimented nutrition plan there is less common—and all the more intriguing considering how the day played out for Van der Poel . In the wake of his victory, CyclingTips did some digging to get more details on Van der Poel’s nutrition plan for Flanders, and we came away with some fascinating insight into the Dutchman’s approach.
As Alpecin-Fenix performance manager Kristof de Kegel explained to CyclingTips, spelling out all the details of when and what riders will consume can make a big difference in a race.
“The general principles about it is that in such a long race as the Tour of Flanders, over six hours of producing power, the nutrition window is crucial. So the timing, the total amount of nutrition things, energy intake, is very crucial,” De Kegel said. “When I explain it to the riders, I compare it a bit with sleep. If you miss two hours of sleep, if you miss that window of opportunity, you can never catch it back.
“It’s the same with nutrition for sure, when you are in such a high-intensity race. For that reason, we make a timing, based on the kilometers or the hours of the race or whatever, on the amount of, most of the time, carbs. That’s the energy, the amount of carbs they need to get in from hour to hour, because if you miss something in the second hour of the race, you will pay in cash the fourth, the fifth, or the sixth hour of the race. So it’s just a reminder for the riders. We have a lot of riders who follow it really well on the sticker.”
The value of a regimented approach to nutrition has been clear to the team for some time now. As such, De Kegel and his colleagues have been putting customized plans together and attaching what they call “nutrition stickers” to riders’ stems going back to the Amstel Gold Race that Van der Poel won in 2019.
“We have had this nutrition plan for quite a while, the sticker, because it’s really important,” De Kegel said. “I think, if you saw what happened to Mathieu van der Poel in Harrogate, in the Worlds, it was just a fueling problem. We have to avoid those things as much as possible, and for that reason we have the reminder that the principle is really well integrated into the team for the moment.”
Van der Poel’s nutrition sticker from Flanders offers a glimpse into the way Alpecin-Fenix conveys rider nutrition plans via simple symbols, with each symbol representing a specific fueling method.
Any guesses as to what the 🙂 is? pic.twitter.com/49jKzpT0kD
— Zach Nehr (@zachnehr) April 4, 2022
As CyclingTips understands it, the filled-in circles are rice cakes, the rectangles are energy bars, the gel-like graphics are, well, gels, and the bottles are bottles of energy drink. The smiley face emoji visible at the 200 km mark – shortly before the penultimate ascent of the Oude Kwaremont – represents a caffeine gel. Within each fueling method, different colors represent different options.
Using that relatively simple method, Alpecin-Fenix can inform riders of what and when they will be consuming throughout a race. As Van der Poel’s nutrition sticker at Flanders shows, the fueling method evolves over the course of a given event.
“Depending on the timing of the race, the type of carbs are changing a bit,” De Kegel said.
“It changes from, at the beginning of the race, you see rice cakes and bars on the stem, and that moves up a bit more to gels and things that are easier to grab a bit faster and the uptake [is] a bit faster towards the final of the race.”
All told, it’s quite a lot of calories in the form of carbohydrates – and it’s really quite a lot for Van der Poel specifically, whose elite physical attributes include an elite ability to process fuel. As De Kegel explained, Van der Poel consumes between 100 and 120 grams of carbohydrates per hour at 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 carbohydrate form per hour for the Flanders winner, which is quite a bit more than your average cyclist would consume on a ride.
“You can train your gut to maximize the uptake. If you ask just a tourist to eat 90 grams an hour, probably he is not used to it and his gut is not really trained to have an uptake like this so much, and he will probably have stomach issues,” De Kegel said.
“We know a bit the limits individually from rider to rider based upon tests we do on training camps at the beginning of the season and also just based upon racing experience. Most of the riders are between 80 and 100 grams on the tolerance of the carb intake an hour. Mathieu is on that part a bit exceptional in that his uptake goes up to 120 grams – which he also really needs, because we all see the power that he delivers from hour to hour. So he burns it, and for that reason the fueling is extremely important.”
Notably, De Kegel points out that the differences in a rider’s nutrition plan from one race to another are mostly driven by the temperature on the day.
“The type of how you get the carbs in differs if it’s 10 degrees or if it’s 25 degrees, because if it’s 25 degrees you will have the same kind of carbs more in the fluid way, so with more bottles and less rice cakes, for example,” De Kegel said. “It was a bit of a colder Flanders, so bottles are not the main priority, you give them a bit more rice cakes in the beginning for example. That can change from race to race.”
Obviously, the plan worked well on Sunday, as Van der Poel rocketed to his second career victory in the race. It marked another success for a method that has worked well for Alpecin-Fenix for some time now, and given the track record, it seems like a no-brainer that the team will continue to use its “nutrition stickers” for the foreseeable future.