If an army marches on its stomach, Trek-Segafredo’s big lap of France is driven by team chef Bram Lippens.
Lippens is one of two chefs that prepares the food fueling the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Mads Pedersen and Bauke Mollema at this year’s Tour de France. But for the Belgian staffer, grand tour cooking is about more than just energy for the legs – it’s food for the soul.
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“For me, the dishes are about feeding riders’ minds and keeping them happy,” Lippens told VeloNews.
“Almost the hardest part of it all is making them want to eat, keeping the riders excited for the food. We want to make them happy for it and excited to eat – if they stop eating, there’s a big problem.
“We give them the night’s menus in advance and we want them to start mentally looking forward to it, to start being hungry beforehand.”
Burgers, Lasagna and Buratta
Lippens will enter the Trek-Segafredo bubble Monday when he takes over from his colleague Mirko Sut, who handled the opening phase of racing.
The 35-year-old chef will have the tough end of the race to cater for. He will join a battle-weary bunch that has already endured countless crashes and will have accumulated up to 40 hours in the saddle.
By the back half of the Tour, many riders have grown to see eating as another chore alongside transfers, briefings, media duties, and massages. Lippens looks to counter the apathy by selling his dishes to the riders’ eyes.
“When we put out the buffet, we of course want to make it taste good but also very good to look at. We need riders to come to the buffet and think ‘wow this is a good moment,’” Lippens said on a call shortly before he traveled to France.
With bike races being won or lost as much by nutrition and fuelling as they are by fine-tuned bikes or well-executed race strategies, Lippens has a key role to play in Trek-Segafredo’s Tour campaign.
Keeping riders interested in food and motivated to eat as they pile in 6,000-8,000 calories per day is Lippens’ biggest challenge.
“We try to do different things every day so they don’t get bored and so they keep eating,” he said.
“We always put out the menu early so if riders really want to change meals we can try to change for them. And after 10-14 days in a race like the Tour, I start asking riders what they really want, and I try to give them that if I can.”
Lippens said that he has to bat back some of the repeat requests he receives. Pedersen’s relentless hankering for Lasagne doesn’t always get accommodated, and the regular demand for burgers doesn’t always make it to the kitchen.
“They all like burgers, but a burger every day, that’s not possible,” he said. “They can have a burger the day before a rest day. They can have comfort food for sure, it’s important to give them that. But it has to be at the right time.”
“For the most part, they just want simple things like good mozzarella, burrata. Easy food is what they like, especially later in the race when they are tired.”
Highly-trained cheffing made simple
As the son of restaurateurs growing up in the heart of the bike-loving Ardennes, it seemed inevitable that Lippens would become a WorldTour chef. This will be his fifth year in the peloton after starting out with NTT Pro Cycling. He will be making his fourth appearance at the Tour de France on Monday.
Although Lippens has chef-school training and a past working in private kitchens, it’s all about simple, well-cooked food when on a grand tour.
“I try to give them small things they wouldn’t get when there is no chef on the race – the pasta is cooked properly, rice cooked properly, the Italian way,” he said.
“Simpler, cleaner food is better for their racing, and it’s mostly what they want anyway.”
After developing a passion for cheffing during his infancy of running around his parents’ restaurant kitchen, Lippens is a self-confessed “foodie.” Traveling through Europe exposes him to local flavors, traditions, and ingredients that feed the passion.
“I try to adapt some of the dishes to the region that we are in,” he said.
“I like to talk with the chefs in the hotel and ask what’s good in the area, sometimes I also ask the riders if I’m in their region. It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling.
“It’s also good for the riders – they like to have a little bit of a moment of holiday when they’re at the table.”
While Nibali and Co. are out on the road, Lippens is frantically acquainting himself with another hotel facility – the squad does not haul a kitchen truck through France – and sourcing fresh foods for the night’s service.
Lippens, co-chef Sut, and team nutritionists prepare a basic meal plan ahead of the Tour and request that hotels stock up on certain supplies ahead of time. The rest of the menu is concocted on the day itself.
“We make a little plan in advance, but my experience is teaching me that you can never do these 100 percent. So, now I start making a plan on proteins based on the stages, and on carbs, and I stick to that because they’re the most important,” Lippens said.
“But the side dishes, we see what we have and what we get on the market. And then we play a little bit with those ingredients.”
COVID restrictions are significantly more relaxed in France at this summer’s Tour compared to the August edition of 2020.
Lippens said that being able to visit local grocers and markets himself, rather than relying on a specific staffer that operated outside of the team bubble last summer, will be one of the highlights of his two weeks in France.
“Last year when COVID was at its highest point, shopping was hard because we couldn’t go out of the bubble. The team had an extra person just to go shopping and drop it in the hotel and then go to the next hotel,” he said.
“But as a chef, it’s always better if you go shopping yourself – you can choose your own product, and then change things at the last minute when you’re on the market or in the supermarket. That’s the fun thing about being a cook – you get inspiration from being places. This year will be fun.”