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How Team Sky fuels for grand tours

We speak with Dr. James Morton, Team Sky’s head of nutrition, to learn more about what it takes to fuel a team at a grand tour.

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Team Sky partners with Science in Sport to fuel Chris Froome and his teammates. Froome’s victory at the Giro d’Italia relied heavily on proper nutrition, particularly during his stage 19 attack over the Colle delle Finestre. There, Team Sky planned the strategy and had a dozen or so staffers standing along the course to hand him liquids, gels, and other fueling products.

Science in Sport has recently released Beta Fuel, developed with Team Sky in training and racing. It was the biggest change in the nutrition of the team at the Giro, and it is the product the team will turn to (in conjunction with Science in Sport gels, bars, and recovery) to fuel at the Tour de France.

We caught up with Dr. James Morton, Team Sky’s head of nutrition, and also Science in Sport’s world-class knowledge director, to learn more about Beta Fuel, go behind the scenes at Froome’s Giro victory, and discuss what it takes to fuel a team at a grand tour.

VeloNews: Can you describe the development process of Beta Fuel with Team Sky? How long did it take, and how did the riders play a role in its development?

Beta fuel was developed over a three-month process; we designed it in conjunction with the SiS staff to hit the brief of a product that provided access to fuel when it is often difficult to physically unwrap and eat food. We trialed it in training camps and at lower key races with our key riders in preparation for the Giro d’Italia. Eventually, we refined the formulation and the taste to deliver a product that we believe can make a difference when it counts. (Want to try Beta Fuel first? You can find out more and sign up to get an exclusive trial offer when it launches next month, just by clicking here.) 

VN: What makes it different from other products on the market?

Most sports drinks contain 20-40 grams of carbohydrates per 500 ml, usually from a single source of glucose or maltodextrin. Beta Fuel contains 80 grams of a multiple-source blend of maltodextrin and fructose. Additionally, it is a drink that is neutral pH and also isotonic, even though it is a 16-percent carbohydrate drink.

VN: How does Beta Fuel reduce GI distress?

Because Beta Fuel is a multiple-source drink and also isotonic, it would be easier to digest and absorb than an equivalent volume of a single-source carbohydrate. To consume 80 grams per hour, we advise it be used a little at a time and often such as 150 ml every 15-20 minutes.

VN: What does it mean that SiS products are “certified”?

This is referring to Science in Sport’s banned substance program; they are the leaders in banned-substance testing and are the only company globally to hold both Informed Sport Site Certification and Informed Sport Product Certification. (Learn more here.)

VN: Can you describe the planning and effort that went into the fueling strategy and race-day execution to support Chris Froome’s win on stage 19 of the Giro? How well in advance was it planned? How difficult was it to pull off? How much communication did you have with Chris during the stage?

Stage 19 was really the culmination of the last week of planning and getting ready for it. First of all, we had been working for seven to 10 days to lose weight in preparation for the stage. For the last three to four stages, it was all about fueling well each day in preparation for stage 19 so that we were on the start line in a fully loaded state. This involved close nutritional coaching each day to modify the energy and carbohydrate intake when needed. The actual stage 19 in-race fueling plan was developed the day before once the sports director, coaches, and Chris decided how we would ride tactically. Then it was a case of putting the plan together to ensure that Chris always had access to fuel so we could ensure that we would adhere to the hourly targets. Chris was always on the radio giving us feedback on how it was going.

VN: Off the bike, how important is proper nutrition leading into the Tour? What are the things you’ll want the riders to focus on? And how do you know what each rider’s ideal weight should be at the start?

Tour de France preparation really begins six months in advance when we develop the riders annual performance plan, where we decide on which races we are going to peak for and what the ideal body composition is for those races. It is virtually impossible to be in peak shape all year round, so it is all about hitting the peak form at the right time. The last six to eight weeks is when it really becomes critical, and usually, it is all about achieving the balance between fueling, recovery, and weight loss. It is a fine balance and no plan ever survives to the end, you have to adapt each day and each week depending on the progress. Nonetheless, without a plan, you will never achieve your goal. Identifying each rider’s body weight is done with the coaches and rider through a process of calculations, but often and more importantly is the actual rider’s performance itself and all of the little details and daily feedback. It is a tightrope and a fine balance.

VN: Many casual fans of cycling likely underestimate the importance of nutrition for an effort like the Tour de France. In your opinion, how important is it in the greater context of the entire effort? Can you quantify the nutritional demands of a grand tour?

In a grand tour, nutrition can often be the difference between winning and losing. The energy expenditure of the ride can vary between 1,000 and 6,000 Kcals per day depending on the stage profile. Achieving the balance between fueling, recovery, and weight management is critical to ensure peak performance at the right time. Even getting one or two meals wrong, such as the recovery meal after the stage and the evening dinner, could have a catastrophic consequence the next day, and riders could lose minutes. Alternatively, overeating over seven days could cause a two-kilogram increase in body mass, which could also have catastrophic consequences in the mountains. For the performance nutritionist, there is no better sport in the world to work in. The riders all value the importance of nutrition and it is a highly collaborative environment where we all work together to try and make a difference. It can be hugely challenging but highly rewarding, and, of course, the most important people are the riders, they are the ones who do all the hard work.