By Sarah W. Staber
Christian Vande Velde came into his own last season with a run of stunning successes: A strong showing at the Tour of California, the pink jersey at the Giro, a stellar fourth place in the Tour de France, and to cap the season, the Tour of Missouri overall win.
This year Vande Velde scored a stage win at Paris-Nice, and looks set for another top season that he hopes is set back only slightly by his injuries in Monday’s stage 3 crash at the Giro.
Surely his move to Garmin-Slipstream has let him blossom, but his wife, Leah, believes his success also has to do with his eating habits.
“Christian told me he excelled at the Tour due to his cutting back on gluten,” she revealed. “At first I thought it was crazy not to eat any pasta or gluten foods since he lived off of them — it was all he ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
But now Leah has jumped on the ”no gluten” bandwagon as well.
Vande Velde confirmed his new way of eating helped him at the Tour. “I arrived in the mountains and to the first rest day with more energy than I ever have had. I was fresh mentally and physically.”
A cyclist, gluten free? How is that possible?
“My health was indicating that I should cut down on yeast and sugars, it was my chiropractor who actually suggested cutting back on products with gluten,” Vande Velde said. “It’s not really a ‘gluten free’ diet, rather an ‘anti-inflammatory’ diet. A cyclist wants to keep inflammation down, so if eating differently could help, I was up for trying it. ”
Leah, who hopes to be working as a chef for the team as soon as time permits, talked about the changes in the Vande Velde household. “We got rid of basically everything in the kitchen pantry. No longer was there cereal in the house or bread for sandwiches. We turned to oatmeal and rice cakes. Getting rid of the flours in the cabinet, both wheat and white, was the biggest change. They just didn’t mix with the new eating habits.” She said.
“Bread.” Answered Christian, without missing a beat, when asked what food he missed most. “I love bread. We live in Spain for most of the year. There bread is the staple of every meal — even when you have a coffee, a croissant is never very far away. I adored it. So, for me, cutting bread out was hard. I’m over the cold turkey phase, but sometimes I’ll just have a piece in my hand when I am eating, use it to push my food around. It’s a creature comfort of sorts, even now,“ he chuckled.
No wonder then that in January Vande Velde posted a plaintive Twitter, referring to his wife, his baby daughter and something else: “I miss Leah, Uma and gluten.”
How does Leah, a chef who has worked in the kitchen of One Sixty Blue, Michael Jordan’s restaurant in Chicago, deal with these drastic changes?
“The hardest thing was trying to make the alternatives taste like pasta or bread. I’ve just given up trying to make something taste like the real thing. Instead I make things that I know are healthy and have a lot of flavor and try and make it work that way. The key is to enhance the flavor of whatever you are making, not cover it up or try to change the taste.” Leah has developed many new recipes to keep her husband on the right track.
Leah insists that cooking anti-inflammatory can be made easier if the proper staples are on hand. “If you have to go to the store every time you want to eat something, chances are you will stray. Also, making extra of the basics like rice and sweet potatoes to have in the fridge to add to anything like a salad or chicken is a simple help.”
Other staples now found in the VandenVelde abode include almond butter, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fresh ginger, beans, spelt, oats, quinoa, rye barley and rice, pure maple syrup and raw honey and extra virgin olive oil. “With these things in the house, you can’t go wrong,” Leah said.
Leah didn’t want her husband to suffer unduly. “I use rye, brown rice or buckwheat to make bread. To replace Christian’s favorite morning muffins, I use oat flour and millet. He loves the tastes and having bread again — even though it is different to what he use to eat — keeps him happy and healthy, just the way I like him!” she smiles.
Christian is open to change and appreciates that his team is forward thinking as well. “People are slowly realizing that they don’t have to go with ‘the standard.’ You know the ‘This is the way we did it in the 60’s so we’ll continue to do it now’ attitude that is out there in cycling. Garmin-Slipstream breaks out of that mold, our team throws a lot of that out the window, for better or worse. And, mostly the changes are positive.”
What differences has Christian seen since starting the diet seriously last June? “Physically I am a lot leaner than I have been in previous years. I am less lethargic and my energy levels have been quite good. I haven’t done lots of testing to see exactly what’s happening in my body, but my blood levels and everything have been more stable throughout the year.” He continued, “I recover quicker and maybe have less inflammation in my back and hips — but that is hard to determine. But, recovery seems to be better.”
At a team training camp in New Mexico this winter, the entire team was introduced to the diet. Leah wasn’t there to cook, but supplied the chef with her recipes. At the buffet, a note on the menu read, “This recipe brought to you by Leah Vande Velde”.
“I got a lot of heckling for that and some of the guys were jealous that I got to eat this way at home,” Vande Velde said. “Leah’s dishes were serious hits, no doubt about it! I’m not blowing smoke here, but people were licking their plates clean. There was literally no food left. Leah’s recipes were the biggest hits of the camp. The salmon with mango chutney is one of my favorites, I stand the chance of getting sick from it, ’cause I can’t stop eating it and finish the chutney up all by myself!” he laughed.
Christian conceded he isn’t religious about the diet.
“I’m not going overboard with it. The gist is: If you have a choice, choose the better one. If it’s a sandwich or nothing, of course I’ll eat the sandwich. But if you have the choice between rice or pasta, you go for the rice. Inflammation is the biggest hindrance of an athlete. Foods like wheat, red meat and various sugars, can cause inflammation, or feed it. If you can keep those foods in check you might see a difference. I don’t know if this for everybody but for some people it works really well. I’m 100 percent on board.”
Being a realist at heart, he concluded, “You know, I might look back in 10 years and say ‘I can’t believe that I believed in that fad’, but right now I think it is the right track for me to be on.”
Leah Vande Velde’s low-gluten recipes