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Fuelling the Stages of a Grand Tour


Demands of the Event

The Tour de France represents the biggest race on the road cycling calendar and the 2018 edition promises to be one of the most open and exciting races in recent years. The Grand Depart will be in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, France and except for a short 15km spin in Spain during stage 16, the 105th Tour de France will never go outside the borders of France. Over 21 stages, riders will complete a distance of 3351 km. In total, there are 8 flat stages, 5 hilly stages and 6 mountain stages of which 3 are summit finishes. Furthermore, stage 3 sees the return of a 35 km team-time trial and the race effectively ends with a 31 km individual time trial on Stage 20. There is also a return of the cobbles, with 21.7 km of cobbled roads during stage 9, split into 15 sections with lengths varying from 500 m to 2.7 km. Finally, a reduction in rider numbers (from 9 in 2017 to 8 in 2018) will place even more demand on individual performance and like any Grand Tour, nutrition and hydration will play an integral role in fuelling, recovery, weight management and reducing illness.


General Nutritional Goals

As with all stage races, the ability to fuel and recover so that consistent day-to-day performances can be produced is the main nutritional goal. Each stage typically finishes between 5 and 6 pm and the subsequent stage commences the next day between 12 noon and 1 pm. This provides an 18hr turnaround time to recover from one stage and prepare for the next. Recovery begins straight after the stage through bespoke recovery drinks containing a blend of carbohydrate and protein, fruit smoothies and high carbohydrate-based foods. Depending on the stage intensity, riders will typically consume carbohydrate at a rate of 1-1.5 g/kg per hour during the first 2-3 hours(1). After another couple of hours of rest, riders would then have their main evening meal aiming for 3 g/kg of carbohydrate. The following morning, riders’ breakfast contains a mix of carbohydrates (aiming for 2-3 g/kg) such as porridge, fruits, smoothies, pasta, rice, breads etc. In this way, riders should commence each stage with fully loaded muscle and liver glycogen stores ready for another 3-6 hours in the saddle!


Fuelling the Mountain Stages

Mountain stages represent the toughest days on the road and are often characterized by repeated medium to high mountain climbs that can culminate in mountain-top finishes. Usually, these finishes are completed at intensities well above “lactate threshold” (>350-400 watts for elite riders) and ensuring high carbohydrate availability for these race winning moves is absolutely essential. As such, the golden rules of ensuring adequate carbohydrate intake in breakfast (e.g. 2-3 g/kg body mass), on the bike (75-90 g per hour) and immediately after the race (e.g. 1.5 g/kg body mass) are critical to promote fuelling and recovery(1, 2, 3). Additionally, given that many of these stages are likely to be undertaken extreme heat, the importance of carbohydrate, fluid and electrolytes (e.g. Beta Fuel) becomes even more important(4). Riders typically consume solid race food during the first half of the race (e.g. rice cakes, GO Energy Bars) before making the transition to gels (e.g. GO Isotonic Gels) during the second half. Caffeine gels (GO Energy + Caffeine) are typically consumed around 30-40 minutes prior to the toughest section of climbing so as to provide a mental boost(5,6)


Fuelling the Flat Stages

Given the important of maintaining optimal power-to-weight ratio (especially considering the last week of climbing), flat stages can often provide an opportunity to help manage weight by deliberately fuelling less. This is usually achieved by feeding less on the bike where carbohydrate targets of 30-60 grams are usually adhered to. Recovery after a flat stage also does not need to be as aggressive in terms of carbohydrate intake though protein intake (always 30-40 grams within 30 minutes of stage completion) is never compromised. Depending on the nature of the stage, the majority of riding on flat stages is typically undertaken well below “threshold” intensity and in these instances, fat becomes an important fuel. Nonetheless, riders must be able to adapt their in-race strategy depending on what happens during the stage. If the intensity creeps up, then more carbohydrate is quickly consumed, usually in the form of GO Isotonic Energy gels.


Fuelling the Time-Trials

The two-time trials will present opportunities to gain vital seconds and careful attention must also be given to ensuring sufficient glycogen stores are available to fuel these stages. Although the duration and overall energy expenditure are not near that of a flat or mountain stage, the intensity is much higher and a high capacity to consistently produce higher power outputs is required. Indeed, these stages are predominantly fuelled by carbohydrate metabolism and as such, the evening meal the night prior to the time trial becomes especially important. This point represents the last major time point to increase glycogen stores and riders aim for carbohydrate intakes of at least 3 g/kg body mass in this meal. The pre-race meal is usually lighter and lower in fibre (to aid digestion and absorption) and is consumed around 2.5-3 hours before the event. Riders will also consume additional carbohydrate during the warm-up in the form of an isotonic gel, as well as 2-3 mg/kg of caffeine at a relevant point during the warm up. In order to prepare for time trials, riders will also have previously loaded with beta-alanine and consume sodium bicarbonate(7) around 90 minutes prior to going down the ramp. Hopefully, by the end of the time trial on Stage 20, Team Sky will be in the famous “Yellow Jersey”.


  1. Thomas, DT et al (2016). American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 48:543-68.
  2. Gonzalez JT et al (2015) Ingestion of glucose or sucrose prevents liver but not muscle glycogen depletion during prolonged endurance-type exercise in trained cyclists. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 309 :E1032-9.
  3. Stellingwerff T et al (2007) Carbohydrate supplementation during prolonged cycling exercise spares muscle glycogen but does not affect intramyocellular lipid use. Pflugers Arch. 454:635-47.
  4. Galloway, SD and Maughan, RJ (1997) Effects of ambient temperature on the capacity to perform prolonged cycle exercise in man. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 29:1240-9.
  5. Talanian, JL and Spriet, LL (2016). Low and moderate doses of caffeine late in exercise improve performance in trained cyclists. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 41:850-855.
  6. Cox GR et al (2002). Effect of different protocols of caffeine intake on metabolism and endurance performance. J Appl Physiol 93:990-999.
  7. Sale C et al. (2011). Effect of β-alanine plus sodium bicarbonate on high-intensity cycling capacity. Med Sci Sports Exerc 43:1972-78.
Written By

Professor James Morton

A professor of Exercise Metabolism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and a Registered Sports and Exercise Nutrition Practitioner with the British Dietetic Association’s UK Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr), James is responsible for research and innovation at Science in Sport, overseeing the Performance Solutions Team.