On a long morning ride, I was making good time when I suddenly hit “the wall.’’ In the space of about a mile, my pretty fast ride turned into a very slow crawl. My feet felt like they were encased in concrete, my lips became dry, and my neck began to ache. That’s when I had visions of pizza and ice cream.
In other words, I had bonked. Bonking means you’ve gone too far and you’re too far gone. Quite simply, it’s like Heartbreak Hill for runners.
Every cyclist has bonked, even Lance Armstrong (apparently even performance-enhancing drugs can’t completely protect you). Once you have bonked, there is not much you can do: By the time you are hungry, it’s too late. The best you can do is to eat, drink, and hope you make it home in one piece.
Professional cyclists avoid bonking by grabbing a musette bag at the “feed zone’’ set up along a race route like a pit stop: It’s their version of a drive-through window. Fifty years ago, cyclists in the Tour of Italy supplemented their musette bags with a detour to a café in the small towns they passed through; they would dash in and grab whatever they could before jumping back on their bikes with their purloined pastry and bottle of bubbly.
Sadly, no one is standing by the side of the road waiting to hand me food and drink. And as for running into a local café and taking whatever strikes my fancy, I prefer to avoid a ride in the back of a police cruiser.
With that in mind, I asked some friends for advice to help me avoid another bonk. Andrew suggested Pop Tarts and ice cream. Paul thought a Big Mac would do the trick.
So much for my friends’ advice. That is when I decided to get some professional guidance.
I contacted Avital Pato Benari, a professor of nutrition at Boston University, who explained that “hitting the wall is when your glycogen is depleted or you are dehydrated. To fight that you should have carbohydrates three to four hours before your event, and then replenish with fluids while you’re riding.”
Jesse Kropelnicki, a certified coach and trainer based in Scituate, has three recommendations for the competitive cyclist: “Eat frequently, eat nutrient-dense foods like lean meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, and use an omega-3 supplement to decrease inflammation and help with recovery.”
Kropelnicki recommended that during a workout, cyclists should “eat before you’re hungry, use fuels like carbohydrates to help you go faster; and, if you like caffeine, have some during a ride when you start to get fatigued.”
He also said that although nutrition on and off the bike is important, “there are no magic bullets to make you ride as fast as Lance . . . but if you eat and drink right, it can make a big difference in your performance.”
Not only is there no magic bullet, but there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to eating. According to Pato Benari, “Some people can eat oatmeal before an event; others will do better with bread and Nutella. And for some athletes, a bagel, banana, and peanut butter are pretty good.”
I asked her about the food that gets handed out by the fistful at most charity rides, the kind that looks so good and tastes so sweet. The professor didn’t mean to rain on my parade, but she said, in no uncertain terms: “Don’t try something new on the day of an important race, even if they’re handing it out for free. You never know how your body will react, and you don’t want to get an upset stomach.” Because cyclists are a notoriously frugal bunch, this may be a bitter pill to swallow.
As for my friends’ advice, Kropelnicki is pretty clear when it comes to peer pressure: “Definitely do not have Pop Tarts or Big Macs, unless you’re doing an event that is at least 12 hours long.”
In other words, just say no.
What all of this seems to boil down to sounds like the same kind of advice that my grandmother gave me long before I began biking: Eat before you are hungry, drink early and often, and make sure not to consume food that is too heavy or sweet.
Still, why is it that when I bonk I can only think of pizza and ice cream? According to Kropelnicki, “It’s because you’re starving at the end of a ride and your body is smart and knows it needs high calories.”
And I thought it was just about the taste.
Jonathan Simmons is the author of “Here For The Ride: A Tale of Obsession on Two Wheels.”