“I’m really disappointed. My stomach is full of anger, and I want to take my revenge. I will take my revenge in the coming days.” – Andy Schleck. Illustration by Katie Rose Johnston.
The stomach is an accurate barometer of nerves. Whilst all might be calm on the exterior, inside all is aflutter. We quaintly refer to it as having ‘butterflies in our tummy’. That disguises the disgusting imagery taking place in our innards, the churning mess that expresses itself in the unholy stink that hangs like a fog in the race HQ toilets.
You may feel in control, nonchalant, unfazed – but your stomach will remind you in no uncertain terms that it’s just an illusion.
Do you have the stomach for racing? It’s a literal question. Sure, you must be able to ‘stomach’ hours of training, ‘stomach’ the trials and tribulations, the highs and inevitable lows. You must have the ‘stomach’ for descending at speed, for going elbow-to-elbow in a sprint. But you need the right stomach too.
Every rider has their limitations. Can’t climb, can’t sprint. Can’t do either. Amongst many others, my stomach can sometimes feel like the weak link in an already flimsy chain. It grumbles when it’s hungry, moans when it’s been fed. Expresses its intolerance to vigorous exercise with the expulsion of noxious gasses. I often doubt its commitment to my cycling career.
Breakfast before a race seems like a pointless ritual. To hijack an appropriate phrase, ‘it barely touches the sides’. Mid-race it fares no better. Gels are almost all my stomach will tolerate, but in longer races lasting several hours solids are eventually required – but not particularly well tolerated. When the heart is near maximum, diaphragm heaving heavily, the stomach struggles to keep up. Bringing up a mouthful of sick when trying to cling onto the wheel in front is a disconcerting experience.
In the heat appetite can entirely disappear. A couple of years ago, climbing Mont Ventoux under the midday sun, with breakfast a distant memory, I ground up the slope. My pockets were filled with bars and sugary gels, but there they remained. Water, better still an ice cold coke, is all I longed for. But on reaching the summit my hunger hit me, I’d probably bonked several kilometres from the top but only now did I listen to my stomach and realise it. Lasagne and chips at Chalet Reynard restored me enough to tackle my third and final ascent of the mountain.
When races get even longer – multiple stages spanning several days – the strain on the stomach grows. Just think of the energy expenditure required by such races, think of the amount of fuel required. And wonder about the stomach as it processes plates and bowls and bars and snacks, a constant barrage, quantities that far outweigh any natural appetite. It’s no surprise that any form of stomach bug will render the rider weakened – next day’s stage will be a battle for survival, or eventually force their abandonment. Whole swathes of the peloton can be eliminated through gastroenteritis, such as earlier this year when many riders including Taylor Phinney and Andy Schleck retired from Paris-Nice.
“The bike hollows you out.” wrote Paul Fournel, “For a gourmand it’s a blessing. The quantity of energy expended is such that when evening comes around, you feel a pit in your stomach that seems unfillable.” I am no gourmand, and that pit never seems to get filled. After a day on the bike I quickly feel sick at the sight of food, hunger becomes a lingering unease, and eating a chore.
People sometimes comment that as a cyclist we’re lucky, we get to eat whatever and as much as we like. But I can assure them, it’s no blessing. Too much of a good thing is always too much – just ask my stomach.