How Rally Riders Learned to Cook During COVID

By Molly Hurford | June 25, 2021 | Rally Health

A group of riders

The life of a professional cyclist is a lot less glamorous than it looks on television during the Tour de France, or during championship celebrations. In fact, most of the time, training and traveling between races can be downright monotonous.

Or at least, it was until COVID-19 struck and shut down training camps, races, and travel. Some members of the Rally Cycling team were in Europe and subjected to lockdowns that didn't allow them to leave their apartments for rides — only for groceries.

For athletes used to communal living situations in training centers or team camps, this meant one very important thing: They were responsible for fueling the massive amounts of work they were doing on the bike. Some of the Rally Cycling squad, like German cyclist Clara Koppenburg, already loved cooking. But others, like 23-year-old sprinter Pier-André Côté, found themselves living alone for the first time ever, and had to learn to cook from scratch.

Still, the team is adaptable, and they found that some lessons learned on the road could be applied in the kitchen, too. Here, they share what they’ve learned over the last year about making healthy food at home easy, from microwave hacks to sourdough secrets.

Stick to the basics

Races are won with simple tactics and old-fashioned hard work. The same applies to healthy eating: You can jump on a fad diet, but you’re probably better off sticking with simple healthy foods.

Ask any racer what they eat for breakfast, and almost all will respond with one word: oatmeal. And there’s a good reason: Oatmeal is a healthy, whole-grain carb that’s full of nutrients and gives you long-lasting energy — at breakfast or beyond.

Breakfast: “I change between sweet to savory," says Robin Carpenter, who's been racing professionally for almost 10 years. “When I'm cooking oats, I add a bit of maple syrup, a tiny bit of butter, and a pinch of salt to the water and it cooks those flavors into the oats. I'll add apple, berries, cinnamon, and nutmeg after that. For savory oats, I make the oats a little more watery, then top them with a fried egg, a bit of cheese, and some hot sauce.”

Midday Snack: “I keep single-serve packages of oats around for snacks, and I'll add nuts, seeds, and dried fruit for extra flavors. I like adding a scoop of nut butter for fat and protein to make it more satisfying,” says Krista Doebel-Hickok, a runner turned professional cyclist. “People are inclined to just grab a Luna bar or something, but when you have one of those, you’re looking at as many calories as the oats but you don’t feel as full or satisfied."

Bedtime: “I put nuts and a scoop of protein powder and some fruit into it and it’s perfect for an easy meal or a sweet “bedtime snack,” says Koppenburg. “I love the taste, and I know it's healthy.”

Use tried and true tools

In training, newer cyclists may get sidetracked by trendy gadgets or funky workouts, but the veteran racers tend to stick with what works. For Doebel-Hickok, air fryers and Instant Pots might be trending now, but she still loves her microwave.

“I generally want something that's well balanced, tastes good, and is not super expensive, because we eat so much!” she says. Doebel-Hickok turns to high quality frozen microwave meals. “I'll add a bunch of vegetables to them, and maybe add some extra chicken for more protein. It’s really quick, and once you add the vegetables, it's actually really filling.”

Get creative with your tactics

In a race, it’s rare that things go exactly according to plan. The mark of a great cyclist is being able to pivot. In the past year, Canadian rider Matteo Dal-Cin has applied that same mentality to his meal planning.

“Since we couldn’t go out to eat, I got more creative in the kitchen this year,” he says. Homemade pizza was his main event. “I found an easy crust recipe using quick-rising yeast. Then, I build up the pizza with a ton of vegetables, whatever was starting to wilt in the fridge.” Dal-Cin also reworked leftovers into creative pizza toppings. Bonus: “No pizza is ever exactly the same.”

Similarly, Côté found that making burritos was an easy way to use up leftovers. Plus, he could vary the ingredients and the way he ate them to accommodate a big training day or a rest day. “I make a big batch of rice and chicken, and then throughout the week, I make burritos,” he says. “On easier days, I'll eat less rice or wraps and more greens with it,” and on harder days, he packs in the carbs.

Use cooking to connect

Rally Cycling’s Robin Carpenter first fell in love with sourdough years ago, when he read about making bread with natural fermentation in Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” During the early days of the lockdown, he channeled that baking prowess into a friendly competition hosted on Strava, a popular running and cycling app. The challenge winners would earn loaves of sourdough, often delivered by Carpenter via bike. What makes his sourdough worth racing over? Years of practice. Here are Carpenter’s tips for sourdough.

Expect failures. “When I first started trying to make sourdough, I had a ton of loaves not turn out right. It takes a lot of practice, but you’ll slowly master the technique.”

Get the right pot. “Sourdough bakes best with steam, and the best way to create that steam in a home oven is having a closed container for it to bake in. That’s what makes the loaf rise up and get nice and airy. I found that an inexpensive cast iron combo cooker is the ideal setup for baking sourdough. You have to preheat the pots though — I have my oven preheating an hour before I start cooking.”

Borrow some sourdough starter. “You can make your own starter but it’s easier to find someone with extra, either a friend or a local bakery. Make sure it’s slowly bubbling; that's how you know it’s still alive and healthy. And make sure you save some when you cook — you can feed the starter flour to grow it so you can continue to use the same starter for years.”

Share it out. “It's nice to gift things to your friends — and with sourdough, it tastes the best when it’s first baked, though it does keep for quite awhile."

Plan for post-race

You may not be traveling home by plane from a three-week-long race, but we all have busy weeks at home. Instead of surrendering to takeout when he gets back from a big race, Côté plans ahead. Before leaving for a big race, he makes sure his pantry and freezer are stocked with some easy-to-make healthy staples. When he gets home, he has meals that can be made in minutes. To steal this tip, try prepping and freezing a big casserole or stew for the hectic week ahead.


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