May 15, 2011

Walk into a team hotel at the Tour of California at dinnertime and the Garmin-Cervélo table is empty. While the other teams load their plates from buffet tables then gravitate to their assigned seats, to find the Garmin-Cervélo boys you have to go to the parking lot.

This year the team brought along the Clif Bar Food Mobile to prepare breakfast and dinner for the riders. Every morning and evening the team congregates in the team bus where they feast on meals prepared by the husband and wife culinary team of Barbara and Chris Grealish.

Barbara, who trained at Johnson and Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Denver, Colorado, says all the meals are gluten free. That means those traditional staples of the endurance athlete diet—bread and pasta—are not on the menu.

The advantage of a gluten-free diet is that it is anti-inflammatory, meaning the diet helps the body’s natural mending process.

And that’s very important to elite athletes like the Garmin-Cervélo riders who spend days building their fitness by tearing themselves down through racing and training and then adapting to those work loads with rest and nutrition.

Instead of pasta, rice is a common denominator in many meals. That and fresh fruit and vegetables. But just because it’s rice does not mean it’s boring.

“Everyone thinks that if it’s gluten-free it’s going to be like cardboard,” Barbara notes with a smile. “It’s not. Like tonight, we are having curry chicken.” A big believer in fresh spices bought from a spice store in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado, she says rice is a fabulous foundation for a colorful flavor palate of meats, fish and vegetables.

Barbara says while her formal culinary education gave her understanding of food’s nutritional value restaurant cooking can put more focus on taste than nutrition. After all, when you go out for a special dinner prepared by a highly-trained chef, you are not there to count calories, so pile on the beurre blanc!

Of the difference between preparing food for the Garmin-Cervélo team and what she might prepare in a restaurant she says, “This is a totally different angle of cooking. You are more committed not just to flavor and taste, but nutritional value.”

While teams inside the race hotel might be eating rubber chicken and overcooked pasta, in the Garmin-Cervélo bus a typical evening meal might include rice and yams plus a meat dish or salmon. There is always a big green salad and a side salad of beets and oranges.

Along with beets, kale, spinach and broccoli are commonly found on the Garmin-Cervélo dinner table. The Grealishes point out that these foods, as well as pumpkin seeds and blueberries, are nitrate rich.

According to team sports scientist Robbie Ketchell, it’s a well documented finding that the nitrates in these fruits and vegetables can improve sports performance. Ketchell explains that Nitrates, “reduce oxygen demands on skeletal muscle performing a specific task. In laymen’s terms, they reduce the demand on muscle to produce energy.”

At breakfast on race days, the riders generally start with a big bowl of oatmeal then move on to a couple of eggs or an omelet. Some will top that off with a second bowl of dry cereal with rice milk. And of course, there is always coffee to get things rolling.

“In the morning I do a big pot of oatmeal,” Barbara explains. “Then I have and egg station and I do eggs to order.” Once the last egg order is done, “I get off and I start working on that night’s meal.”

As far as the rider’s tastes, “They are pretty easy,” Barbara says. Before the Tour of California she emails the riders to canvas their preferences and builds a menu from there. Dave Zabriskie is a vegan, and the couple says that preparing foods that fit his diet have encouraged them to explore new culinary territories. Because the foundation of the meals is already fresh fruits and vegetables, Barbara says the only thing she sometimes has to vary for DZ is the main course.

The couple cooks using a stove in the Clif Bar Food Mobile plus two propane-powered camp stove burners they set up outside. After each meal, they load all their dishes in a bike-mounted Burley trailer. Chris then pedals the load of soiled plates and pans to the hotel kitchen for cleaning.

More photos of the Clif Bar Food Mobile:
[flickr-gallery mode="tag" tags="2011, johnson, clif" tag_mode="all"]

In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter @argylearmada