There have been so many advances not only in the technology of cycling and in our understanding of training approaches and the key benefits of recovery, but also in the importance of nutrition. In the Good Old Days racing cyclists downed raw eggs and Chianti, with lots of steak on the side. Today pro teams employ their own chefs and there are valuable resources available to any interested amateur on how to eat well for better performance. “The Cycling Chef” by Michelin-starred chef Alan Murchison, released in March of this year, is a valuable addition to this literature.
One of life’s great pleasures is the enjoyment of good food and it is disturbing to me, with deep family ties to gastronomic traditions, that the idea of “food as fuel” has such wide currency. So it was with some concern that I noticed “The Cycling Chef” title includes “Recipes for Getting Lean and Fuelling the Machine.” When thinking of fuel, I have in my mind the depressing image of those truly abominable carbohydrate bars that triathletes would peel the wrapper off of and then stick to their top tubes while racing. However, Mr. Murchison (or his editors) are just toying with us: the author really can cook–”fuelling” is a disservice to what is on offer here.
We have reviewed a number of books here written by food scientists and nutrition experts but this might be the first one written by a chef, someone with experience in matching the kind of ingredients that not only meet an athletic need but are tasty and attractive. This book is actually a sequel to “The Cycling Chef: Recipes for Pleasure and Performance.” Furthermore, Mr. Murchison has an unusual perspective in that not only does he have more than 25 years’ experience in top restaurants, he is himself a dedicated endurance athlete, and as a Masters participant has won multiple European and World titles in duathlon. Focused now on time trialling, he is also one of the principals of The Performance Chef, offering consulting services on nutrition, including menu planning and race preparation.
“The Cycling Chef” is organized quite differently from traditional cookbooks—that is, appetizers then soups, main courses, side dishes, desserts, etc. Rather, the book is arranged around the kind of calendar that an athlete looking to peak for an event would follow. There is food for the off-season, pre-season, and racing times, and the different requirements are explained. For example, after having all that comfort food in the off-season, the pre-season is “lower carbs for body composition and getting back on track.” Pre-race food: “easy-to-digest, high-energy and high-carb.” There is sound advice here about weight loss and power output. The author recoils at the idea of fad diets—all of them work (to some extent) for the same reason, which is calorie deprivation—as none of them are devised for endurance athletes. His tips for losing weight are simple enough: exercise portion control; understand the Glycemic Index; using sugar judicially while riding; get enough protein; go crazy for vegetables.
The recipes, many of which are accompanied with excellent(and appetizing) colour photos, are interesting and creative. Along with classics, like DIY muesli or minestrone, there are intriguing things like “Old-school chicken, apricot and pomegranate pilaf.” Here in the Pez Test Kitchen, the recipes we sampled were hits, including “Nutty carrot slaw with edamame beans,” and “Creamy baked leeks with blue cheese and walnuts.” For the most part, the ingredients are not difficult to obtain and even someone with limited cooking skills would be able to produce a good result. The instructions are clear and generally don’t have more than five or six steps. You could certainly impress a dinner guest with “Baked ginger and sesame sea bream “en papilolote””!
For those interested in plant-based diets, the author is not an enthusiast, writing: “My view is that there is currently no solid, well-researched and credible evidence to prove that a plant-based diet makes you a better athlete.” While he points out that the 2019 World Time Trial champions eat balanced diets with meat, he suggests that if there were performance improvements without it they would surely consider that. Of course, this highly selective comment overlook athletes like the UK’s own Lizzie Armistead, a longtime vegetarian, or Dave Zabriskie, a vegan who was the third American to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. The author might just as well have noted that there is no well-researched and credible evidence to prove that a plant-based diet is harmful to athletic performance either, while there are indisputable benefits to general health. Nonetheless, he does argue for increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, and in fact many of the recipes in the book would be vegetarian-friendly. (Michelin-honoured chefs have a predisposition to use all available ingredients in their cooking, I suspect. Of the 2,651 Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, only seven are vegetarian and a single one vegan.)
Although we tried out the recipes at random because they looked interesting, this book will be most rewarding to an endurance athlete in training, looking for some structure in their diet. This is shown not only by the organization of the book, but also by the impressively detailed sample meal planner found on pages 184-185. There are examples for three meals plus snacks and pre-bed food for five different days: Rest Day; Easy Training Day; Medium Training Day; Pre-Race Day; and Hard Ride or Race. This is the kind of detail we have never seen in any nutrition books reviewed previously here.
“The Cycling Chef: Recipes for Getting Lean and Fuelling the Machine” is nicely produced, not only with illustrations of the food but also great black-and-white photos from Cycling’s Golden Age. We have come a long way from raw eggs and beef tartare as cyclist diet fundamentals (although the Chianti is still welcome to some of us) and this book provides clear explanations of how food can help us while not overlooking the joys of cooking and of eating.
“The Cycling Chef: Recipes for Getting Lean and Fuelling the Machine” by Alan Murchison
192 pp., illus., hardcover
Bloomsbury Sport, London, 2021
Suggested price: US$34/C$46/GBP 22
Photos are from the book.
# The Cycling Chef: Recipes for Getting Lean and Fuelling the Machine is available from AMAZON.COM HERE. #