Team Sunweb and their lead rider Tom Dumoulin are aiming high during the Tour de France. While various riders ran out of energy during the third week of the Giro d’Italia 2018, Dumoulin impressively stood his ground and came in second-place. Behind his monumental endurance was his Team’s scientific approach to bicycle racing. A key factor of this scientific refinement was nutrition. And so, in an exclusive interview, we got a chance to talk to the Team Sunweb’s Head Nutrition Expert Titia van der Stelt to find out how.
We’re now in the crucial third week of the Tour de France. How important is nutrition during such an exhausting, three-week Grand Tour?
I think that nutrition really can help give a team the edge during the third week. Of course, the riders’ training and equipment must be excellent, otherwise you won’t get anywhere. But with nutrition it is during the third week that the full effect of having effective fuelling on a daily basis [becomes clear], in order to provide enough energy for the following day.
There have been stories of the danger of riders gaining weight during the third week. Are you familiar with this?
That depends on the type of rider. Some are afraid of the mountain stages and they eat smaller portions in order to avoid putting on weight. The main risk with that is that they are too light by the third week. On the other hand, you also have riders who think better to be safe than to be sorry and they take a few more spoonfuls. These riders will put on weight, which means there is a chance they are just that little bit too heavy for the final tough climb and cannot keep up with the best guys.
How do you ensure that does not happen with riders from Team Sunweb?
We calculate nutrition plans a few weeks before the start of the Tour, which of course takes into account whether or not the riders are sprinters or climbers. Then we have daily contact with the team members and can make subtle adjustments to their nutrition plan based on the actual workload data.
In Laurens ten Dam’s podcast, he moans about the strict diet and that everything is “measured”. Do you ever hear these complaints?
Yes, of course there are sometimes moans and groans. We are very aware of what we ask of the riders, and even apologise to them now and again. But they are also highly aware that this is sport at the highest level, and that fuel is a major aspect of that. The real differences are achieved through applying the discipline in order to execute the nutrition plans in this way.
Do you ever give the team a surprise with a barbeque, for example, in order to give them a psychological boost? Or is that sort of thing really not done during a Grand Tour?
We want to give our stage race riders as few surprises as possible, mainly because we have already calculated each riders’ nutrition plans weeks before the Tour. They receive their menu and nutrition plans well in advance and we ask them to go through them carefully well in advance of the race. If they have special dietary wishes for the third week which could provide them with extra motivation, then we can always see if we can fit them into the plans. Chocolate mousse, for example, is a luxury which some riders enjoy. But you can make it with avocado and a small amount of dark chocolate and then it’s delicious but also healthy. It’s the little things which make the difference, as there isn’t a lot of flexibility in the plans, to be honest. We do try to give the riders a special meal each day before the rest day, such as a hamburger. But of course a homemade burger on a wholemeal bun with oven chips. A healthy treat, let’s say.
Did you think 10 years ago that you would be involved in deciding what Tour de France riders eat on the day before rest day?
I studied nutrition and dietetics, sport dietetics and kinesiology (human movement sciences) so I always knew that I wanted to focus on the nutritional aspects of sport. This interest was born in the time when I used to race for a cycling club. A good example of this is that I was told that before races I should eat white pasta with sugar. I always found that piece of advice rather strange and wanted to know exactly why that should be good for me. You could say that my sports experience did influence my choice of study.
How did you end up at Team Sunweb?
After finishing my studies I set up my own practice, concentrating on nutrition for sportspeople. A connection of mine showed me the vacancy for “cook and nutritional expert”. At the time I thought it was a rather strange job description, but the entrepreneur in me wanted to hear what they had to say. After speaking to them a few times I realised they were a lot more serious than I had initially thought. And I relished the challenge.
Can you tell us how you go about your work?
When I first started I would go along to the races, to cook for the riders. It soon became clear that the combination of chef and nutritionist wasn’t very efficient. By preparing meals for the riders I was primarily in a facilitating role for the [at that time] nine riders in the team, but a whole team comprises a total of 45 men and women. We soon came to the conclusion that we could gain the most ground if I concentrated on providing all the riders with strict, structured and personalised nutrition plans. Nowadays I work mainly in my office to facilitate this. Each rider has a personal year plan, which also includes the riders’ weight targets. In order to supervise the process effectively, we have fixed telephone appointments with riders all over Europe and sometimes further afield. During these calls we discuss their plans and if necessary tweak them to match their training mix and help them achieve their weight goals.
Is the addition of a nutritional expert in professional bike racing teams a recent development?
Certainly these days more and more attention is spent on rider nutrition. Also you see how the general public is much more interested in a healthy diet than they were in the past. Not so long ago, the total attention which the professional sports world spent on nutrition was a lecture or two or a general recommendation. The danger of that approach is that people only listen with half an ear, and tend to pick out only what they consider interesting at the time. These days we look at each rider individually. We then look at how we can get the most out of each rider by personally supervising them. We are primarily interested in answering the question: how much fuel do you actually need? And today our team employs two dieticians, several cooks, and we are expanding all the time.
Team Sunweb has a number of different nutrition partners. Do you work together with them?
We have a number of food and diet-related partners with whom we have a good relationship. In practice this often results in us mentioning some slight changes we would appreciate, or we get together to brainstorm solutions to certain challenges we face as a team. This is based on feedback from the riders, Team Sunweb and normal consumers. This is a way through which new, innovative products are born, and it’s a very interesting process.