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Ride to eat to ride to eat

Two years ago, I bought a heart-rate monitor on closeout from Woot. (And from that link, I see that they later offered it for even $5 less than I paid for it. Sigh.) Because I found it too awkward and complicated to use while in motion, it went into the random-crap drawer shortly thereafter. But I brought it out of cold storage today because I tackled a new challenge for me: climbing Eureka Canyon Road (pictured) from Corralitos in coastal Santa Cruz County. This 41-mile route had about 4,100 feet of climbing ... or about an even 100 on my difficulty scale, about as challenging a ride per mile as I ever attempt.

I've recently been curious about how many calories I really burn while riding. I've typically used the ballpark figure of 60 calories per mile (humans of lesser bulk than I will consume far fewer), but I figured this ride would test that limit. And based on the numbers, it certainly did.

Given my age, gender, and weight, this HRM claimed that I burned a whopping 3,687 calories on this ride, or just about 90 calories per mile. And that's an average, which includes the corresponding 4,100 feet of descending as well. Of the total calories, only about 600 were burned on the descent from the summit back into Soquel, mostly due to a couple of annoying little hills on the way back down.

How does that compare to online calorie calculators? I get anywhere from about 2,800 to 3,300 calories from the various websites. These, however, base their calculations only on speed and not difficulty of terrain. So even though my reported number seems a little high, I'm somewhat confident that it's a reasonable number given the nasty climbing.

But this raises all sorts of nutrition issues. Replacing 3,687 calories while riding, or even soon thereafter, just isn't practical or healthy. Before the ride, I had a bagel; while riding, I had another bagel, a bottle of electrolyte drink, a bottle of Odwalla, and a bag of Sport Beans -- for a total of about 1,000 to 1,100 calories.

Now for those of us trying to lose weight (and that includes me), this sounds like a good thing indeed -- a 2,500-calorie deficit is about seven-tenths of a pound right there, just on one ride! (Recall that 3,500 calories equals one pound.) But my experience has been otherwise.

It's hardly a secret that, during the five years I've done AIDS/LifeCycle, I've not lost any weight. In fact, I've gained 30 pounds. (That would be 40 pounds, except that I've managed to lose 10 this year somehow.) And while it would be nice to pretend that all the weight is in leg muscles, that wouldn't fool anybody. For all of the good things that have happened to me through ALC, this is my biggest disappointment, especially since I wasn't exactly svelte in 2005 to begin with.

And while my off-the-bike food habits aren't the best in the world, it's not like I'm eating too much. In fact, I've suspected for quite some time that I often eat too little, sending my body into a starvation response that hangs on to every last globule of fat as if it were golden. According to The Cyclist's Food Guide (2005), I currently need 2,860 calories a day just to break even on a no-cycling day. That's a lot of Subway foot-longs. Add another 3,687 calories from a ride of just 3.5 hours, and we're getting into a third trip through the buffet line. And something like my recently-completed 300-kilometer ride might have consumed as many as 12,000 additional calories (and, for me, perhaps even more) in just one day! That is more than 35 Lean Cuisine barbecue chicken microwave pizzas!

But then the math gets slightly more complicated. The daily baseline -- 2,860 calories for me -- allegedly doesn't include cycling. But in the 300k, I was riding for more than 17 hours, or the better part of a day. Do the cycling calories add to the baseline, even though I basically did nothing but cycle for the whole day? Or do I need to reduce the baseline to reflect just the seven hours that I wasn't on the bike? I've tried to find places online where nutritionists talk about things like this, but I've come up empty. It's a big deal, too -- because an extra 2,000 calories or so per cycling day can certainly add up to extra pounds in no time at all.

Randonneurs and other very-long-distance cyclists need to develop a nutrition strategy that works for them, and everyone seems to have their own. I found this long discussion at the New Jersey Randonneurs website in which several riders share their secrets. On AIDS/LifeCycle, we're fortunate that our meals are prepared specifically to meet our extreme caloric and nutritional needs, but even there, it's important to find something that works and then stick with it -- experimenting while on the ride in June merely invites stomach distress.

I keep experimenting. Some things that I've found to work well for me: Odwalla strawberry-banana smoothies (or the fresh-made version from Starbucks), bagels, a Subway meatball sandwich, and the occasional deli-style turkey sandwich. Spicy foods don't do it for me -- no burritos or kung pao chicken while riding. I've never experimented with the "athlete's" high-calorie liquid meals (such as Spiz); perhaps it's just another part of refusing to declare myself a "serious" cyclist. Post-ride pizza and pasta seem to work well (much love for Mi Amore in Lompoc), but never in the middle of a riding day.

All that said, however, I'm obviously still not there, or else I wouldn't still be packing these 30 extra pounds that make me sad. I suspect a sports nutritionist could have a field day with me, but the cost for those I've seen is beyond my budget (particularly in this uncertain economy) ... and I'd probably be an ornery and difficult customer anyway! I've attended the ALC nutrition workshops, and I have all the books here as well (and I've actually read them), so I have the basic tools and knowledge. It just hasn't worked for me.

In a future post: How these nutritional considerations tie into one's mood while riding. If you've seen me get grumpy on the streets of Santa Cruz (as I was yet again at the end of today's ride), you'll know what I'm talking about.