When I’m on my road bike I often enjoy an energy gel, well perhaps I don’t enjoy an energy gel, but I certainly benefit from a little caffeine and carbs. But what about for touring? I think some insight into this question can be gleaned from a little light philosophy; when you’re out on a road bike you don’t need to ride in a sustainable way, you can ride vigorously all day before returning home to a warm shower and rest until you feel you have recovered again. Some gels can enhance your performance for a short time but at the cost of extending your recovery time. On a Sunday road ride this doesn’t matter. Chances are that you will be at work on Monday and able to rest and recover for the next cycling opportunity, probably a mid-week ride or the next weekend. On a tour there isn’t necessarily a day of rest coming up and so you must pace yourself – pacing yourself means that high concentration energy supplements shouldn’t really be necessary.
Touring is different because you have to find a sustainable pace, using local foods, you can’t carry a daily supply of gels for a whole tour, nor do I know of anyone who would want to consume them on a regular basis, they are not known for their great taste and texture. However, supplements might still have a place. I used a variety of gels just for the few large hurdles I knew I would encounter. The most significant of these being the European Alps via the Grossglockner High Alpine road, for this challenging hill section I felt that they were useful.
The only reason I had them with me is because I wasn’t sure when or if I would be returning home and it seemed a shame to waste them, the Alps didn’t seem far off when I left Leicester (UK) so I wouldn’t be carrying them for long. So for the odd section of muscle burning, pain inducing long duration hill climbing I think they can be really useful, but it’s really important to rest after a day of that intensity. To keep going at that pace would end in a total burnout, you’re muscles and body would be exhausted. You’d become weaker and have to slow down eventually. Having rest days, where you eat well, sleep and hydrate on tour is vitally important. You’ll feel better, ride stronger and have more fun than pedaling away on the verge of collapse.
p.s. I didn’t actually buy any of these energy gels or bars, they are all free samples accumulated over the last year from shopping at Wiggle and Chain Reaction. I’ve also started saving them again for the next race or long tour.