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The entire industry is guilty of leering at competitors. This happens especially at early-season races, like the Tour Down Under, when a rider’s physique is callously judged in whispers and sideways glances on a scale of ‘Watch out!’ to ‘That fat f--- has no chance of winning the Tour de France.’
In a feature I wrote for Procycling magazine about mental health and wellbeing in the peloton, Richie Porte illustrated what it felt like to be at the receiving end.
“If you turn up to race [in Europe] a couple of kilograms over what you were in the Tour Down Under, the amount of riders that say stuff to you is...” he trailed off. “In the modern world you don’t get away with commenting on that [weight], but you have riders and staff who think it’s their right to.”
Porte, who finished third overall at the 2020 Tour in what was Australia’s second-best performance on general classification in the history of the race, is resigned to it.
“When you see some of the food you can’t eat, and you’re burning so many thousands of calories per day and then you’re having to be strict on the diet, it’s not easy. But that’s just one of the sacrifices you have to make,” he says. “You’re in a sport where power-to-weight is a huge factor. That’s how it is.”
The process of preparing for the Tour - from rigorous diets and meal plans to training camps and hundreds of days away on the road - was one of the reasons Mathew Hayman decided to retire in 2019 after competing in cycling’s top tier for almost two decades.
“You do get judged on it,” Hayman says. “You turn up to a race and the mechanics, the soigneur, the directors, everybody looks you straight up and down and goes, ‘Okay, he’s in okay shape’. And that might have nothing to do with form, it’s just your weight. It’s just kind of accepted. It’s a pretty harsh reality though.
“There’s no real getting around it. It’s physics.”
Today Hayman is two kilograms lighter than what he was as a racer, and it pisses him off.
“It took me years to try and lose a kilo and now I’m not racing anymore and I’m lighter!” he exclaims.
When I ask Hayman if eating became a labour during his racing career, the tall and lanky Australian recalls his former relationship with food and stops just short of saying he had an eating disorder.
“I’m sure at some stages I’ve come close to... you know,” Hayman pauses. And then sighs.
“Well, you know, I guess it’s an eating disorder if it’s all-consuming. And it’s never been so all-consuming that I’ve totally lost control, but it’s something that’s pretty forefront of every day, what you’re putting into your mouth, and you’re judging yourself every time you eat on whether you need it. That’s not a particularly nice way to live.”
He admits it became obsessive.
“You are training that much that you are constantly hungry and you never kind of feel satisfied. You’re constantly making choices,” he says.
Those choices are sometimes visible to others. Years ago, when I was living briefly in the cycling mecca of Girona, Spain, I went out to dinner with a bunch of cyclists who are based in the medieval village during the season. In the restaurant at one end of the table was a group of neo-pros - second and maybe even some third-year riders. At my end were the seasoned warhorses. The young guys approached their plates like hungry labrador puppies, laughing together as they hunched over and enthusiastically shovelled food in. At the other end of the table you could almost see the older riders calorie-counting in their heads. If they had one more glass of red wine, they couldn’t have a dessert. Or, if they had dessert, they couldn’t have another glass of wine.
Hayman wasn’t at the table that night but analysing everything he consumed was a daily habit.
“I remember as a rider it was like, ‘Okay, how far is it to the airport? How long is that flight going to be? How far until we get to the next hotel? When is lunch going to be?’” he recalls.
“You really can’t just miss a meal for a few hours, your body is constantly burning through energy and you’re constantly feeling hungry.
“It was a constant kind of battle, too, to say, ‘I shouldn’t be eating this but I’m kind of hungry. Am I really hungry? Am I not really hungry? What is my weight? How far until the Tour? Does it really matter?’”
In retirement, Hayman doesn’t constantly think about food as he did throughout his Tour career. “My life doesn’t revolve around food now, is what I say. I don’t count how many hours until my next meal.”
Jumbo-Visma have become one of the pre-eminent teams in the WorldTour and it’s fair to argue their work behind the scenes is testament to that.
The squad has developed an app called the Jumbo Food Coach, which provides individual, tailored meal plans to every rider. When they open the app, riders are told what to eat, how much and when.
Robbie McEwen had no such thing as a food app during his career from 1996 to 2012 and shudders at the thought of it.
“You spend that much time on social media and apps and on your phone that something telling you when and what to eat seems normal these days,” he says. “But that would have done my head in.
“When I feel like something, I want to be able to have it, and for me as a sprinter, not that I was a fatty or anything, but I guess I was also lucky I could be in condition and at my optimal race weight where I had the most power without really having to watch what I ate.”
Due to his physiology and metabolism, McEwen found he didn’t have a problem being at his ‘race weight’.
“It allowed me to allow all the things I enjoy, and that actually really helped,” he continues.
Like riders on the Tour now, McEwen would eat seven meals a day, or three big ones and four small ones as he puts it. In not depriving himself of the things he wanted McEwen stayed happy, and a happy bike rider is a successful bike rider.
However, that wasn’t the case for everyone.
“I’ve seen guys get underweight. I’ve seen guys with eating problems,” he says. “I’ve seen what they’re eating and not eating and trying to be as light as possible, watts per kilo and all that. You see them fade away in terms of physiology, and their results fade away, and it’s not healthy.
“Their skin looks a bit grey, they look just terrible. Or guys who are, you see how lean and skinny they are, but you can see their frame is not meant to be that small. You can see it’s a real battle it takes out of guys.
“It’s trying to find that balance of what’s the optimum weight and how can I drop weight, maintain watts.”
It is a battle not just in cycling but a lot of professional sports and the other side of that ‘gain’ is the increased susceptibility to become ill.
“Elite sport is not all that healthy,” McEwen says, “because it’s like trying to tune an F1 car; they go to the millimetre, to the tenth of a millimetre, finding aerodynamics, doing all the stuff. The athletes are pushing themselves to try and get the ultimate in performance.”
In cycling, weight is a sensitive subject. Sometimes riders who are said to have been underweight don’t recognise that they are, or they do but it’s not something they want to publicly broadcast or dwell on.
There are only a handful of riders who have disclosed to me what their weight, or ‘ideal’ race weight is.
I once interviewed Chris Froome in Tasmania where he’d joined then-teammate Porte for pre-season training. It was grey and raining outside, so I met Froome at a cafe. He ordered a green tea for himself and shouted me a coffee.
Froome was wearing a loose-fitting Sky team tracksuit and I mentioned that he looked fit. He quipped that he needed to lose weight.
When I say his tracksuit was loose-fitting, I mean it looked like the adult-size parka jacket my mum bought me when I was 10 and said I would grow into.
Froome, who is 1.86 metres tall, went on to say his ideal race weight was around 67 kilograms, which was only a couple of kilos more than what I was packing at the time.
It was small talk before I formally started the interview, but I’ve never forgotten the conversation.
Pain and Privilege: Inside Le Tour by Sophie Smith (RRP £9.99). Buy now for £8.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.