from below, wtf:
"guys who literally chew their food and spit it out."
Cycling Nutrition: The Thin Man
The Thin Man
There's no doubt that cycling rewards weight loss. But without proper guidance, dieting like a pro can have dangerous consequences.
By Robin Chotzinoff
When he was a teenager, Shaun Riebl dreamed of turning pro. He raced with a hometown team on Long Island and closely followed his idols, tracking every twist and turn of their European tours. Though he couldn't afford expensive gear or coaching, he figured he'd emulate the pros whenever possible. Magazine stories at the time described the way Lance Armstrong weighed and measured his food. Jan Ullrich's inability to vanquish Armstrong at the Tour de France was frequently attributed to the weight he'd gained during the off-season.
After absorbing these lessons, Riebl put himself on a restricted diet, lost weight and found that being lighter made him considerably faster up the hills. "As the mantra goes," he says, "you train like a horse and eat like a rabbit." The equation clicked: Less weight equals more speed. But this bit of math led not to Grand Tour glory, but to full-blown anorexia.
Riebl had already struggled with self-starvation before he discovered cycling. He'd hoped his love for a healthy sport would help him recover; for a while, it did. But it also rekindled his preoccupation with weight. By the time Riebl began eating-disorder treatment, he was too weak to pursue his dream.
Riebl, now 28 and fully recovered, continues to ride, but not the way he once imagined. "There's nothing like going out for a long ride, climbing some hills, or just mellowing around on my bike," he says. "I don't want cycling to come off as something that causes eating disorders." All the same, as part of his master's degree in exercise science, Riebl studied the connection between male cyclists and eating-disordered behavior, and wasn't surprised by what he learned.
According to the paper he published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 20 percent of the cyclists studied showed signs of abnormal eating behaviors. But fewer than half of those men grasped that the way they ate—or didn't—could be called a disorder. Now a renal dietitian who does sports-nutrition consulting on the side, Riebl is increasingly concerned for clients who believe that the desire to win, at any level, justifies unrealistic and unsustainable thinness.
The possibility that a man could be anorexic or bulimic—two syndromes long seen as endemic to females—entered the mainstream only about five years ago. Researchers say the number of men seeking treatment has suddenly exploded, though their actual figures vary. "In the past five years, we've seen more than twice as many men," reports Theodore Weltzin, MD, who directs the country's only residential treatment program for men, at Rogers Memorial Hospital, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. He attributes some of the upswing to the proliferation of idealized male images—an abdominal six-pack on every half-naked spokesmodel. Pro athletes may succumb to the additional pressure involved with making their livings with their bodies, Weltzin says. "Cyclists are right up there with gymnasts," he says. "Always looking at how they perform based on the power-to-weight ratio."
That was Saul Raisin's concern when he started racing. At 5-foot- 10 and 180 pounds, he was nothing like "the older, faster guys who looked like their legs were chiseled from stone," he remembers. "That's what I wanted. That's what we all wanted."
It didn't seem impossible. After losing 35 pounds and growing 3 inches, Raisin raced for the USPS National Espoir Team before going to Europe to ride for Credit Agricole's Division III team. But sticking to a self-imposed, no-fat, thousand-calorie diet ultimately crashed his immune system. "I was pasty and white, and every blood test showed low testosterone," Raisin says. "I cramped up during rides, I weighed myself two, three, four times a day, and I didn't believe my coaches when they told me I was anorexic." Finally, laid low by a cold that lasted two months, Raisin went home, began eating reasonably and returned to racing (until a 2006 crash ended his pro career). Now, during coaching stints at junior camps, "I see severe eating disorders," Raisin says. "Skipping meals, not eating with the team. I told one of these kids he was jeopardizing his chances of ever being a successful athlete. He didn't even hear me. He didn't understand that the body's not meant to take that much punishment."
Brief periods of extreme diet and exercise are required for Grand Tour contenders, says Team Garmin-Slipstream physiologist Allen Lim, but they need to be managed scientifically. Lim constantly weighs his riders' optimum health against the nonnegotiable need for leanness at the elite level. "It's a power-to-weight-ratio sport," he says, "and there's only two ways to improve that, particularly for climbers: increase power or decrease weight. We know you can ride at 4 percent body fat for three weeks, but if you stay too skinny too long, your performance comes down again." And cyclists risk serious health problems, many related to low testosterone, Lim says. Extreme thinness can lead not only to erectile dysfunction and infertility, but also to muscle atrophy, depression, memory loss, early diabetes and osteoporosis, among other conditions.
Because most elite cyclists possess mental as well as physical strength, Lim says, they tend not to let weight loss go too far. Still, he says, "I've seen the angst about being lean enough, guys who literally chew their food and spit it out. It starts to annoy their teammates and most of them realize they can't keep it up forever. It's about balance. We talk about that all the time."
An observant pro coach notices when a rider upsets that balance. And while it's common knowledge in the sport that those who get paid to ride might have extreme eating habits, the problem occurs when amateur racers, who often don't have that kind of supervision, adopt similar tactics. At the same time, power meters have demystified the power-to-weight ratio, making weight control a no-brainer, even for middle-aged, recreational—but driven—men.
"Obviously, a lot of cyclists are obsessed with their weight, and the weight of their bikes," says Dale Smith, a 52-year-old Austin, Texas, rider who raced for more than a decade and continues to ride hard eight years later. Smith recently dropped the five pounds he'd gained since he stopped racing—and then some—by following a low-fat vegan diet. Does he have an eating disorder? Unlikely. "I just kicked it up a notch and I feel great," he says. Still, while planning a Giro d'Italia-watching trip, he admitted wondering what he'd eat in Italy—a place he realizes many people visit for the food alone. "It's totally crazy," he laughs.
College athletes may have a harder time gauging weight loss. "I get the sense that they're suffering alone, that they can't tell anyone," says James Glazer, MD, who works with athletes in Portland, Maine. "At the same time, the weight loss becomes a little euphoric, a little addictive."
Riebl remembers those days all too well. "I felt like my body was eating itself," he says. "I had chronic IT-band syndrome [an inflammation of the tissue that runs from the hip to just below the knee] from over-exercising." Worse was the isolation imposed by a problem that guys usually don't discuss. He is now writing a book and partnering with a social worker to form ED-die's Place, a recovery program for young men with eating disorders. Riebl hopes to remind them of one bedrock fact: "Trying to be as thin as possible and as strong as possible are two totally different things."