The Slow Food Cyclist

I recently overhead an American cyclist lament, “The only bad thing about cycling the Tour Divide is spending $3,000 on food.”

I imagined a three-week diet of dolphin steaks and unicorn burgers. But he was using the word food more loosely than I could have guessed. What really broke the bank was his daily ingestion of 55 energy gels.

Sadly, food often gets a bad rap on bicycle trips. Something stuffed in to keep the fire going and pedals turning. And yet, whilst gloop-food is perhaps acceptable on a day ride I’d argue that on an odyssey through the Rocky Mountains, this Divide rider was somewhat missing the point…

Nettles and wild Patagonian mushrooms gathered during the day ready to be added to the pot
Nettles and wild Patagonian mushrooms gathered during the day ready to be added to the pot

Back to Basics

I started cooking on bike tours because I had no choice. I couldn’t afford restaurants. If I wanted an adventure, I would have to peel it myself.

On my first big trip, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to compromise on what I ate. Whilst it might have been simple, I wanted it to be tasty and I wanted variety. On my front wheels I had 25litre panniers. They were almost entirely dedicated to food or its preparation.

Buying a quality stove, where the heat could be regulated, as well as a few different cooking pots that packed away inside one another was my first step away from standard one-pot-soggy-pasta. I also chose petrol as my heat source. It’s cheap, universally available and the bottle is reusable, meaning no waste gas canister.

Next I gathered a few hotel-size shampoo bottles: refilling them with olive oil, honey, mustard, hot sauce and washing up liquid. I threw these in an old dry bag which became my bike touring store cupboard. I then added packets of powdered garlic, oregano, linseed, chia, salt and pepper. Nothing crazy fancy. Just enough to make that basic pasta, rice or porridge meal tasty.

I also quickly learnt that a handlebar bag is where you keep: your knife (for quartering fruit from an orchard), your morning sandwich and your naughty chocolate bar. And that grass or river grit is as good for cleaning pans as any household scourer.

Learning how to prepare "mate" with an Argentinian gaucho horseman
Learning how to prepare “mate” with an Argentinian gaucho horseman

Soul Food

After a time, I got a steady job. I still took holidays to bike tour, but now had money left over for a cup of coffee or the occasional evening diner. Strangely though, I found I still preferred to camp wild. And I still wanted to cook outdoors.

As dusk fell, it gave me great pleasure to roll my bike into the brush, knowing I had everything for a wholesome filling meal, a good nights sleep and enough water for cowboy coffee and oats come morning.

The weight of such self-sufficiency wasn’t something I struggled with. The opposite in fact. Maybe the bike was heavier. And slower. But the choice felt consistent with the values of bike travel in the first instance. A return to the simple life. An embrace of boiled down existence. The logical opportunity to re-prioritize the basics, including control over what I ate.

I’d also improved my bike-cuisine tricks. At lunchtime I’d often pour lentils into a bike bottle, top it up with water and return it to the cage until dinner. It then needed only a quick blast on the stove, and seasoning with curry powder. Delicious.

Making flour tortillas on
Making flour tortillas on “Mexican Night,” high in the Chilean Andes mountains

Live Like a King

Today I realize there is no limit to the meals you can prepare on a bike trip, and I never have to plan my ride around arriving in town by evening. I try to choose local ingredients by day from market stalls or neighborhood shops. During these exchanges, different foods get tried, new recipes shared, and even the occasional invitation to dinner. I’ve now experimented with everything from a bain-marie cake on a campfire (not so successful), to applying emergency oil from a can of tuna, in place of chain lube.

Taking more of an interest in the food we eat especially when the body is in most need of it is to be kind to yourself. To cycle and eat well is a refined and enriched version of living. Not a more complicated one.

The slow food cyclist is understandably not an immediate fit for all Americans in the land of two week annual holidays, fast food restaurants and the automobile. But if we really want to get away from it all on a bike tour, riding long and hard miles between gas station meals is not the answer. It doesn’t bring any clarity on how to live better when you finish. And nobody’s ever discovered happiness at the bottom of an energy gel. To be a slightly slower cyclist who eats well, sleeps long and breakfasts heartily is truly to be rich in spirit.

Matt Maynard is a greedy British cyclist, writer and environmentalist based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter @MattNMaynard, Facebook and at his website

He admits he’s still not the world’s best cook, and will get easily flustered when cooking alone in bear country…

Call for comment

  • Excited to try any of Matt’s ideas on a bike tour, such as tuna oil for chain lube?
  • Got your own top tips for meals on wheels?

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