Vegan or Bust(ing Out of Skinsuits)

By: Molly Hurford Feb 24

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In cyclocross, you may have noticed that there’s a weird overlap between the mud-covered, barrier-hopping crowd and the mosh-pitting, punk-rock-loving scene. It seems like a lot of my cyclocross friends are either still spending Friday nights playing shows, or have hung up the guitars in favor of some knobby tires. I remember when I first started racing, I was shocked to recognize some of my longtime friends from the punk scene, decked out in spandex and covered in ads for very expensive brands. The hilarity of that isn’t lost on me. But that isn’t the point, exactly. My point with this article is, oddly enough, nutrition. Vegan nutrition to be exact, meaning (if you didn’t already know) a diet of no animal products of any kind, including meat, eggs and dairy. Because for some reason, the punk kids that I know also tended to be vegetarian, or vegan. And a lot of those kids are the ones who got into cycling after/during their punk rock days. The more I thought about it, and looked at the quality of some of their diets (Mo Bruno Roy and her amazing food blog being a prime example of vegan done right – and tasty!) I started wondering: are they stronger because they’re vegan? Is being vegan helping them race faster or keep weight down?

The overarching answer was simple: being vegan forces you to engage in ‘mindful eating’ by its very nature: you have to check ingredients, and by doing that, you’re more inclined to make informed choices. “The standard American diet, it takes a lot of effort to eat well,” vegan athlete Mark Vareschi says. “It’s the case that vegan athletes, because they already have to think about what they’re eating, tend to do it right.” Plus, as a vegan, Doritos and Reeses Peanut Butter cups are off the ‘OK to eat’ list, and a lot of junk food staples are big no-nos. While junk food vegans certainly exist, the lifestyle encourages mindful eating rather than the mindless eating that’s so easy for the larger (pun intended) portion of American people, and for cyclists post-six hour ride, when housing a whole pizza seems like the intelligent decision. But, that being said, it is most definitely not for everyone, and even the vegans that I talked to are quick to add that electing to shift to a vegan diet just to… well, diet, isn’t a smart move.

To get more technical, I chatted with the author of Racing Weight and general athlete nutrition extraordinaire Matt Fitzgerald to get the nutritionist take on the idea of veganism and athletes, and then talked to a couple of long time vegan athletes that I respect and admire to find out a bit about their motivations and how they think being vegan has impacted their performance. As you’ll see further down in the article, this isn’t an article rife with pushing for a plant-based diet. This is just looking at some of the nutritional issues/motivations faced by vegan athletes, and some suggestions from someone far more qualified than I am, if you’re reading this and considering a shift to a vegan diet/looking to improve the quality of your vegan diet as it stands.

First of all, having been a huge devotee of Fitzgerald’s Racing Weight book, I wanted to get Matt Fitzgerald’s take on veganism for athletes. I greatly admire his work, and while we’ve chatted in the past about veganism, I wasn’t sure what his take on it was. Turns out, he thinks it can work, but he has a few qualifiers about that. “In general I recommend that athletes include all of the high-quality food groups—vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, lean meats and fish, whole grains, and dairy—in their diet unless they have a special reason to eliminate one or more,” he says. “There is no health or performance advantage to be gained from artificially restricting the variety in one’s diet. That goes for veganism as well. But some athletes choose not to eat animal foods for moral or personal reasons. If it’s done carefully, there’s no reason this choice should negatively impact performance. The existence of successful vegan athletes such as ultrarunner Scott Jurek is all the proof we need.”

So you’re a vegan. Now what? Fitzgerald votes on keeping it simple, and avoiding the hype. “Include as much variety in your diet as possible within the food groups you do eat. Don’t really too much on processed foods such as vegan snack bars.” That also means places like Vegan Treats (vegan athlete Mark Vareschi’s guilty pleasure) that offer baked goods like cookies, ice cream and even cheese cake, all dairy- and egg-free, aren’t on the approved-for-healthy eating list. “They’re basically just sugar and fat,” Vareschi says, though occasionally treating yourself isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. After all, even Fitzgerald admits to a daily glass of beer! Just don’t overdo it on specialty vegan foods and fake meats: try to keep ingredients basic.

But if not fake meat, where does the protein come from? Mark Vareschi, vegan since 1999 and a cyclist since 2001, laughingly calls the protein question a “red herring,” though we later agreed that a “red beet” might be a more apt description, given the circumstances. If you eat a normal diet, it’s hard to not get enough protein in the mix, as Matt Fitzgerald explains. He thinks that while, “Vegans should definitely ‘audit’ their diet occasionally to make sure they are getting enough carbs, fat, and protein,” it’s really not as dire as one might think. “Much is made of the possibility of protein deficiency on a vegan diet but it’s actually quite rare, especially among athletes, because there’s so much awareness of it and humans don’t require a ton of protein (about 10 percent of total calories) anyway. Essential fat deficiency is more likely. This can be avoided through the inclusion of EFA-rich plant foods such as flax oil and hemp seeds in the diet.”

Christine Vardaros, a cyclocross-racing expat living in Belgium, has been vegan for years, even before beginning to race. “My venture into the world of vegetarianism twenty-one years ago did not originate from a well constructed plan or a solid grasp of its ramifications, but rather from a random thoughtless decision.” I admit, I laughed out loud when I heard this story, because it’s one that I know very, very well from personal experience. “’Let’s be vegetarian. If everyone were vegetarian, we could end starvation and save the planet,’ my best friend blurted out to me as we were enjoying a spaghetti and meatball dinner. Enthusiastically I responded, ‘Sure. Let’s do it. But what’s a vegetarian?’”

However, what happened as a snap decision turned into a lifestyle that Vardaros would use while pursuing a racing career. “While becoming a vegetarian was done on a whim, making the jump from vegetarian to vegan was a little more thought out. I had gotten into bike racing five years after that fateful day and immediately started to encounter health problems like breathing difficulties, coughing and phlegm buildup. On top of that, I was easily winded. As a mere amateur cyclist, I assumed they were all side effects of being out of shape. At least my diet kept me thin and helped me to recover from hard efforts quicker than most others.”

It wasn’t for another five years, but finally Vardaros realized that something had to change if her racing was going to continue. “After some research on optimal health for active bodies, I quickly learned that milk and all products made with it are an athlete’s worst enemy,” she says. “Among many complications of consuming milk were breathing troubles, fluid buildup in the lungs, coughing, dehydration and fatigue. Once milk was eliminated from my diet, all my symptoms went away.”

She continues: “After experiencing amazing changes in my health, I was determined to have the perfect diet for racing which led me to a complete vegan diet. Once vegan, I started to learn about the impact of my diet choice on animals and creatures. What I discovered has definitely kept me strict with my diet and lifestyle so nothing is harmed by me. I would hate to win a race knowing that an animal had to suffer for it.”

Vardaros provided a interesting account, since she raced as both a vegan and a non-vegan. For her, she found that a strict vegan lifestyle made her a better racer. “I recover more quickly than I ever imagined possible,” she says, “And I can do multiple hard training rides or races in a row and feel almost completely fresh day after day. My energy level is just as good as it was, if not better, than when I was in my teens.”

Unlike Vardaros, Mark Vareschi started his vegan journey before being a cyclist, so, as he says, “I don’t know what it’s like to race or ride not being vegan.” But he says he’s never had a problem taking in enough calories. “Plant-based foods tend to have less calories,” he says, and laughs, adding, “But I can eat a lot.”

Over the years, he’s learned a few tricks as a vegan athlete: “My emphasis has always been to mix it up, eat a really diverse diet.” To do that, since he didn’t start out knowing how much he needed to take in, or what nutrient ratios to hit, he turned to a time-tested method: the food log. “I logged everything for a long, long time to make sure I hit all the nutrients and that taught me how to eat, what to eat and when I needed to eat.”

One more vegan issue, and it’s a big one: if you have eliminated animal products from your diet, or you’re trying to shift to a vegan lifestyle, a major issue is race weekend eats, especially when you’re traveling a lot. When you’re in unfamiliar territory, it can seem daunting to pick out vegan options, or at least, pick vegan options that aren’t French fries or Oreos. Christine Vardaros has ethnic cuisine down to a vegan-friendly science: “I can better choose my menu items – or better direct the restaurant in making a meal that is both tasty and plant-based. For instance, I stay away from soups, ask Thai restaurants to leave out all fish sauces, and instruct my Mexican restaurants to omit the sour cream and cheese.” And as for the oft-heard refrain of “there’s nothing I can eat here,” Vardaros has this to say: “When preparing my own food, I always succeed in finding a wide variety of choices in any local supermarket since almost 90% of their foods are vegan.”

Mark Vareschi has a worked out plan for eating on the road: “I just have a crate of food with some basic staples: rice, pasta, cans of beans, soymilk, cereal: you can make stuff in a hotel room, in the back of a van… You want stuff that’s easy.” Want more of Vareschi’s ideas? He has a great blog post about his race traveling vegan options and I can safely say that a rice cooker, brown rice and lentils will be packed in my bag on weekends from now on. Except when I’m flying, because somehow I’m pretty sure my wicked cheap rice cooker just won’t hold up through a long flight and TSA.

Thinking of making the switch, for ethical or dietary reasons? Plan your transition carefully, especially if you’re planning on racing cyclocross as your main season, because sometimes, it takes some getting used to. “I think that the off-season or any period of moderate training between race-focused training cycles is the best time to make any kind of significant change to one’s diet,” Fitzgerald says, so if your road season is ending and you’re not racing hard in the fall, maybe now is a good time. He explains, “When such a change is made there is often an initial period of trial and error. Mistakes and refinements are made. These mistakes could wreak havoc on an athlete’s training if his or her body is under a lot of stress from frequent, challenging workouts. The cost of learning things the hard way is definitely smaller in the off-season.”

Lastly: a word to the vegans and anyone considering the lifestyle switch: it’s certainly not an automatically healthy choice, as Matt Fitzgerald says: “Just because you don’t eat animal foods doesn’t mean your diet is automatically healthy!” That said, if you ethically agree with it, or you believe that it’s the healthy choice for you, by all means: keep the meat, dairy and eggs off of your plate, just make sure to replace them with healthy, whole food alternatives, with the occasional splurge on a Tofurkey or a vegan cheesecake. Hey, we’re only human!


It's All About the Journey

By: Molly Hurford Dec 4

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It really is all about the journey. (Or just Journey, if you're referring to our 12 AM singalong to Don't Stop Believing)

Most people know Justin Lindine as the quiet, sedate Honey Badger, who gives it everything when he's on the course, wearing his heart on his sleeve. Some people know him from Jeremy Durrin's live tweets of their drive to Kentucky last season, and those who know him from that know him as the excitable pop-song blaring bike racer who is just pumped about racing. So… will the real Justin Lindine please stand up?

After making the same sojourn with him this year, I can (almost) answer that. Or, at least, I can say without a doubt that Lindine can spit out Eminem lyrics like it's 1999 and we're at a high school dance, though this time around, we get to listen to the uncensored versions.

I'll take it back a few steps, to better explain how I ended up in a truck with Lindine for 35 hours …

Many of you New Englanders (and US 'crossers in general) know the name Justin Lindine, or, as he's more commonly referred to, The Honey Badger. And you may have read his defense of his car ride/pre-race playliston this very site last year, after fellow 'crosser Jeremy Durrin outed him on Twitter as a Ke$ha-listening road trip superstar. After following both the live-tweeting of the trip and the aftermath, I couldn't help but feel like Lindine and I were kindred spirits. Any racer with Party in the USA and We Are Who We Are on a playlist seems like a pre-race soulmate to me, since my iPod features nearly the same playlist.

Jump ahead nearly a year, and that same USGP race in Louisville was on the horizon, I had moved to Lindine's neck of the woods, and the Honey Badger and his awesome wife had become regulars at dinner at my new homestead. So when he mentioned that he was planning to again drive the 17 hours to Kentucky to race, I jumped at the chance to casually suggest that we road trip down together.

He accepted, and the road trip to Kentucky for 2012 had begun.

The trip started the day of the Nor'Easter, a Wednesday like any other day. Lindine (I still can't bring myself to call him Justin after a year of writing about him strictly by last name) and I opted to take my truck since I can't drive a standard (no commentary on this, please!) and as we backed out of the driveway, I was struck with a teensy bit of trepidation: what in the hell would we possibly talk about for the 10 hours in the car before we reached Pittsburgh?

Like many awkward new friends, we turned to the obvious: bike racing and the weather. The snowy skies ahead allowed for exchanging pleasantry after pleasantry, until those "Look at the big snowflakes" turns into bleeped out yelling about visibility issues. Still, despite the fact that my driving in weather is harrowing for me, terrifying for anyone in the car, Lindine kept his wits about him.

When it was finally my turn to play passenger, I finally got to do what I'd been waiting nearly a year to do: check out the famed Pump It Up playlists on the Honey Badger's iPod.

It was exactly as awesome and hilarious as I could have hoped. But what actually blew past my expectations was Lindine himself: crank the tunes and it's like a switch flips. Gone is the quiet guy with the shy smile that I've interviewed many, many times. Instead, there's a seat-rocking, lip-syncing, rapping, partying guy, though the smile doesn't really change. Not only were there the Top 40 pop hits that Durrin had alluded to last year, there was some rap (both of the awesomely good and awesomely cheesy variety), some hard rock (Offspring was heavily featured) and even a country jam or two. There was some requisite indie tune-age as well, but let's face it, when you get the chance to croon along to "Party in the USA" with someone, well, Pixies be damned.

And when we both made the exact same hand gestures during the lines, "Now you wanna run around and talk about guns like I ain't got none / What, you think I sold them all?" as we ineptly rapped along to Forgot About Dre, I knew this was a road trip gone perfectly right.

By the end of the trip, we had accomplished what few friends can really do: we had stayed in a car for over 30 hours in the span of 6 days, lived in adjacent rooms, hung out at the same team tent, ate at the same places and spent nearly every waking minute together, and remained friends.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm in the middle of cooking dinner for some Western Mass. cyclists, including the Honey Badger and wife. Also, Ke$ha just came on and I need to dance around the kitchen.

Visit for a profile on Justin Lindine's Redline race bike.


Having it All, Again

By: Molly Hurford Jul 31

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about women and the concept of having it all in sport. And, as usual, it was received with mixed reviews. To be honest? I don't care whether readers agreed with everything I said, or if they loved or hated it. I'm just happy that it got people -- both men and women -- talking. So, because of that and because the lack of women's media coverage in cycling has (somewhat ironically) been brought to attention by the same media guilty of ignoring it, I decided to write a follow up. The first order of business? Women at the top: as promoters.

One of my favorite comments from my article came from MidAtlantic Cyclocross Series promoter Marc Vettori (affectionately known as Fat Marc), who was thrilled to see the article. Marc is part of the 3 person team responsible for Granogue Cyclocross, and takes on the role as the mouth of the MAC. His reasoning for the disparities in women's cycling? It's all about promotion. "I can name the women promoters I've known over the last 20 years on one hand," he wrote to me.

Vettori isn't saying they don't exist, though, and was quick to praise his compatriot in the MAC Series, Laurie Webber. "None of our races, hell, maybe the MAC series, or any race in delaware would happen without her. The MAC board now has two women, and a third as the PR person. It's making the MAC series better, I believe."

This disparity is something that promoter Joan Hanscom of the USGP series and I have talked about before: just look at the ratio of men to women at any UCI promoters meeting. No wonder we have a hard time getting equal pay in races, when the sport is male-dominated through and through. Of course, that isn't to say that men won't argue for women cyclists to have even payouts. But I postulate that if there were more female promoters, equal payout would be more of a non-issue.

"Until there are top women promoters, I don't think women will make huge changes," Vettori says, and I agree with him. "Having women pros just complain about money ends up being a voice in the dark, sadly. Sure, they deserve the same money, but where does it come from? It's tough."

He does have faith for the future of women's cycling. Women in cycling may not be super new, but it is still a growing arm of the sport. And when the older generations start to retire (since for the most part, women's numbers didn't really start growing until the late 80s, the oldest pro racers are just now stepping back), those women can take on bigger roles in shaping the future of women's cycling. Vettori explains, "As current women racers move out of racing and into management and team leadership, and promotion, the women's influence will grow."

Part two: Women's cycling and the media.

While everyone (myself included) wholeheartedly applauded Scott Rosenfield's article on "Why We Ignore Women's Sports" publishing on Outside Magazine's website, I couldn't help but laugh a bit about the irony of the situation. Here, we have a magazine that rarely mentions women's cycling, berating other venues for the lack thereof. The article was awesome in and of itself, and hopefully will lead to a little more attention paid, but I can't help but worry that articles like that allow the magazine publishing them a "free pass." Rather than actually interview women racers about their races, the magazine is allowed to "take a stand" against sexism in the sport, thus garnering some serious props from both male and female cyclists, without having to do the grunt work of covering the races. [Outside Magazine has one cycling column that mainly does gear reviews and some minor coverage, but all of the recent gear reviews have been for men's bikes.] But hey, any coverage is good coverage, so bravo to Outside Magazine: now let's see if they can keep up the good work!

I admit it: I've been guilty of the lacking coverage as well. In my coverage of cyclocross, all too often the women's reports end up shorter. On the bright side, I get complaints about it, which means that readers actually do want more women's content. There are three reasons for the coverage gap though, and I'm about to share some trade secrets here. 1) I'm not always the one writing them, and since I'm not there, it's hard to add in more content. 2) The European races are covered mostly via the live feeds online, and unfortunately, the women are rarely featured, so coverage has to be pieced together from athlete's social media and from non-English news sources, most of which didn't have much to say about the women's races anyway. 3) When I do cover a race and the women's coverage seems to be a bit skimpy (hopefully this doesn't happen often), it's probably because I was racing the Elite race myself and missed getting one of the interviews I wanted. Turns out, writing about women's cycling is harder: back to that chicken-and-egg conundrum I've talked about and Rosenfield talks about in his article. It's hard to find a live feed of a Euro race, making writing the report hard, making it less interesting for readers, making less readers click through to read it, making advertisers skittish about dumping money into women's racing, which is why it doesn't make the live feeds. Talk about a vicious cycle.

That isn't to say that journalists get a free pass or anything like that. It’s just that women's cycling is harder to cover for a multitude of reasons, not just because journalists don't care. That's why programs like Rebecca Rusch's Gold Rusch tour are so incredible for women's cycling: I wrote about it back in May, but Rusch's plan for her tour was to bring female journalists along with her, providing a travel budget and housing, in order to allow for access to some great events to cover. This is unprecedented. Perhaps some promoters could take cues from this singular woman and actually push reporters -- male or female -- to attend and cover the women's races that they host, even if it means having to create some space in the event's budget for travel and housing for reporters. The easier it is to cover, the more reporters will cover it (find me one reporter who wouldn't jump on the free trip bandwagon and give them all of the coverage they ask for!) and the more attention it will gain, meaning the more money and ad dollars the race will eventually see. Sure, it's a bit extreme and a little pay-to-play, but again with the eggs, you can't bake a Feed Zone-approved savory rice cake without cracking a few of them (eggs, I mean.)

The second part of Part Two comes from Rosenfield's discussion of Liz Hatch and her use of her sexuality (the Maxim spread, to be specific) to garner attention for herself. The article, like most I've read on the subject, waffles between her choice to pose being liberating or objectifying. I have the same problem when I think about it, but my issue is that the article goes from being about a lack of women's coverage to a discussion of if sexuality has a place in cycling. Does coverage of a women's cyclocross race have anything to do with if a racer posed in a magazine? Would coverage of the Tour be different if Wiggins had posed seductively in Cosmo? A race is a race is a race, and if the subject at hand is the lack of coverage of women's racing, then why does that even have to come up?

And while it does touch slightly on the concept of tokenism (Mia Hamm is not the only female soccer player, Liz Hatch is not the only female cyclist, nor should either of them be tasked with representing their gender in their sport as a whole), I have to say: I am kind of sick of it. The Hatch example is oft-cited and tired: it was a spread done four years ago, and stands as virtually the only point that comes up when you talk about sexuality in women's cycling. Until there's another, newer example, can we let it go? I understand that women's athletics lead to the discussion of if using sexuality can help to promote the sport (and if it can, should it be, and to whom are we promoting to at that point?), but one big example does not an argument make. What Hatch did wasn't emulated by a bumper crop of U23 female cyclists, it isn't a trend, and is an outlier. Discussing an outlier event when discussing a sport as a whole is patently ridiculous, and every writer (myself included) that has tackled the topic is guilty of this. Guilty, guilty, guilty!

Lastly, I have one nitpick-y issue. Rosenfield berates announcers and writers for their use of "ladies" in their vernacular. Now, I understand the argument against using "girls," and I agree whole-heartedly. But he adds, "Often, a race will be called a “lady’s tour,” or women are said to compete on the “lady’s circuit.” This genteel word packs a punch. Ladies pose no threat to men. Sure, women may be participating in sports, but they are totally feminine. No lesbians or tomboys to worry about." I might be wrong, but I don't think that 'ladies' is necessarily a bad thing. Often, during races, the women will talk to the group and refer to them as 'ladies' (i.e, "Ladies, heads up, car on course!") and I don't think of that as a sexist thing. I wouldn't take umbrage with mentioning the "gentlemen" in a race (see: Rapha's Gentlemen's Ride as my case in point), so why would I mind 'ladies'? When I've interviewed top riders, often they'll refer to their fellow racers as ladies, interchangeably with women. Besides, the dictionary definition of "lady" is either any woman, or "a woman who is refined, polite, and well-spoken." I'll take it.

What really matters, though, isn't how we are referred to when in print. It's more the lack of print that's the problem. In Outside Magazine, Scott Rosenfield says, "Women's cycling is neglected throughout the year. But every Olympic season, our interest in most women's sports peaks—only to quickly wane." So let's make sure that doesn't happen this year. Those of us racing and those of us writing about cycling should make a commitment: to make sure that we, as athletes, are visible, approachable, and making ourselves heard, and that we, as journalists, make sure to capture every moment of it.

I have to say: it seems like now is the time to start the women's cycling revolution.

All right. Bring on the comments/criticisms/suggestions, but let’s not stop talking about it!

Images: Nick Maggiore



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