While I was on Tim Johnson’s Ride on Washington, putting in 530 miles in 5 days in order to raise awareness for Bikes Belong, I became much more interested in cycling advocacy. But, if you’ve read this column before, you might know what a huge nerd I am when it comes to sports nutrition, so when I heard that the ride was going to be supported by the men who wrote The Feed Zone Cookbook, Allen Lim and Biju Thomas, I couldn’t have been more excited. I got the opportunity to sit down with them before breakfast the last morning of the trip and really pick their brains about nutrition and what led them to writing their now famous cookbook. Where I live in Western Massachusetts, their book has become the new bible for racers, who now pound homemade rice cakes on rides, host dinner parties featuring recipes from the cookbook, and spend hefty chunks of time talking nutrition and about the importance of eating real foods, especially bacon.
First, I wanted to know a little bit about how the two came together, and how they ended up writing a cookbook.
Allen Lim gave me a bit of background: “I’m Chinese; I’m from the Philippines; I grew up in LA’s Chinatown and then East LA. I Learned how to run very fast there. Then I eventually went to college and studied exercise physiology. A lot of my original work was based around the use of powermeters, particularly understanding competitive cycling.”
His background explains a lot about both his cooking influences (Asian), and also about how he started caring about the care and feeding of cyclists. But everyone has a story about how they fell in love with cycling, and I wanted to know his.
“It was a little bicycle that I called Snow White. It was a little pink thing with tassels. I found it in my friend’s house and I taught myself how to ride when I was 4 years old by coasting down his driveway with my feet splayed out. I fell in love with bicycling, and from that point on, I found myself riding all over LA. I eventually joined the Boy Scouts, which had nothing to do with getting my ass kicked at all, and eventually got my bicycling merit badge, and with my brother and cousin Shawn, we rode our bikes with the Boy Scouts from LA to San Diego, and learned how to change flats and ride. Then I eventually started bike racing and I’ve been riding ever since. I’d been trying to figure out a way to make cycling a part of my life. My real inspiration was Kevin Costner in the movie American Flyers. I wanted to be Kevin Costner.”
As for his shift to coaching and dealing with professional cyclists, Lim told me, “A lot of the kids I grew up racing with ended up as professionals. I’d always stayed connected. By the time I moved to Boulder, CO, and I was in graduate school, I had already coached at the collegiate level at UC Davis and the University of Colorado. After I finished my Masters, I got picked up by USA Cycling and I was a resident coach at the US Olympic Training Center. That’s when I really started working with more elite level riders. That continued to build upon itself and eventually I started a women’s cycling program, so the first work I did in pro cycling was actually with women. I ran that program for two years and started eventually coaching men in Boulder.”
However, Lim is only half of the dynamic duo of the cycling nutrition world. His co-author, Biju Thomas, is the one responsible for most of the recipes in the cookbook, and it makes sense, since when he and Lim met, Thomas was a chef.
“Biju was good friends with Jonathan Vaughters. So we met through Jonathan and started talking about food. I started having opportunities to go to dinner parties that he was throwing, and his food was fantastic and it was what I was used to, what I ate growing up, since we both have Asian influences, and it just worked out. So when I left Garmin and went on to Radioshack, I brought Biju on to cook for Lance and help me out on the road, and eventually he started cooking for Levi (Leipheimer-Ed.). Then we wrote the book and the rest is history.”
“So did he bring the cooking and you brought the science aspect to it?” I asked.
“I brought the dishwashing aspects to it,” Lim responded, laughing.
Thomas chimed in from the doorway, adding onto Lim’s self-deprecating description: “We spend all our time shopping, driving, and washing dishes. We’re two really, really glorified dishwashers.”
So how did these two “glorified dishwashers” end up writing a top-selling cookbook? Actually, as it turns out, it was more out of practicality than anything else. Lim explained his reasoning:
“It was this kid who rode for Garmin. There was this incident where he had no clue; in Europe for the first time, no idea what to eat, handling nutrition, et cetera. And I realized talking to this guy about fats, carbohydrates, proteins, macronutrients, that kind of stuff, wasn’t going to cut it; I literally had to help this kid go shopping, prepare a couple of meals, teach him some basics about cooking, and I realized that the conversation needed to be much more practical. It needed to be about, ‘hey, here’s what you can make, page 75, the chicken tikka masala, eat it, don’t worry about it, it’s all good, it’s everything that you need.’ So rather than trying to talk the science, we wanted to talk the practice.”
Thomas chimed in here, to explain his motivation: “I was hoping to meet a girl.”
“Let me tell you, Biju did this to enhance his internet dating profile,” Lim told me, poker-faced.
“That’s the only reason he did it.”
Thomas didn’t stop there: “I kept getting not approved for Eharmony because apparently I don’t have a job. Apparently, I’m unemployable: In bed at 1, up at 4, living out of a truck, 9 months out of the year. Who wants to date this guy?”
“That being said, ladies, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Biju does have this dark, Clooney thing going on.”
“Is it the lights? Is it because I’m old and angry?”
Clearly, the two have become close in those 9 months in the truck.
I asked Lim what his core concepts for food for athletes were, and I admit, I loved the answer:
“The fundamental core of our nutrition concepts is, ‘don’t be a douchebag.’ Eat real food, cook from scratch, take the extra time—because it does take work, and not everything in life is convenient. So we try to keep it simple, and we try to keep it real.”
Since we were on such a long trip, I wanted to know the motivations for how they were cooking for us. To give an idea, we’d have a buffet-style meal ready when we got in from our rides (100-140 miles) each day, and the meals were typically a white rice or pasta with a meat sauce, a salad, and options like yogurt, fruit, bread and bottles of Coke (with natural sugar).
Lim explained to me his rationale: “You needed to replace food, so we gave you food. Calories, calories, calories. Everything that’s bad for you when you’re sitting on your butt all day in front of the computer is good for you when you finish a 140 mile bike ride, so we’re feeding you a lot of white rice, a lot of pasta, really easy, digestible foods. We pair that with some sort of meat dish, salad, vegetables, yogurt, nuts. We’re not shy about the calories, we’re not shy about our use of real fat, and things like olive oil and salt.”
Thomas added on, stressing, “If normal people ate like this, they’d be miserable, heart attacks waiting to happen. But when you’re in the middle of the season, racing and training, you can eat like this. That said, everything was real food, everything was made fresh. We don’t have a freezer for that reason, we also don’t have a microwave.”
OK, so on a different note: what about the riders who are looking to drop weight?
According to Lim, “If a rider wants to lose weight, it’s just about portion size. I don’t think there’s anything about the diet that changes. It’s not about doing anything extraordinary, you don’t have to turn into some weird manorexic, you don’t have to start starving yourself or eating just carrots or apples. You just have to watch your portion size. Don’t skimp on what you have before training and after training, but do watch what you eat in the evening. I hate to say it, but you’re going to bed a little hungry every night. And if you’re going to bed hungry every night, that’s maybe about 500 calories that you’re peeling off your diet, so that’s maybe a pound a week, so you have to be super, super patient. And again, the don’t-be-a-douchebag principle applies.”
One of my last questions was a bit self-serving. I’m not the greatest cook in the world, so I wanted to know if he had any secret tips. Turns out, he did.
“If you suck at cooking, all you need to do is buy one of these things. It’s called a rice cooker, and all you need to do is put rice and water in it, and you need to hit the little button. That’s about as easy as it gets. You gotta have confidence in yourself to turn that stove on!”
Lim didn’t want to just talk about food though. For him, taking on the task of cooking for the Ride on Washington was about more than just taking a job. “Working in bicycle advocacy is exponentially more difficult than working the Pro Tour, for a lot of reasons. There are more of them (events-Ed.), and the schedules are terrible. You start way too early, you ride for way too long, you finish way too late. But the juice is worth the squeeze. The bicycle advocacy and the cause is absolutely more noble than chasing each other around on bicycles. Even though that’s fun, this is more than just trying to show off and try to be the best, it’s about trying to help the world.”