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Bike Like A Pro Athlete, Eat Like A Pig

This serving of Texas barbecue brisket, sausage and beans was a mere snack on our epic movable feast.
This serving of Texas barbecue brisket, sausage and beans was a mere snack on our epic movable feast.

Last month, a friend and I rode bicycles 738 miles up the spine of Texas from the Rio Grande to the Red River, dodging oilfield trucks and yipping Chihuahua dogs.

All that pedaling had us burning about 5,000 to 5,500 calories every day. And so the 10-day journey — eight days of it riding into a headwind — became a movable feast.

There were hero sandwiches, Tater Tots, loaded baked potatoes, rib-eye steaks, chiles rellenos, cheese enchiladas, fried shrimp, cheeseburgers, french fries, hot dogs, barbecue brisket, beef jerky, chocolate glazed donuts, Snickers bars and fried pies.

John Burnett's riding partner, Hawk Mendenhall, devours a chocolate donut.
John Burnett / NPR
John Burnett's riding partner, Hawk Mendenhall, devours a chocolate donut.

It was the diet that a calorie-counting cubicle dweller can only dream of. Imagine: eating anything you want and never having to worry about belly fat.

Lots of endurance athletes — such as Tour de France cyclists — get to eat this way all the time, though they tend to practice more conscientious "performance nutrition" that probably doesn't include chocolate donuts.

With our caloric deficits at day's end in mind, I contacted a noted sports nutritionist before we dipped our back tires in the Gulf of Mexico and began our journey.

Dr. John Ivy, professor emeritus in the department of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas, Austin, thoughtfully created for us a detailed fueling program to limit muscle damage and counter fatigue, spelling out what to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

An example: "About 30 minutes before bedtime have a high-protein snack such as some turkey breast, sliced ham, Greek yogurt or a package of almonds."

Menu choices were severely limited in the Texas towns like Raymondville or Kingsville or Beeville where we slept. (Are fresh vegetables illegal in Kingsville?)

A breakfast taco in Texas.
John Burnett / NPR
A breakfast taco in Texas.

Without a vehicle to find a grocery store for items like turkey breast and yogurt, we promptly broke his program and ate whatever we wanted.

At a Subway sandwich shop in San Benito, I split a foot-long Italian sub with my ride partner, Hawk Mendenhall. Neither one of us actually remembers eating it — the sandwich seemed to transmogrify instantly into fuel. "Did I forget to chew?" said Hawk, wiping mustard from his beard.

At the end of every seven-hour day on the saddle, we dashed into a convenience store for the best recovery drink on the planet — cold chocolate milk. It's got it all: carbs, protein, calcium and water.

When the ride was over and we dipped our front tires in the Red River, I called up John Ivy again and sheepishly told him about our laissez-faire attitude toward his careful nutrition plan. He was entirely forgiving — especially about our regular diet of greasy Tex-Mex food.

"You got all the macronutrients you needed," he reassured me. "Enchiladas with rice and beans is not a bad meal. A lot of people gain weight on Mexican food because it's calorically dense, but you needed lots of calories."

I love long-distance cycling because it's a leisurely, gentle, human-powered way to appreciate the landscape. It makes a person feel completely alive. Moreover, it transforms that post-ride meal — whatever is on your plate — into a glorious recharge for the body. Our bicycle odyssey across Texas celebrated the original meaning of the French word restaurant:food that restores.

Back home in Austin, as I rested my legs and sat down to a restrained meal of quinoa salad and chicken tikka masala, I realized I missed the eating as much as the pedaling.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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