I’m not sure when it finally happened, but sometime in the last 18 months, maybe less, I ate my last PowerBar. It wasn’t a conscious decision; I just stopped buying them and at some point ate the last of my stock. Gradually, over several trips to the store, I realized that I just couldn’t stomach the idea of eating another ounce of the textural equivalent to edible Play-Doh.
The only significant detail in this anecdote is that I seem to have lasted longer than most. A few weeks ago I asked around just to see who among my friends were still eating PowerBars and I couldn’t find a single devotee. Everyone I spoke to said it was a product that was part of their past, kinda like 8-speed drivetrains.
I have to admit, I spent the better part of 10 years with my head more or less down to new nutrition products. Most of what I ate and drank was confined to Clif Bars, the aforementioned PowerBars and Gatorade. The reasons were simple: All three products were/are readily available, are reasonably inexpensive as energy foods go and, not insignificantly, due to my familiarity with them, they were pretty easy to digest. This season that changed. Part of the change was a search for new options as my local Trader Joe’s carried fewer and fewer varieties of Clif Bar, and part of the change was the fact that any number of nutrition companies embraced RKP as never before, and sent me samples of products I’d never tried, some I’d never even thought to try.
The exception to this was the gradual trickle into my diet that gels made. Four or five years ago I noticed that during ultra-intense rides/events and at altitude I was having trouble digesting bars, particularly Clif Bars, so I began purchasing gels more frequently.
The upshot is that I’ve learned two things: 1) I’ve heard from a number of friends that as they have aged, their stomachs are a bit pickier about what they can eat during a really hard ride. 2) Whether you want to stick with rapidly digestible gels and chews or want something that has the taste and texture of actual food, the bike world is full of options now. The incredible diversity of options—and but a few are shown above—is a striking departure from where things were just over 20 years ago when your choices were either chocolate or malt-nut PowerBars.
The folks at Honey Stinger would love it for me to review their products. I’m not sure there’s much to actually review. I love their chews, especially the Lime flavor and while I like their waffles, they don’t travel well. For me the real point to the post is to note that we have so many more options available to us. Dude, I can remember walking into convenience stores and choosing between Pop Tarts and Little Debbie snack cakes. We’ve come a long way.
Further to my reluctance to engage in a review of products, there’s a lot of competing formulations out there. I’m not well-enough-versed in the science to make any determination about whose blend works best. I can say that when it comes to gels, the two that provide the best kick for me are Gu Roctane and Accelerade. My favorite chews are Clif’s Shot Bloks, but that has a bit to do with the packaging; they are simply easier to remove from the wrapper as I ride.
What’s most significant for me within the energy food market are lightning rods behind Clif and Gu, Gary Erickson and Brian Vaughn, respectively. To the degree that there’s a real story to chase in the future, it would be going for a ride with these guys. An interesting aside, both companies are based in the original earthy-crunchy Mecca—the Bay Area. Erickson of Clif has chased an ever more natural, more organic approach, while still offering cutting-edge calorie uptake options like the Clif Shots and Shot Bloks. Vaughn has chased a slightly different direction, pursuing what strikes me as an ultimate human performance approach. Nothing seems to make this guy happier than seeing someone like sponsored athlete Rebecca Rusch break a record at Leadville.
There’s something about True Believers, capital T, capital B, that I really dig. I don’t doubt that PowerBar employs folks who swear by their product, but Erickson and Vaughn seem to epitomize the very athletic lifestyle their products cater to. Objective correlative: Last year at the Sea Otter Classic gran fondo I rode much of the day with Erickson. I noticed three tubes of Shot Bloks protruding from his left pocket. The tops of the plastic on all three tubes had been cleanly snipped away with scissors—ready to go.
So this week’s question is a simple one: what are you eating on the bike these days? We’ll even take it a bit further: Have you sworn off any particular energy foods? And, is there anything that makes you think twice before experimenting?
Some months back I was at the top of a significant climb, sucking cool air during bites of a PowerBar. Not some variety of energy-type bar, but an actual PowerBar. A friend looked at me with the raised eyebrows generally accompanied by a statement of incredulity—Really? You didn’t? You’re kidding? No effing way.
“You still eat PowerBars?”
There was little I could say other than, “Yeah.” After all, said PowerBar was in my mouth and I was chewing and there were no guns at my head. I eat them. By choice.
He followed his question—which was, of course, entirely rhetorical—with, “I can’t do those things anymore. I have trouble even eating Clif Bars. I’ve eaten so many of them over the years, I need real food.”
I still eat them both. I still like them both. And while it seems to be in vogue to dis products that seems more like Play-Doh than your average frozen entree, I can attest to the fact that in one cupboard of my kitchen there’s an entire shelf devoted to Clif Bars, PowerBars, Clif Shots, Clif Bloks, Gus and PowerBar Gels. At this point in my life I’ve been eating PowerBars for almost 22 years. I actually miss the taste of the old Malt Nut flavor. Don’t get me started about how many discontinued flavors of Clif Bar I’d buy by the case if I could get them.
You’d think after nearly two dozen years of eating factory food I’d be as done with that stuff as my friend. On the contrary. I have dialed their use down to the same sort of science with which they are made. I know what I can eat within an hour of starting a ride. I know what I can eat on the bike. I know what I respond to quickest and what can cause stomach upset.
A ham sandwich mid-way through a gran fondo? Are you kidding? That gut-bomb will keep me from hitting anything approximating threshold for the next hour, maybe more.
But there’s more to this stuff than just what works on the bike. When I travel, I always take some Clif Bars along with me. Given the varieties of junk food I’m apt to encounter at gas stations and in airports, a Clif Bar gives me four really helpful items:
- It keeps the calories and fat manageable
- It gives me some protein that would never be found in junk food
- It gives me something tasty to shut my stomach up
- It is indestructible; put another way, it travels way better than fruit
Is a Clif Bar or its like an adequate substitute for a real meal? Of course not. It’s not meant to be. I use them as a great way to avoid a really bad choice, like the chocolate chip cookies or whatever catches my eye in a gas station. Save me from the Pop Tarts! Please!
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked in the door following a ride and been too shattered to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; instead, I’ve wolfed down some bar, grabbed a quick shower and then staggered back to the kitchen for a real meal.
I’ll admit that there are some bars out there even I can’t stomach. Some of the high-protein bars can stop my intestinal traffic like Manhattan gridlock. I don’t need protein that much.
I love that there are people out there thinking about good nutrition solutions to less than ideal situations. That said, I wish Trader Joe’s carried more of the many flavors of Clif Bar than they do. From time to time I’ll find myself walking into a grocery store and noticing a flavor I haven’t seen a while. If they are 99 cents or less, I might stock up like I’m preparing for the Big One.
Still, I don’t think the innovators behind these many products thought of them as a way to short-circuit a short-circuit. But for me, that may be their greatest value. Reaching for an energy bar as I’m driving through California’s San Joaquin Valley frees me of the guilt I’d feel from munching a Moon Pie.
So if you’re sitting behind me in the movie theater and you wonder what the sound of that wrapper is, if I’ve been a good boy, it’s a Clif Bar instead of peanut M&Ms.