Sean Fowler answers his phone on a winding road by the ocean near Lille, four days into the Tour de France. It’s an overcast and blustery afternoon by the sea, a far cry from the 105-degree heat wave he’d experienced when he left his home in Spain the week before. His Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van parked beside him — a roving kitchen full of fresh produce, spices and tight quarters — is where he’s spent much of the professional cycling season, simmering risotto and balancing proteins from February to September.
As the traveling chef for Cannondale-Garmin, one of the world’s premiere cycling teams, he welcomes this moment of rest before it’s back to cooking a carefully balanced dinner for nine cyclists in dire need of nutrients that will both help them recover from the day’s strenuous racing and prepare them for the next stage. An avid cyclist himself, Fowler understands an entire team’s dietary needs, be it those of his Cannondale-Garmin family or the Irish team he’ll be nourishing at the UCI World Championships here in Richmond.
Each rider typically burns through 5,500 to 8,000 calories per day, making Fowler’s job of pivotal importance; he’s the man behind the curtain, or as the case may be, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef behind the double doors of a small cargo van.
“You have to watch these quantities and how your body reacts to increasing amounts and even ingredients to make sure that your body efficiently absorbs and assimilates all these calories in a good way,” the American-born chef says.
Mornings start with a hearty breakfast three to four hours before a stage begins: a large bowl of cereal; Fowler’s muesli with oats, quinoa, puffed rice, almonds, flax seeds and chia seeds; a serving of oatmeal; boiled rice and eggs. From there, the cyclists load onto their tour bus and snack on protein bars, electrolyte-heavy formula and chef’s rice cakes en route to the starting line, stuffing whatever they can fit into the three pockets on the back of their jerseys to eat as they ride. Once the cyclists start racing and reach a designated feed zone, they receive musettes — shoulder bags filled with sandwiches, snacks and formula — to help finish strong. Within 30 minutes of finishing a stage, Fowler whips up what he calls “post race,” a fast-assimilating dish of white rice and protein to help the riders recover. Then the athletes head to the hotel for massages (it’s a tough life) and snacks like fruit, nuts and nutrient-laden jellies and formulas until it’s time for dinner, which chef tailors to the upcoming stage’s level of difficulty. If you’re thinking these meals are nothing but energy bars and bland protein on a plate, think again; creating flavorful, gourmet meals is what Fowler does best, serving up dishes like artichoke paella with lemon-roasted chicken, or four-peppercorn veal sirloin over ratatouille with pomodoro sauce and crescent sprouts.
At UCI, his schedule will be even more grueling, cooking for Ireland’s team of roughly 25 as opposed to Tour de France’s nine Cannondale-Garmin riders. He’ll be stationary, cooking three meals a day in his Richmond hotel’s kitchen, with a TV plugged in next to his workstation — the only way he’ll be able to witness nine days of World Championships races. It won’t be until the final day that he can finally step outside to cheer on his team with the rest of us, closing out his season with a bang. What will he do in his downtime?
“Ride my bike!” he laughs. He’ll also teach cycling camps with friend and pro cyclist Tom Danielson in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s these people who really enjoy cycling and you teach them everything you know — how to cook, how to eat, how to train, and I also ride with them. It’s pretty intensive but it’s amazing.”
Hungry for more? Follow chef Fowler’s global culinary adventures on Twitter.
Web Extra: Find chef Fowler's recipe for basmati and buckwheat alla puttanesca here.