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Coffee Is Cycling’s New Performance-Enhancing Drug

These days, cyclists are getting high on caffeine.

Competitive cycling is a true test of mental and physical stamina. The sport measures a rider’s endurance, in addition to his/her ability to manage the difficulty of a given course. Cycling pros build strength through daily hundred-mile rides, a conditioning regimen that takes a toll. Which is perhaps one reason why so many pros and former champions have taken a little something extra to gain a competitive edge, leading to a culture of substance abuse growing endemic beneath the colorful fabric of cycling kits. Before their superhuman feats were called into question, many riders and even winners of the pro-circuit doped with all manner of additives, at times ingesting astonishing drug cocktails far exceeding rational expectations of the human body. Take, for instance, Pot Belge, a slurry of illicit substances comprised of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and a little caffeine for good measure injected directly into the bloodstream, effectively transforming the training riders into rats on a wheel. Disillusioned, die-hard cycling fans could only hope that the juicing would dry up, and eventually be written off as a bi-product of the superfluous excess which flourished in the 90s and early oughts. Then the Lance Armstrong fiasco happened, revealing the use of hormones and strategic blood transfusions. So, cycling, it seemed, had something of a drug problem.

Now, a growing legion of cycling fiends not deterred by the needling problems of the past forge ahead in search of the thrill manifested in the sound of whirring rubber tires traveling over fast-moving pavement. The new cyclist filters through a high-speed huddle of competitors and teammates alike, hoping to achieve the natural highs found in simple, straightforward racing, all with a little help from another pursuit currently on a breakaway—delicious coffee.

Perennial cyclocross champ Jeremy Powers is no stranger to quality joe and its catalyzing properties. Cyclocross, for the uninitiated, is a type of off-road competitive cycling that falls somewhere between grand tour racing and Tough Mudder. It very often takes place on treacherous landscapes and in colder, rain-soaked months. Picture someone with a mud-splattered visage slinging a bike over one shoulder while charging up a hill too steep to ride; then you’ll have an idea of the sort of herculean tasks required in this particular discipline.

Needless to say, it takes motivated individuals to compete in such rough conditions, and Powers revels in the sport he refers to as a type of "steeplechase" on bikes. "I’m going to get my ass out the door with that first cup of coffee. I use that as my tool when I’m training," he says.

Powers lives and trains in Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts where he was first introduced to good coffee by friend Mukunda Feldman, formerly a roaster at Barrington Coffee. Feldman now owns Barrington’s Fort Point location in Boston, where they brew and sell some of the world’s finest coffees—the more precious 12 ounce bags range anywhere from $40 to $180. Since the cycling wunderkind’s first quality fix, Powers learned how to make good coffee no matter what course he is on. "As a cyclist you very much live out of bag for a very long time. One of the things I find funny is that each guy has a [coffee] ritual."

Cyclist Roger Parmelee at Gypsy Donut & Espresso Bar in Nyack, New York. Photo by PhotoRhetoric/Matthew Vandivort.

Circuit pros will show up with all manner of portable brewing method, including hand grinders from Porlex or Hario, collapsible silicone drippers, Jetboils, and BPA-free plastic water kettles. With the sheer amount of effort invested, the struggle for good coffee almost becomes part and parcel with the desire to win the race.

Sometimes coffee consumption can be borderline obsessive and in extreme cases Powers has seen cyclists fall into a type of caffeine-induced shock. "Every couple of years you see a guy that’s had too much coffee. He’s just laying there. On the grass. Too much caffeine." For Powers, who is sensitive to the double-edged sword that is coffee, "too much" could be as little as an extra cup in the morning. "I have friends where I’m like, ‘Oh my god, you’re a camel of coffee. You just annihilated an entire French press and you’re continuing to go?!’ I’m very much a 12 to 15 ounce guy," says Powers.

Even as quality coffee becomes more attainable outside traditional coffee shops, competitive and recreational cyclists around the country are finding they don’t need to be so resourceful to get the goods. Motofish Coffee in Seattle sources beans from some of the best roasters in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation, and brews them as cleanly as possible. In a city where coffee businesses blanket the landscape like pine straw, such practices are more expected than extraordinary.

Images courtesy of Motofish.

So, to stand out, Motofish rolled onto the scene with a converted Mercedes-Benz UniMog as their mobile brew vessel. Once commissioned by the Swedish Forest Service for its ability to traverse difficult terrain, "The Mog" is now outfitted with a custom Synesso Espresso machine and all the necessary effects boasted by a top-notch third wave coffee shop in The Emerald City.

Motofish operations manager Sean McGraw, longtime Seattleite and enthusiast of both coffee and cycling, says they have sent The Mog to several competitions as well as gravel-riding trails frequented by early morning cyclists.

"We basically take it to every cyclocross event we can fit in the calendar during fall and winter. Beyond that, we’ve taken it a few times to Duthie Hill [in the evergreen forests east of Seattle]. They let us go up on a forest road—normally where no cars would be allowed—to access the heart of this mountain biking course. An hour and 20 minutes outside of Seattle, people can get a cup of coffee at the level of any third wave shop in the city and get back to riding a mountain bike."

With Seattle as a veritable poppy field for cycling and coffee addicts, serene forests cascade into a modestly populated city with protected bike lanes, good straightaways and no shortage of either hills or brew shops. This makes the city perfect for fun, spectator-friendly criterium racing. McGraw first got into this form of racing by attending regular criterium summer series, a sort of fast-paced, pickup race every Thursday in Seward Park just outside of Seattle, and he quickly became immersed in the training culture fueled by coffee.

Michael McGovern is another Seattle resident with a busy schedule and a foot in both worlds. A manager at Central Co-op, an independently-owned grocery store, McGovern is in charge of the shop's farmer-friendly, environmentally-conscious coffee program, sourcing beans from roasters like Equal Exchange. When he’s not at work, McGovern can often be found at the Motofish bar in Chrome Industries downtown, which he uses as a launch point for many rides.

"Coffee is the best pre-ride thing there is," says McGovern. "I drink it quite often afterwards, too. It feels to me as if—and this is not scientifically speaking, because I’m not a fucking scientist—when I get home and I’m just completely zapped, if I have a cup it kind of gives me just a little bit of a pickup that I need in that moment."

"If you ever go to a cyclocross race there are going to be people with a ton of beer, coffee. If there isn’t coffee and beer this is not a cyclocross race." -Michael McGovern

McGovern also mentions beer, coffee’s kindred spirit in craft beverage, as a pleasant post-ride alternative. Many pros and amateurs alike will say that a perfect Saturday involves coffee, riding, some delicious, wholesome food, and beer—a more sensible parallel to Pot-Belge that doesn’t involve illegal substance or drastic combinations of uppers and downers.

"Beer and coffee and cycling are so married to each other it’s hard to separate them," he continues. "If you ever go to a cyclocross race there are going to be people with a ton of beer, coffee. If there isn’t coffee and beer this is not a cyclocross race. It’s someone setting up some sort of imposter race—Imposter-cross if you will."

McGovern enjoys the camaraderie found at niche cafes now popping up across the nation which provide a waypoint or clubhouse for cycling enthusiasts, a place where riders can throw back a cup while watching throwback cycling videos—a peculiar, yet common fixture at cycle-crazy shops.

On the opposite corner of the U.S. in Orlando, Florida, Jen and Darrell Cunningham feel a similar connection to cycling, having opened Bikes, Beans & Bordeaux (B3, to regulars) in the spring of 2008 amidst the recession. Jen, who fell in love with cycling as a tri-athlete, had something of a rough entry to competitive cycling. On a training ride, a fellow rider swerved unexpectedly and clipped her front tire. She took a hard fall, breaking her collarbone. Jen met Darrell while she was on the mend working the registration table of what was supposed to be her first race. Eventually she got back on the bike and the two began building their relationship, in many ways through cycling, riding together, brainstorming their new cafe concept and going on annual trips to see the Tour of Georgia—a road race which took place in the northern foothills but no longer exists.

There they would rent a cabin, watch the Tour, go on rides of their own and drink the coffee of fellow cycling-fanatics Jittery Joe’s, a small roaster based in Athens. For Jen, coffee is there to augment these experiences if not for competitive encouragement. "I just enjoy coffee for the emotional peace of it," she states. "There’s nothing like a warm cup of coffee." Darrell, on the other hand will have a shot of Jittery Joe’s Morning Ride espresso, which they now serve at B3—to get the gears turning, so to speak.

Cyclists congregate over brews at Bikes, Beans & Bordeaux in Orlando. Photo courtesy of Bikes, Beans & Bordeaux.

The mental alacrity induced by a healthy dose of coffee can prove invaluable in a race. On the course, cycling can play out as a sort of physical speed-chess with riders jockeying for position. Teammates within a cycling outfit work together to manage the peloton, the name given to the centrally-packed group of riders that amasses over the course of the race.

"If the peloton is at a slow-down, and you’re familiar with the course you just know [the right time] to go," Jen says, explaining the ongoing attempts to gain the lead throughout a race. "If you’re my teammate and I’m an okay sprinter, I’ll get on your wheel and lead out. You’ll get out of the way and I’ll take off."

Matt Vandivort races for Team Health Warrior, sponsored by a quality coffee company Nobletree, an NYC-based high quality coffee purveyor with two farms in Brazil. Vandivort also happens to be the race organizer for the Century Road Club Association (CRCA) a cycling club dating back to the late 19th Century. Organizing and participating in many of the Central Park races as a member of Team Health Warrior, he highlights the importance of staying alert when swept up in the hustle of a race.

"I think coffee only emboldens you as a rider," Vandivort says. "[Racing] is a sensory overload; you can have a hundred riders on a tightly packed course. So you really need to have a great deal of situational awareness of what’s going on around and if a rider in front of you hits the break you need to be able to replicate that otherwise there is going to be a crash."

The dynamic of constant awareness among riders makes for an incredibly synchronized flock, so much so that it can be hard to discern between teammates and competitors within a given clutch of riders.

"There is a Swiss rider, Fabian Cancellara who is incredibly successful," Vandivort says. "He made a joke probably two years ago in one of the big spring day races in Europe. He was the favorite. Everything he did was shadowed by other riders. Every move he made was marked by his competitors. His comment was something to the effect of, 'If I had stopped for coffee, they would have done the same.' "

Those who live in the notoriously trendy world of specialty joe no doubt identify with the herd mentality to which Cancellara famously alluded. Coincidentally, one of the leaders of the third wave pack is Intelligentsia Coffee, a pioneer in direct trade and a regular patron to cycling, often incorporating the sport into the brand’s aesthetic. Founder Doug Zell got into cycling as a teenager, but put it aside to attend college. He still rides and brings his bike on origin visits, training in the rolling hills of Brazil or the climbs that lead up to coffee mountains in Costa Rica.

Coffee prep onboard Motofish. Photo courtesy of Motofish.

Coffee has some nice physiological and psycho-active effects, but I mainly drink coffee for how delicious it is. - Doug Zell, Intelligentsia

Intelligentsia is now in its 20th year of operation and boasts roasting facilities and shops in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. When Intelligentsia first started to focus on quality in the cup, Zell went to the source, working closely with partner producers to improve growing, processing and packaging practices. This attention to detail very much put companies such as Intelligentsia, Counter Culture and Stumptown ahead of the curve.

"If you think about the idea of Direct Trade, we were paying and investing in [coffee] producers in a much bigger way than anyone had before and on a much bigger scale," Zell says. "There is a risk in that the consumer is not going to be quite willing to pay for it ... In order to put together a successful, leading business you’re going to have to take the right kind of calculated risks and put yourself out there, and certainly, I think the best bicycle racers are the ones that are doing that sort of thing."

At 49, Zell has re-entered the competitive cycling world, participating in the Masters circuit, though it hasn’t been the smoothest of shifts. He recently suffered a collarbone break, one of the most common injuries in cycling. "I was in a race with a couple laps to go and I found my teammate’s wheel," says Zell, recounting a story told by so many cyclists. "Then someone came across my front wheel, and I just went down really hard. You know, you hit your shoulder, you’re likely to break your collarbone—it’s not small."

This summer, as the title sponsor of the Prairie State Cycling Series held in and around Chicago, Intelligentsia will host competitors in the national circuit, putting on three races in the actual city, one of which will wrap around their roastery and shoot through Goose Island.

Zell may or may not be able to participate in the Masters race. Whether he is riding or not there will undoubtedly be some coffee in his system.

"I drink coffee every day barring any unforeseen circumstance. Coffee has some nice physiological and psycho-active effects, but I mainly drink coffee for how delicious it is. It’s also a benefit in that the caffeine part of it does enhance athletic performance, so to speak."

In many ways, the tongue in cheek irreverence aimed at the dope-ridden days of cycling is just what the core community needs. Though now riders can convene around a table dotted with demitasse and decide what’s important to their squad.

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