Sean Fowler and Olga Belenko are a husband and wife team that single-handedly feed the Cannondale-Garmin riders during the world’s toughest bike races, from the Tour De France to the classics they make sure the team is fueled for those brutal days on the bike. No easy task considering the average World Tour rider eats anywhere 6,0000-9,000 calories per race day. I caught up with them during the Giro d’italia to find out just how they do it.
Where did you learn to cook?
Sean- It was a combination of things, I started to learn at home. I also learned under my best friend and mentor Hillary Smith, after that I went to culinary school.
Olga- I learned from my grandma and mom growing up in Russia all of the women in my family loved to cook non-stop. I also learned a lot from Sean working at the restaurant.
How did you get involved with the team?
S- That was basically, Tommy D, he lived in Alp and visited our restaurant. We had a mutual friend that introduced us and we did some training camps up at the restaurant and then Garmin invited me to start in 2009 and I have been with them since.
What do you consider when planning a race meal?
S- I take in a lot of considerations like how hard the stage is going to be, how it was the pervious day, how hard it is going to in the coming days. The temperature outside, how tired they already are. For instance, if they are tired it will be more liquid. If not it will a little drier. Finally, what the individual rider likes and dislikes.
O- We take inspiration from our location. If we see a really great local or seasonal product we will use it. We have to think about their allergies and intolerances as well.
Where do you buy the food from?
S- Basically wherever we can, we try to go to local and organic markets but that isn’t always available so you do the best you can.
O- Now it is easier to find organic and gluten free foods in large super markets. Sometimes we are able to get some food from the hotel. We do not have a freezer only a refrigerator so we buy meat and fish fresh everyday. We go to different places and are motivated when we see a new vegetable or something that is really fresh.
I’ve noticed you cook primarily gluten free even in countries like Italy that are known for their pasta. How do you manage it?
S-There are more products available than ever before. Italy is actually the easiest of all European counties, the have a huge non gluten section including different types of pasta and flours.
Why do you feel it’s important to maintain a gluten free diet throughout competition?
S- We cut out gluten to due to the inflammation issues associated with it. We are finding that it is really working and a lot of pessimistic riders are being convinced. We are really happy about that. Just in this race, we have some Italians and we only have one rider that is really missing pasta a lot, all of the others are on the bandwagon.
Do you do anything differently during a grand tour verse a shorter race?
S- The longer the race is the more likely guys are going to have digestion issues. I cook more pasta in a shorter race and a lot less in a longer race.
O- Before we start a long race we cook for the riders three to four days before the start. We do this to slowly introduce them into the diet, the riders come from different countries, diet and time zones. We need to get everyone on the same eating plan. In shorter races it is not necessary.
What are some of the riders favorite meals?
S- It really depends on the rider but big “Sean” salads are definitely a favorite, along with curry and risotto. We are changing it up all time and they are very appreciative of it.
O- All of them like my non gluten banana bread and carrot cake. The riders like nice food that is easy to eat. A lot of times, the riders will say our food is a 10 out of 10 and then the next day they say, oh this one is even better.
You guys work together all day everyday what is that like?
S- Well 90% of the time it’s fabulous but 10% of the time she drives me crazy.
O- I can say 90% it’s really good and 10% of the time he drives me crazy.
S- No just kidding, it’s really good, it really is because we know eachother. It makes the work less stressful and easier to do.
O- We have a lot of years of experience being together 24/7, this is why we decided to sell the restaurant. We didn’t want to work separately anymore, we tried and it was impossible. (Olga would run the restaurant while Sean was at races).
S– The first one is water, your body is 80% water so make sure you’re hydrated but with quality water. Secondly, the more raw the better. Lots of raw veggies, fruits and salads. Your carbohydrate intake should directly relate to the amount of training you do. So the more training the more carbohydrates you should eat and less carbs for less training. Lastly, pay close attention how you feel after you eat something and go from there.
O- Lots of water, no white sugar, no milk or lactose and no animal fat. Less salt also if you can. Just pay attention to what you buy, looking at labels.You need to be conscious about what you are putting into your body. If it looks natural and you can recognize the ingredients, it is probably good for you. If you don’t know what you are eating then that is not good.
You recently rode a 337km race with two of the staff members on Cannondale. How was it and how did you eat for it?
The ride was difficult because it was a combination of road, cyclocross and mountain bike and you had to choose one bike for the whole thing. We chose a big wheel road bike version. There was a section where we had to walk down in the mud. It was really complicated because 60% of the 337k was dirt road and rocky. I think what suffered the most were my hands from vibrations and holding on to my bars so hard. Also, my neck hurt but my legs were okay. I ate rice cakes the entire time, except for the last 40km I had a sugar shot block.