Pushing the Pedals with Plant-Based Fuel

One of my great joys in life is Biking Across Kansas each year. I am honored to serve on the Board of Directors and to contribute my skills in a variety of ways to a cause that is dear to my heart. Another cause that is dear to my heart is living and eating compassionately. One of the ways that these two passions intersect is through an annual article that I write for the BAK newsletter to guide others who are vegan, vegetarian or may want to explore living, training and riding fueled by plants, instead of animals. Here is this year’s article, which will appear in the upcoming April BAK newsletter. I decided to publish it to my blog because it may provide useful guidance and inspiration for other athletes who are curious about eliminating the consumption of animals from their diets, but fear that it would be too difficult.

More and more people are choosing to nourish their bodies with plants instead of animal-based products. I have been vegan since 2008 and vegetarian since 1982. My 11-year-old son, who has been on BAK since I was pregnant with him, is vegan. We survive and thrive on BAK, and I am writing to share some of my tips for having a great, plant-powered trip across the state.

Self-sufficiency, resourcefulness and a positive attitude are key to nourishing our bodies with plants on BAK. I have found that the availability of vegan food has increased over the years, but it does vary from location to location and year to year. BAK staff communicate proactively with the lunch and overnight towns, encouraging them to include vegan options when they serve us. I happily provide some specific suggestions whenever those are welcomed by our host towns. Still, we ultimately have control over only our own actions. That is why I believe in taking responsibility for my own nutrition, and I encourage you to do the same.

Despite the proactive efforts of BAK staff, there may be times when we have to be a little more creative in order to get the vegan nutrition we need. This is possible without transporting our kitchen pantries across the state. These are some of my go-to BAK resources:

Local offerings: My first suggestion is that you explore the options presented by the local schools, youth groups, teams and churches. Because of the proactive communication by BAK staff, many of them have prepared a vegan selection, and some groups may offer entirely vegan meals. Highlights of recent years include an Asian meal in Elkhart, vegan kabobs in Oswego and terrific potato and salad bars in Anthony, Coldwater and Goessel. Pasta with marinara sauce is common, and vegan wraps or burritos have also made appearances in the last few years. Breakfasts have included tortillas with peanut butter and dried fruit, as well as oatmeal made with water or nondairy milk. Please make the local offerings your first choice when possible and thank the providers sincerely and profusely. BAK should be a win-win, with riders getting a terrific experience, while local communities reap economic and interpersonal benefits.

Local grocery stores: These can be valuable resources especially at lunch. Almost any fresh fruit is a good, refreshing option. Cut watermelon may be available in produce sections, and it is both hydrating and nourishing. Grape or cherry tomatoes and baby carrots can be dipped in hummus or guacamole, which can often be found in produce sections of grocery stores. Some stores have delis that may serve three-bean or other vegan salad options. Friends and I have shared whole-wheat tortillas, peanut butter and vegan refried beans on benches, pallets or curbs outside grocery stores. Ask the deli staff to open cans you purchase in the store. Grab a can of beans to supplement dinner at night, if the offerings are on the sparse side. Keep a small camping can opener in your luggage.

Local restaurants: I have been pleasantly surprised, at times, to find vegan dishes in local restaurants. This won’t always be the case, but there are usually some items that can be combined to make a decent meal—plain baked potatoes, salad and fruit, for example. Pizza is another option. Pizza crust is usually vegan, but ask to be sure. A loaded veggie pizza without cheese makes a tasty meal.

SAGs: BAK SAGs are the best! They work so hard to feed us well when we are out there on the road. Fruit, pretzels, pickles and peanut butter (great on bananas or apples, if the bread is not vegan) are frequently available. Please thank our generous SAG volunteers, who are spending their vacations in the wind, heat or rain to keep us energized.

Items to pack: In addition to making creative use of local resources, it is important to be prepared for situations when existing options are sparse. These are items that I take with me each year on BAK:

  • Shelf-stable vegan milk (almond, soy coconut, etc.)—I usually take an 8-pack of this. Sure, it adds some weight, but the load lightens a little each day, and it has a lot of valuable uses. Even if there are not full breakfasts that meet our needs, there may be suitable cereal and fruit. Pour some vegan milk on the cereal, add fruit, and you have a meal. I also use this to create tasty, energizing shakes. I don’t even care that the milk is not cold.
  • Vegan protein or smoothie mixes: Take a shaker cup and vegan protein separated into single servings and packed in individual, resealable bags, sealed in a larger zippered bag. This can make a good breakfast with some fruit. My favorite way to use vegan protein shakes is as a quick post-ride recovery drink. As soon as I find my bag, I grab my shaker cup, vegan protein and vegan milk and mix up a glycogen-replenishing drink. It is important (not just for vegans) to refuel within 45 minutes after prolonged and/or strenuous exercise, and this is a convenient way to do it.
  • Dried fruit, nuts & seeds: I usually pack a large, zippered bag of dates and another one of nuts and seeds. Figs, raisins, goji berries or dried cranberries are other options. I place a snack-sized bag of these items in my saddle bag to supplement lunch or SAG food when needed. They pack and store well and provide concentrated energy in small packages.
  • Nutritional yeast: A small bag or repurposed plastic spice bottle makes this a convenient source of both vitamin B12 and flavor. It works as a topping for baked potatoes, when vegan margarine or nourishing toppings like vegan chili, beans or broccoli are not available. It can also add interest to greens and other salad veggies if there is no vegan dressing and give a boost to pasta with marinara sauce.
  • Single-serving packs of almond or peanut butter: This is great on fresh fruit, dates or vegan toast, and the packs can even be taken along on the bike to supplement lunch fare.
  • Gels or bars: Personally, I like energy gels on the bike. Some people prefer to carry bars, blocks or whole-food options, like dates, in their jersey pockets. Energy bars can be useful breakfast or recovery alternatives. Bicycle Pedaler generally offers vegan versions of gels and bars if you need to replenish your stash during the week.

By approaching BAK with a sense of adventure and by taking responsibility for your own nutrition, it is entirely possible to pedal (strongly and happily) across the state while remaining true to your ethical and health principles.

Of New Beginnings & Possibilities

This past Saturday kicked off my official training season on the bike. This winter, unlike in most recent years, I have maintained some level of cycling throughout the off-season—15-20 miles on weekend days, when weather and circumstances allowed. Now it is time to start building endurance and speed intentionally and strategically.

The first bike ride of the season is always exciting to me (A lot of the rest of them are, too!) because of the promise and mystery the beginning of the season holds. Each ride is a bit of a microcosm of that first ride, because, on a smaller scale, every ride holds promise and mystery, too.

This is my chance to make the season what I will. I am not in total control, but my efforts and discipline will determine much of my experience for the season, and that is empowering. To a large extent, my choices will determine how well I ride, how much my fitness increases and how much fun I have.

As my mileage increases, each ride into territory yet untraversed this season will be a process of discovery. Many of the roads are so familiar because I have ridden them for years that it feels like a bit of a homecoming each time I ride them for the first time in a season. I will reconnect with some characters who are part of the scene of my cycling seasons—like the owner of a gas station in a small town about 12 miles from my home. Years ago, when I first moved to this area and started riding through his town, he seemed unhappy. I made it my mission to win him over—and I did. He greets me with a big smile, and we catch up when I see him for the first time in a season. In a couple weeks, I will ride through his town and ask how his wife, who has been waiting several years for a heart transplant, is doing.

When I venture farther and in a different direction, I may see my octogenarian friend in Sedgwick. He greets me with hugs and shows me his knee replacement scar, as his wife good-naturedly rolls her eyes. He still calls me “the lady with the baby,” even though my baby is 11 years old because he remembers when I was riding pregnant. He met my son the next year, when my husband drove to Sedgwick to meet me at the gas station—where Lyle hangs out—so that Logan could nurse before I continued my ride. Lyle tells me that he looks to see if it is me every time he sees a cyclist.

I have a tendency to make friends with old men all over the state. One in Mt. Hope hopped off his motorized scooter several years ago and flagged me down to tell me jokes and give me his “business card.” Another, surely well into his eighties, tried to help in Buhler many years ago when my shifter cable broke. He tried to apply his mechanical skills to my bike, but finally said, “Well, I guess I had better stop monkeying around with this before I make things worse.”

Another in Goodland—whom we met while Biking Across Kansas—appears in our wedding photo montage because he invited himself to sit down at our table in the local café and strike up a conversation. He was clearly the self-appointed town ambassador.

So, the people I will meet and the reunions I will have are part of the excitement of a new season. I’ll also notice new things, often things that I would miss in a car. What has changed since my last ride through an area? Sometimes it is a new house being built or a pothole that developed over the winter. Other times, it is a new, chasing dog that has moved in where I never had to worry in the past.

Each ride—and season—offers the promise of adventure. Just this past Sunday morning, I thought I was going to ride in some light sprinkles. I ended up thoroughly soaked, with water pooling in my shoes, gloves and shorts. That is not the type of adventure I would choose, but I am still glad I rode. Last year turned out to be the “Year of the Bathroom at Cheney Lake.” I waited out rain—including a severe thunderstorm that I thought might kill me before I got there—three times in that bathroom.

The possibilities are endless. They are exciting, yet it takes courage to expose myself to them. I ride safely and do my best to remain aware of my surroundings and make good choices on the bike. Still, I can’t control everything—weather, other people, motorists, road conditions. There are potential risks with any adventure and with any new beginning.

Steve Jobs talked about how being fired from Apple, the company he founded, freed him to be more creative with “the lightness of being a beginner again.” While starting a new cycling season is different than being fired from a job and forced/given the opportunity to start fresh, Jobs’ description of “the lightness of being a beginner” resonates with me because it implies possibility, hope and freedom to create.

That is what I now have at the beginning of my 2016 cycling training season. I rode 144 days, for a total of 3,889 miles, between the first weekend of daylight savings time 2015 and the last weekend of standard time 2016. In my ideal world, there would be more days on the bike, but many new possibilities exist in 144 bike rides, and that feels like burgeoning hope. Nourishing fuel for my body, self-discipline, effort and good judgment will all help me maximize the season. I am often at my most grateful on my bike—for freedom to ride, good health, drive and determination, safe roads and, sometimes, good weather. On the cusp of many new possibilities, I welcome the adventure.