Stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia will live long in the memory. It was the day Chris Froome threw off his shackles to launch a daring 80km solo attack to beat his rivals by three minutes – one of the greatest feats in modern Grand Tour history. That victory put the British driver into the overall race lead, which he would go on to win, but also catapulted Science at Sports Beta Fuel into the limelight.
Now a household name in the cycling world, Beta Fuel is a range of energy products that contain a higher concentration of carbohydrates. It was a revolutionary product in 2018 when Froome used it to fuel his historic ride, raising the ceiling of what was previously thought possible in terms of carb intake, but has since become widespread in the pro peloton.
But what exactly is Beta Fuel and how has it changed the shape of cycling nutrition since 2018? We spoke to Ineos Grenadiers nutritionist Mark Fell to find out more about the product and how it has changed the sport.
For those who are not familiar, can you explain what Science in Sport Beta Fuel is?
Beta fuel originally started as a standalone product. It was just an 80g carbohydrate drink powder. In one bottle, you would put one sachet of Beta Fuel, which was equivalent to 80g of carbohydrates.
It has been highly developed and evolved over recent years into arguably the most sophisticated and complete range of endurance fuels on the market and available to riders.
Now we still have the 80g carb drink, but we also have the 40g Beta Fuel gel and the Beta Fuel gel as well, which supplies 46g of carbs.
What makes it so effective and how can the body absorb so many carbohydrates?
It’s a pretty unique product because it uses dual-source carbs, as opposed to the single-source carbs you’d typically see in other gels. For example, the Science in Sport GO gel is a gel with a single carbohydrate source. This means that it contains only one type of carbohydrate.
Beta fuel, on the other hand, contains dual-source carbohydrates, which essentially combine maltodextrin and fructose together. This means your body can absorb more carbohydrates, which can then be delivered to your muscles to provide energy.
Your body does this in a fairly sophisticated way, so each type of carbohydrate has its own specific transporter that can be transported from the small intestine into the bloodstream. If you only use carbohydrates from a single source, such as maltodextrin, the specific transporter becomes quite saturated at a consumption of about 60 g per hour, so about 1 g per minute.
When you add that fructose, it has its own specific transporter. So then you’re saturating another transporter, which means you’re then delivering more carbohydrates into the system. It’s also very important to have the correct ratio of maltodextrin to fructose so that you optimize that carbohydrate delivery system as well.
Beta Fuel was thrust into the limelight after Chris Froome’s victory on stage 19 of the Giro dItalia in 2018. How much development led to that point?
It was originally performed back in 2018, and at the time I was a PhD student with then-Team Sky. The Head of Nutrition, Professor James Morton, was trying to get Beta Fuel going within the team. That was sort of the area that was identified as a gap in the refueling strategy. It wasn’t necessarily specific to that Giro in 2018, but it was for other races as well, such as classic races where it’s full throttle over the cobbles. You don’t always have a chance to fuel up, so how could we get a highly concentrated drink?
Basically, from the beginning of that season, it was more identified for the classics, but again the Giro is probably the most unpredictable Grand Tour in terms of the weather. So one day it can be snowing, the next day it’s raining, the next day it’s sunny. We needed to have a product that was tailored to provide a simple solution to high fueling.
When we introduced the product in 2018, it really started going through a pretty extensive testing period. First we would introduce it to some drivers at a training camp or during training, they would try it and see how they would react, as a subjective feeling if they could tolerate that type of drink. It was then introduced into stage races and one-day races to see how drivers react to drinking in a racing situation or racing environment.
Then it eventually led to being able to use him in one of the key metas of the season.
How did the drivers react to the Beta fuel, which was different to what they were used to at the time?
Riders always provide valuable insights into what works on a bike versus the types of products they think will benefit them. They discussed higher carb drinks and higher carb gels for those situations. But that’s easier said than done. For example, you go from 20g of carbs to something that’s four times that. It is much thicker, much more difficult to digest.
Initially, the feedback was probably that it’s quite difficult to consume because it’s such a small solution, it’s quite thick, it’s quite difficult to consume, so you might feel fuller in your gut. I don’t think there were any specific cases where someone had to jump off their bike and go to the toilet on the side of the road, but it definitely took a long time to train the gut to make the most of these types of products.
Are there any riders who are hesitant to embrace the high carb strategy and products?
Yes for sure. Again, some people find that they can’t tolerate higher amounts of carbs, so it’s about slowly transitioning to higher amounts of carbs. Or, I guess, the riders think they haven’t done much motoring earlier in their career, so they don’t need to do it now. But I think, again, it works for one driver and a lot of guys are starting to be more open to it because they see the benefits of other drivers.
We’ve seen racing become faster than ever. Is high carb fuel partially driving this?
Yes, I think more high carb fuel on and off the bike. Certainly, when you simplify it and break it down, with more power and needing more power, it makes sense that if you’re able to fuel more with carbs, then you’ll have more fuel in the tank to go faster.
And then with the types of products becoming more and more refined and how different techniques are used to measure how beneficial the product is or how many carbohydrates are used in the product, they will certainly benefit as well as you can have more energy available.
Beta fuel was developed with Ineos Grenadiers. Is there anything you are working on or developing?
I probably won’t be able to get into the secrets or specifics of it, but when we look at the determinants of cycling performance and critical success factors, one of the big factors right now is heat. When we look at the Tour de France or last year’s Vuelta a España, every day is close to 40 degrees Celsius. One of the key factors is the ability to reduce or minimize the rise in core body temperature, or trying to keep riders as cool as possible. That way they don’t waste energy and are more efficient.
One of the areas we’ve been looking at with Science in Sport is MPD products, how can we keep riders cool on the bike? Which I think would make a big step towards the performance of the riders, and even their preparation for the stage and recovery from it.
Has Beta fuel changed the game in pro cycling?
Yes, I personally think so, without bias. Certainly the need for more fuel and even feedback from riders was that it was easier than ever to use fuel on the bike. Obviously we’re trying to collect data on what riders have on their bike. It’s nice when you see consistent trends in target carb amounts without any GI [gastrointestinal] anxiety or any negative effects, all associated with having practical, accessible products that are backed by science.
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