Former U.S. champ Timmy Duggan and caravan driver Jerel Schomer man the Skratch mobile at the Tour of California.
Bacon, almond butter and maple syrup all wrapped in one savory rice cake; the flavor was incredible. My taste buds were firing like Danny McBride's pyrotechnics in Tropic Thunder. As I dug in the bag for seconds, ready to stuff my face more, I thought about all those poor bastards behind me dressed in colorful lycra, gutting themselves by bike for nearly five hours at full throttle.
The cross winds were fierce as I sat shotgun in the Skratch Labs Neutral Human Support vehicle, just off the front of a fully echeloned six-man breakaway during Stage 1 of the 2014 Amgen Tour of California which started and finished in Sacramento. I looked back at the recently retired Timmy Duggan, 2012 U.S. national champion and now Skratch Labs employee. "Do you miss being out there," I asked.
He smiled while sorting a cooler full of water bottles. "No way," he said. "Not on a day like this. I hate the wind."
Mapping out the day's plan.
Before last Sunday's stage, I'd never ridden in a caravan vehicle. And nobody before last Sunday actually ever rode in a Neutral Human Support vehicle. As a new concept launched at this year's race, the Skratch Labs Neutral Human Support program is to fueling riders as Mavic neutral support is to servicing bikes.
For decades, riders have never had a problem getting whatever they needed bike or wheel-wise. Even when a rider was in a break and his team car was nowhere to be found, neutral mechanical support could save the day with a spare wheel, a derailleur adjustment, or even a complete bike. But when it came to neutral food or liquid support, getting what was needed for a rider could be more difficult.
Before founding Skratch Labs, Allen Lim worked with a number of professional riders and teams as a coach and consultant.
Why it took so long to figure out that neutral caloric rider support is a good idea is beyond me. But Allen Lim of Skratch Labs finally figured enough was enough, and approached race organizers with the concept of Neutral Human Support.
"Neutral bike support is a UCI requirement," said Lim at the start of stage 1, wielding a giant wooden spoon most likely used for intensive rice cooking sessions. "So it only makes sense that there be neutral human support."
The 120-mile opening stage in Sacramento was relatively flat, with only 3,900 feet of climbing. The temperature was actually quite pleasant for Sacramento in May with a high in the low 80s. The real challenge was the wind, with crosswinds gusting to 30 mph.
The Skratch Labs moto falls back to re-up its supplies of food and drink.
Skratch Labs had a Subaru Outback wagon and a BMW motorcycle working in tandem to support riders throughout the stage. Both vehicles were assigned to stay either off the front of the break or between any break and the peloton, helping feed riders in the breakaway.
The Subaru was loaded with Skratch Labs hydration mix drink, and bags of both sweet and savory rice cakes. The aforementioned bacon, almond butter and maple syrup rice cake was the day's savory fare; chocolate and raspberry rice cake was the sweet choice. While cramming my pie hole full of savory rice cakes, I asked Duggan how the Skratch method of cooking real food and carrying it on the bike changed his perspective on riding nutrition.
Duggan works from the backseat, passing food and drink out the windo to riders in need.
"When you're going all out for hours on end, gels, blocks and other engineered products get unbearable," said Duggan. "It sounds crazy, but the highlight of my day on the bike was when I got to eat one of these rice cakes. They taste amazing and because the rice has so much water content in it, they go down easy."
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Rice cakes -- both sweet and savory -- are a staple of the Skratch program.
The only downside of the Skratch philosophy of nutrition is the work that goes in ahead of time. In order to prepare for each day's stage, Lim, his cooking collaborator and master chef Biju Thomas, and their 14-person crew must fire up the rice cooker at 4 a.m. each day. The projected numbers consumed during the course of the race are staggering: 1,200 pounds of drink mix, 285 pounds of rice, 45 pounds of bacon and 6,600 rice cake wrapping sheets. In addition to rice cakes, Skratch also supplied riders with burritos, rice and eggs and oatmeal, especially during the stage 2 time Trial. Outside of racing, Skratch is also making team meals at hotels and post-stage recovery meals.
The chore of having to actually cook rice cakes might be too much of a turn-off for some individuals, but Duggan puts it into perspective.
"Nothing about being a serious athlete is easy," he said. "It takes some initial effort, but like anything, you figure it out and it becomes pretty easy to cook a week's worth of rice cakes to carry on the bike."
In addition to helping Duggan learn how to cook simple fuel for riding, the Skratch philosophy that's spelled out in Feed Zone Portables - a cookbook written by Lim and Thomas - also opened his mind to cooking on a larger scale. His knowledge of cooking has expanded, having a positive influence on his nutrition in general.
Why did Duggan retire?
"I had enough," he explained. "After recovering from a broken leg last year, every day on the bike felt miserable. It was time to move on."
Jerel Schomer is a veteran driver of the Tour of California race caravan.
As Duggan and I talked rice cookers and life as a retired bike racer, our driver Jerel Schomer - a six-year Tour of California caravan veteran - deftly maneuvered the Subaru down the winding descent on Highway 49 to the American River. After having driven several commissar vehicles over the years, driving the Skratch Labs Neutral Human Support vehicle was an entirely new assignment.
"Nothing like this has been done before, so we're just feeling it out, trying to determine where we fit into the whole parade of vehicles," said Schomer.
The biggest challenge for Schomer? "Staying focused on what's directly in front of you all day while still driving out of your rearview mirrors," he said. "There's so much that can be going on, you don't want to be 'that guy' who either crashes into another vehicle, or worse, takes out a rider."
Most of the day we sat off the front of the six-man breakaway that lasted for nearly 90 of 120 miles. The Skratch moto would occasionally pull up, and Duggan would reload the moto with water bottles and food. The moto would drop back and feed the riders in the break. As far as action, that's about as much as we got.
With 15 miles to go, the peloton had just about reeled in all breakaway efforts. There were nine riders off the back, so Tim suggested we fall back and feed the poor, wind-whipped souls who had been long dropped. Every one of the riders who rolled by took a bottle, and we zipped back up the road to catch the finishing 3-kilometer circuit around downtown Sacramento.
Once a top level pro racer, Duggan is now taking care of those in need.
Although on this particular day riders didn't take many neutral hand-ups, all I could think about was how crucial Neutral Human Support would have been last year during the Murrieta to Palm Springs stage where temperatures soared above 120 degrees. On that day, eight-time Tour of California rider Ben Jacques-Maynes (Jamis Hagens Berman), who was in a breakaway most of the stage, said he went through nearly 50 bottles. That alone is justification for this new program. Check out the video below to learn about what Skratch is up to between stages.