The Relationship Between Caffeine, Coffee and Bikes

The Relationship Between Caffeine, Coffee and Bikes

From days gone by when Tour de France cyclists relied on the caffeine as a performance enhancer to the current day “coffee shop ride”, coffee and bikes have been an inseparable pair.  Cyclists have long had a love of coffee both for the taste, the performance benefits and the social interaction involved with a cup of joe.  Pre-ride, post-ride or mid-ride, so much of the sport revolves around coffee and the caffeine within.

But why?

Is it because cycling is traditionally a European sport, and Europeans themselves have a love affair with the coffee bean?  Or does it have something to do with the warming feeling of a cup of joe before an early morning slog?  Maybe some love the performance enhancing effects of caffeine?  Is social interaction a primary motivator?

Maybe it's one of those reasons.

Maybe it's just a little more intangible than any of those.

Click through the jump for some info on the performance enhancing effects of caffeine and why coffee and bikes belong together.

coffee and bikes are a perfect combination.Performance Enhancing Caffeine Jolt

There have been plenty of studies showing that caffeine has a beneficial effect on performance.  It's also been documented that there are diminishing returns for performance gains when ingesting more than an optimal amount of caffeine.  A mid-ride espresso can have the effect of helping to push you on through the rest of the ride with a little boost, and a pre-ride cup of coffee could have you rolling out of the starting gate like you've got rocket boosters on, caffeinated with excitement.

Studies have shown a number of different mechanisms for the effects of caffeine on exercise performance.  In one, it was shown that caffeine consumption prior to a time trial to exhaustion improved duration by about 15% before the test subject called it quits.  Elite runners improved their run time to exhaustion on a treadmill by 1.9%.  Sprinters improved times in repeated 100m sprints by 2-4% with 20 minutes rest between.

Caffeine affects multiple neurological mechanisms in the body to produce an effect on performance.  Caffeine lowers the threshold required for muscle recruitment, basically making it easier to tell your muscles to contract.  There will be some more molecular changes as well, including a facilitation of nerve impulse transmission, improving excitation-contraction coupling potential and an increase in ion transport within the muscle cell membrane.  All of these biochemical changes lead to small performance improvements in muscle contraction and efficiency, leading to increased speed at less energy cost.

Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors on fat cells, which prevents them from absorbing free fatty acids from the blood stream.  This encourages selective use of fatty acids for cellular metabolism (especially aerobic metabolism through the electron transport chain) instead of glycogen.  Through this mechanism, caffeine actually stimulates glycogen sparing at sub-maximal intensities.  That mechanism saves precious glycogen stores for those hard efforts that require large amounts of quickly produced energy.

Caffeine also has mood lifting properties and affects the central nervous system.  It can lead to decreased sensation of pain, decreased Rating of Percieved Exertion (RPE) and delay peripheral fatigue in muscle fibers and nerves (mostly due to the increase in ion transport in the motor nerve membrane as discussed above.)

So with the science of performance out of the way, what else is it about coffee that makes it so alluring?

Coffee and Bikes in the Social World

It seems natural to blend coffee and bikes these days.  We often think of “going to a coffee shop” for a social outing, and bike rides (especially group rides) are huge social gatherings.  The coffee shop (or coffee stop, depending on how you look at it) is simply another dimension of the “social ride” experience.  Countless rides depart from a coffee shop, end at the coffee shop or stop at a coffee shop along the way.  While it's possible that solo riders may imbibe an espresso during their ride, the draw of the beanery is unusually strong when others are along for the ride.  Even on the most competitive training days, where two riders may be turning themselves inside out to put the other into difficulty, the social experience of trading stories over a doppio espresso will make them the best of friends once they settle into chairs on the patio and bask in sunshine.

Cycling and coffee can bring friends together.When you stop to think, so much of the culture of cycling revolves around social interaction, from a huge peloton to a small group ride.  Effective communication is the key to keeping the group rotating smoothly, keeping everyone on the proper route and above all, keeping everyone safe.  Communication with your riding partners is absolutely essential, but it's not easy to discuss how their holidays were while rolling along at 20 MPH with the wind blowing in your ears.  It's even more improbable to be talking about the family while climbing a 10% grade, or when the group is winding up for a town line sprint.  No, that's talk best left for rest stops; rest stops like the coffee shop.

Truly, many of us have friends that we rarely see outside of the group ride: work, family and general life take up a lot of time.  Often, the only time we can catch up is when our mutual love of coffee and bikes brings us together.  Stopping for a mid ride espresso or cappuccino is the perfect chance to catch up with those riding partners who we rarely see otherwise.  There is no worrying about holding your line, pointing out that pothole or whether someone's going to come off your wheel and take the KOM you're so desperately fighting for.  For a few minutes, the only things linking you with your riding partners is your enjoyment of coffee and bikes, the ride and the barista's innate talents.

Combining Coffee and Bikes for Performance Gains

If you want to use coffee for the performance enhancing benefits, you need to think about the timing of your caffeine intake and the amount of caffeine you're taking in.  Both of those options have a lot to do with how caffeine will affect your training and racing.

Theoretical Response of Caffeine - Coffee and BikesIf you're looking to figure out how much caffeine you need to affect your performance, you can read through this article which gives a lot of the scientific background for recommending caffeine dosages and timing. I've copied one of the figures from that article to the right.  In short, you're looking at about 3-6 mg/kg of body weight (unless you're a heavy coffee drinker, where you may need 7-9 mg/kg of body weight.)  That means an average of 2-4 cups of average drip coffee for a 150-pound rider, depending on tolerance.Timing is another large aspect to consider: since the half-life of caffeine is about 4-5 hours,

Timing is another large aspect to consider: since the half-life of caffeine is about 4-5 hours and it peaks in the bloodstream in 60-75 minutes, you need to time your caffeine intake properly.  Generally, 15-30 minutes pre-exercise is an appropriate time frame during which you can ingest caffeine and get a solid, lasting performance benefit out of it.  It also lends some credence to the idea that a mid-ride espresso acts like a shot of jet fuel for the last part of the ride.

With that knowledge in mind, it means coffee and bikes are almost always in close proximity to one another.

Intangibles of Coffee and Bikes

Perhaps the biggest draw of the mid-ride coffee stop are the intangibles involved.  There's something fulfilling about parking your two-wheeled transport in front of the local java hut and clopping around in your carbon-soled shoes, only to retreat to a sun drenched table where you sip your macchiato.  You have a chance to let your cap rest on the table while your helmet dangles over your bike's handlebars.  The sun can warm your skin and soak into your kit, soothing the aches of a hard-won town line sprint.  You can blissfully sip a deliciously bitter brew and reflect upon how such a simple pleasure in life can exist.

Unfortunately, like all good things, this too must come to an end.  The few brief minutes of sitting, enjoying your espresso while reminiscing with your riding buddies will give way to your return to the daily grind.  Putting aside your empty demitasse, you and your teammates will stand to stretch and remount your trusty warhorses for another charge into combat.  But this time, everyone will roll out at a bit more leisurely pace, unwilling to leave that moment of brotherhood behind.  Really, nothing brings people together like a cup of coffee and the bike.  And nothing can solidify the bonds between cyclists like a mid-ride stop to feed that love of and fascination with coffee.

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About the Author:

After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Exercise and Sport Science/Pharmacology, I continued my education with a doctorate of Chiropractic from New York Chiropractic College. As I progressed through my education, I was able to apply the concepts I learned in the lab to my own daily workouts and goals. At the time, I was following some of the principles of traditional coaching and getting mediocre results. Frustrated, I realized that if I could apply all my physiology, chemistry, nutrition and training knowledge, I could “build a better mousetrap” not just for my own training, but for other athletes. With this goal in mind, I started Tailwind Coaching, to help cyclists [with busy lives and limited training time] become stronger, faster, fitter and healthier. And while I may not be a ex-ProTour rider, an Olympic Coach or even a prolific race winner, I am something that most coaches are not: a regular guy just like you who has a job, a family and a desire to be a stronger cyclist.