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In praise of bananas

Bananas are the cycling superfood that proves God is a cyclist.

Peeled bananas
Trevor Ward
8 Feb 2016

The first shipment of bananas arrived in the UK in 1888, around the same time as the two-wheeled safety bicycle was starting to replace the penny-farthing. At that time, cyclists were generally of the upper classes and tended to refuel by stopping at inns and feasting on a four-course meal washed down with ale, followed by port and cigars. It wasn’t until more than half a century later that bananas made an unexpected appearance in the peloton. 

It was 1953 and Algerian professional cyclist Ahmed Kebaili, who had finished 40th in the 1950 Tour de France as part of a six-man ‘North Africa’ team, was in the same race as 19-year-old English rider Scotford Lawrence, now a historian at the National Cycle Museum.

‘At that time I was racing in France as an independent,’ says Lawrence. ‘In this particular race I remember him acquiring – I have no idea how – a large stem of bananas from a race spectator. He proceeded to ride forwards through the peloton distributing bananas like Flora showering flowers from a cornucopia.

‘It was possibly the first time that I had tried to peel a banana while riding along and then eat it during a race,’ Lawrence adds. ‘I wasn’t aware, and neither I think were my fellow riders, of the claimed nutritional benefits. But I’m sure it did us all good.’ 

(Incidentally, the reason MTN-Qhubeka got all the kudos as the ‘first African team in the Tour’ last year is because Kebaili’s squad of Algerian and Moroccan riders, which participated in the Tours of 1950-52, was listed as a French regional team because both countries were still governed by France at the time.)

Bananas may have been a novelty in the peloton in the 1950s but this was an era when the sciences of nutrition and rehydration were regarded with the same suspicion as Russians and non-stick frying pans. Riders’ welfare was less of a priority for the race organisers than making them ride 300km stages and penalising them if they took drinks or food from team cars. 

Cycling bananas

Fast forward to the modern era and the reputation of the humble banana has improved considerably, helped no doubt by Team Raleigh Banana promoting it as ‘the energy fruit’ on the domestic race circuit in the 1980s. These days the most popular variety of banana is even called the Cavendish. 

Pro riders can be seen eating them in one form or another before, during or immediately after racing, and trestle tables at sportive feed stations are often piled high with them. 

Nutritional benefits aside, the banana’s ergonomic design makes it perfect for cyclists. If, as this magazine once declared, ‘Mallorca is the island that proves God was a cyclist,’ then the banana is ‘Exhibit A’ among the corroborating evidence. 

Its curved, ridged shape makes it perfect for slipping in and out of a rear jersey pocket while on the move, and provides optimal grip in a gloved or sweaty palm. It has a natural lever for opening that puts the zippers on many cycling jackets to shame. It comes in its own protective, environmentally friendly wrapper (though more about this later). And it’s cheap.

And then there’s all that natural goodness inside: fibre to keep you regular, antioxidants for your immune system and vitamin B6, proven to protect against type-2 diabetes. Most importantly for cyclists, bananas contain potassium to help replenish the electrolytes lost through sweating, plus carbs for topping up energy levels. 

‘Bananas are great on the bike,’ says Nigel Mitchell, head of nutrition at British Cycling and Team Sky. ‘The problem with them, though, when you’re doing a long ride is that they can go a bit mushy in your pocket. One of the things that pros often do is make small sandwiches with high energy foods as the filler. Paninis with bananas in are ideal.’

But even as it turns ‘a bit mushy’, the banana is merely confirming its remarkable properties as the cyclist’s friend. Stuck in a jersey pocket, a banana will be softened – ie ripened – by your body heat during the course of a ride. Its state of ripeness determines how quickly its carbohydrates will be absorbed into your bloodstream to raise blood sugar (energy) levels, which is measured on the glycaemic index (GI). The higher the GI, the quicker the carbs will be converted to energy. And the banana helpfully has its own colour
code to indicate its GI status.

‘The greener – more unripe – the banana, the lower the GI,’ says coach and nutritionist Paul Bailey of ‘The browner the banana – more ripe – the higher the GI. During a ride, a banana will often change colour from green to brown, sometimes black, as your body heat ripens it. That’s a good thing as it will actually give you faster energy release just when you need it the most, towards the end of the ride. The longer the distance, the more suitable a banana is, as it takes a fair while to absorb even a brown banana’s sugars into the bloodstream.’

As a diehard bananaphile, the fruit is my food of choice on long rides if a three-course cafe stop and post-prandial nap are out of the question. Even then, my post-ride smoothie includes at least a couple of bananas.

There’s just one minor flaw in the banana’s otherwise impressive armoury. Yes, its skin is indeed biodegradable, but before you throw
it over that hedge, consider this – it can take up two years to decompose. 

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