At this very moment we are sitting in an airplane, 33,000 feet above sea level, just finishing up a fairly tasty vegetarian meal of Asian Noodles and Tabbouleh Salad (courtesy of Air Transat) and contemplating our recently completed bicycle trip through the Alps from Munich to Venice. A topic of great interest among our group of cyclists was the possibility of losing weight over the course of the two week trip. The cuisines of Germany, Austria and Italy offer many tasty temptations, not the least of which are creamy gelatos, mouth-watering cakes and pastries and local specialty wines and beers that are seemingly available around every corner and at very reasonable prices to boot. One would think that pedalling a bicycle loaded with the gear needed for a two week vacation across the country on a path that includes a total accumulated elevation climb of 4400 meters would allow unlimited indulgence at the dinner table while still affording a net loss in body weight. Alas, this dream rarely comes to fruition. It is very difficult to pedal off the calories offered by enthusiastic European chefs.
Here are some statistics from our recent adventure. We rode our bicycles along the gorgeous bicycle paths for a total of 649 km in 41 hours, giving us an average speed of 16 km/ hour. Sometimes the riding was very strenuous, such as the day we climbed the Brenner Pass, gaining 796 meters in elevation over a distance of 40 km and three hours of cycling. Other times we coasted easily downhill, sometimes for many glorious kilometers at a time. And of course much of the ride consisted of flat trails or small hills, referred to as “pleasant undulations” in one of our guide books.
Cycling itself is a very efficient mode of transportation. In fact it is known to be the most efficient form of human transportation (1). Also, there are tremendous benefits, physical, mental and environmental, to be realized when you travel by bicycle. Muscle strengthening, cardiovascular benefits, bone building, stress relief, social interaction with companions and experiencing first-hand the scenery, scents, culture and lifestyle of the area through which you are travelling are a few of these positive outcomes (2). In addition, all these benefits come with minimal impact to your surroundings. However, you may be disappointed to realize that weight loss is not typically a given end result of cycle touring.
According to a Calories Burned Calculator from calorielab.com, the following calories are burned by cycling (3);
130 pound person cycling at less than 16 km / hour burns 177 calories / hour
130 pound person cycling at about 16 to 18 km/hour burns 295 calories / hour
130 pound person cycling at about 19 to 22 km/hour burns 413 calories / hour
130 pound person cycling vigorously (climbing or travelling over 30 km/hour) burns 885 calories / hour
180 pound person cycling at less than 16 km / hour burns 246 calories / hour
180 pound person cycling at about 16 to 18 km/hour burns 410 calories / hour
180 pound person cycling at about 19 to 22 km/hour burns 574 calories / hour
180 pound person cycling vigorously (climbing or travelling over 30 km/hour) burns 1230 calories / hour
On our recent sixteen day trip we enjoyed four non-riding days while we toured Innsbruck and Venice. Over the twelve riding days, we travelled 650 km at an average pace of 16 km / hour giving us a daily average of 3 hours and 20 minutes of actual time in the saddle. (We would spend about six hours travelling to complete each day’s journey but over two hours of this time would be spent eating, resting and sight-seeing.)
Our cycling route was quite hilly at times but this was balanced out by the majority of the terrain which was either flat or downhill. So, using the values for travelling at 16 to 18 km / hour, a 130 pound person would burn 975 calories in one of our typical cycling days and a 180 pound person would burn 1400 calories in the same day.
A pound of body fat contains 3500 calories. So, if there are no diet changes made and assuming that our cyclists were eating a diet that just maintained their present body weight, a person on this trip would lose some weight. From the amount of calories burned cycling as calculated above, a 130 pound person would lose about one pound every 3.5 days riding days while a 180 pound person would lose about one pound every 2.5 riding days. This is what would happen if normal eating habits are maintained and it would only apply to cycling days, not rest days.
Okay now, let’s be realistic. A vacation is the time to relax and enjoy your new surroundings and cultures. This includes sampling the delicious foods and drinks of each region, both traditional and modern. You can see that it wouldn’t take long to consume enough extra calories to exceed those burned by your cycling and to find yourself on the weight gaining side of the equation.
So what’s a person to do? It helps to remember that the number of added calories burned from cycling that you have to play with is not as large as you might think. Keeping this in mind, you should be able to indulge moderately in culinary treats and not gain weight or, if you maintain your eating habits as close to normal as possible, you might even manage to lose a pound or two.