Has SiS Beta Fuel changed cycling? Interview with Ineos Grenadiers nutritionist Marc Fell

Since 2018, Beta Fuel has been the choice for athletes, but what is it and how has it changed cycling nutrition?

Clock18:30, Thursday 9th November 2023

Stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia will live long in the memory. It was the day that Chris Froome threw away the shackles to launch a daring 80km solo raid and beat his rivals by three minutes - one of the greatest feats in modern Grand Tour history. That victory propelled the British rider into the overall lead of the race, which he would go on to win, but it also catapulted Science in Sport’s Beta Fuel into the spotlight too.

Now a familiar name in the world of cycling, Beta Fuel is a range of energy products which pack in 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 carbohydrate intake, but it 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, Marc Fell, to learn more about the product and how it has changed the sport.

For those who aren’t familiar, can you explain what Science in Sport Beta Fuel is?

Beta Fuel originally started as a solitary product. It was just an 80g carbohydrate drink powder. Within one bidon, you’d put one sachet of Beta Fuel, which was the equivalent of 80g of carbohydrates.

It’s very much developed and evolved over recent years into probably the most sophisticated and complete endurance fueling range on the market and what’s available to riders.

Now we still have the 80g carbohydrate drink, but we also have a 40g Beta Fuel gel and a Beta Fuel gelly too, which supplies 46g of carbohydrates.

What makes it so effective and how is the body able to absorb so many carbohydrates?

It’s quite a unique product, in that it uses dual-source carbohydrates, as opposed to single-source carbohydrates which you would typically see in other gels. For example, the Science in Sport GO gel is a single-source carbohydrate gel. That means that it only contains one type of carbohydrate.

Beta Fuel, on the other hand, contains dual-source carbohydrates, which essentially combine maltodextrin and fructose together. This means that your body can absorb more of the carbohydrate, which can then be delivered to the muscles to provide energy.

Your body does that in quite a sophisticated way, in that each type of carbohydrate has its own specific transporter to be able to be transported from the small intestines into the bloodstream. If you only use a single-source carbohydrate, like maltodextrin, the transporter that’s specific for it becomes quite saturated at around 60g of consumption per hour, so around 1g per minute.

When you add on top of 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 quite important to have the correct ratio of maltodextrin and fructose, so then you’re optimising that delivery system of carbohydrates as well.

Beta Fuel was thrust into the limelight after Chris Froome’s victory on stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia. How much development led up to that point?

It was originally derived back in 2018, and at that time I was a PhD student with what was then Team Sky. The head of nutrition, Professor James Morton, was trying to drive Beta Fuel within the team. It was sort of an area that was identified as a gap within the fueling strategy. It wasn’t even necessarily specific for that Giro in 2018, but it was also for other races, like Classics races where it’s full gas over cobbles. You don’t always have the opportunity to fuel, so how could we get a highly concentrated drink available?

Basically from the start of that season, it was identified more for the Classics but then again the Giro is probably the most unpredictable Grand Tour in relation to the weather. So it could be snow on one day, raining the next, sunny the next. We needed to have a product that was tailored towards providing a simple solution for high fueling.

When we introduced the product in 2018, it really started through quite an extensive testing period. Firstly, we would have introduced it to some riders on a training camp or during a training ride, they would try it and see how they respond, like subjective feelings as to whether they can tolerate that type of drink. Then it was introduced into stage races and one-day races to see how riders respond to the drink in a race situation or race environment.

Then that ultimately led to being able to use it in one of the key targets of the season.

How did riders react to Beta Fuel, which was different to what they would have been used to at the time?

Riders always give valuable insights into what works on the bike in relation to what types of products they think will benefit them. They had spoken about higher-carbohydrate drinks and higher-carbohydrate gels for those situations. But it’s easier to say it than it is to do it. For instance, you go from having a 20g carbohydrate product to something that is four times as much. It’s a lot thicker, it’s a lot harder to digest.

Initially, the feedback was probably that it was quite difficult to consume because it’s such a small solution, it’s quite thick, it’s quite difficult to consume it, so you might feel more full in the gut. I don’t think there were any specific instances of anyone having to jump off the bike and go to the toilet at the side of the road, but it definitely took quite a long period to train their gut to make the most of these types of products.

Are there some riders who are hesitant to go for the high-carb strategy and products?

Yes, for sure. Again, some people feel that they don’t tolerate the higher amounts of carbohydrates, so it’s about slowly transitioning towards higher amounts of carbohydrates. Or, I suppose, riders think that they haven’t fueled really high on the bike previously in their career, so they don’t need to do it now. But I think that, again, it works for one rider and a lot of guys start to be more open to it as they see the benefits from other riders.

We’re seeing racing getting faster than ever. Is high-carb fueling partly driving this?

Yes, I think more so high-carb fueling on the bike and off the bike. For sure, when you simplify it and break it down, with the higher outputs and the need for higher amounts of energy, it makes sense that if you’re able to fuel more with carbohydrates, then you’ll have more fuel in the tank to be able to go faster.

And then with the types of products that are becoming more refined, and how different techniques are being used to measure how beneficial a product is or how much of the carbohydrate in a product is being utilised, that it is bound to have a benefit as you’re able to have more energy available.

Beta Fuel was developed with Ineos Grenadiers. Is there anything that you’re working on or developing?

I probably won’t be able to get into the secrets or the specifics of it, but when we look at the performance determinants of cycling and the critical success factors, one of the big factors at the minute is the heat. When we look at the Tour de France or last year at the Vuelta a España, it’s close to 40°C each day. One of the key factors is being able to reduce or minimise the increase in core body temperature, or trying to keep the riders as cool as possible. That way they’re not wasting energy and they’re more efficient.

One of the areas we’re looking at with Science in Sport is MPD products around, how can we keep riders cool on the bike? Which I think would make a big step towards a rider’s performance and even their preparation for a stage and recovery from a stage as well.

Has Beta Fuel been a game-changer in professional cycling?

Yes, I think so personally, not being biased. For sure, the need for higher amounts of fueling, and even feedback from riders has been that it’s been easier than ever to fuel on the bike. We obviously try to collect data from what riders have on the bike. It’s nice when you see consistent trends of the target amounts of carbohydrates without any GI [gastrointestinal] distress or any negative effects, which is all related to having convenient, accessible products that are backed by science.

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