Good news for cyclists who consider coffee an integral part of any day but an essential element of an enjoyable bike tour: Caffeine doesn’t just perk up your brain; it also improves your on-bike performance.
We know that espresso and coffee are part of the cycling culture for many riders. That’s why there are so many cycling-themed cafes, and often outside coffee shops on winding roads, you’ll see bikes lined up against the wall and cyclists sitting around tables sipping affogatos and swapping stories about rides they’ve done.
The caffeine dose you get in that espresso shot at the tiny cafe tucked away on that switchback at the top of the mountain summit will help keep you sharp during the descent. Study after study has found that caffeine consumption boosts aerobic and resistance training performance.
Even if caffeine doesn’t enhance your power numbers, the power of the placebo effect from sipping a coffee might. A 2006 study found that the placebo effect of caffeine was as powerful as the caffeine itself on cyclist power. That’s right: Drinking decaf, as long as you don’t know it’s decaf, can get you just as energized as a double shot.
However, before you have that third (or seventh) shot of espresso towards the end of the ride, it is essential to remember that with great power comes great responsibility—to put a fine point on it, your future self may not thank you when you’re trying to get to sleep at night. After drinking a coffee, you’ll feel it take effect after around 15 minutes, with the most significant boost about an hour later.
How much is too much? Researchers have found that the sweet spot is when caffeine is consumed about an hour before exercise in doses of around 3–6 mg/kg body mass. (That’s about 200-340 mg of caffeine for a 150-pound cyclist, which is about 1 to 1.5 shots of espresso.) And more isn’t always a good thing: Very high doses of caffeine (over 9 mg/kg) tend to lead to more gut distress, less power on the bike.
If you’re usually a coffeehouse chain person and you find yourself in Europe surrounded by quaint cafes and carefully prepared espressos, you may be in for a culture shock. Not only does macchiato mean something very different in Europe—a shot of espresso with a dollop of steamed milk versus a massive sugary drink with shots of vanilla or chocolate—but espresso also has much less caffeine than an espresso at a coffeehouse chain. A tall Blonde Roast contains nearly twice the amount of caffeine as a shot of espresso, so if you’re used to drinking that, you may need a bit more espresso to give you the same wake-up. (Note that this doesn’t apply to all drip coffee. Starbucks tends to have the highest caffeine content regarding coffee rankings.)
An espresso typically contains around 200 milligrams of caffeine, which in a healthy human will take about 10 hours to completely clear from the body. However, depending on your genetic makeup, you may burn through caffeine faster, or it may linger longer. If you know that having a coffee after two in the afternoon means you’re less likely to fall asleep by 10, consider switching to decaf or mineral water instead of having that full-caffeine macchiato. The best way to enjoy your on-bike coffee during a bike tour is thoughtful: Don’t treat it as a medicinal shot, think of it as a treat that should be savored carefully.
And, of course, on the note of water, it’s worth mentioning: Remember that espresso and other caffeinated drinks increase urine output, meaning they serve to dehydrate you rather than rehydrate you, so make sure you’re drinking plenty of water between coffee stops. And lastly, don’t skimp on the cookie with your coffee, especially on high mileage days—you need those carbs!