Saturday, November 14, 2009

Caffeine is my performance enhancing drug

I broke down this summer and bought a road bike . . . I got a screaming good deal on a last-season Cannondale and quickly learned that my neighborhood is full of cyclists and wannabe cyclists (me). In the mornings we'll pound out an hour of "Fast & Flat" neighborhood riding before work. On the weekends, the East Bay is full of great rides that I can start and end at home: north to Mt. Diablo, south to Calaveras Reservoir, and east to the Livermore wine country.

I'm not big fan of breakfast during the week, but often start those rides with a cup of coffee . . . not only does it warm my core, but it makes me coherent when I'm wishing I hit the snooze button. When we started breaking the 40 mile mark on those weekend rides--and I started hitting the wall--I was turned on to the virtues of Gu and the various derivatives on the market. We decided to break the half-century mileage mark on our trip to Livermore and back, so I decided to bring three flavors of coffee-flavored energy gel to taste test along the ride.

The products I tried were: Gu Espresso Love, Hammer Gel Espresso, Clif Shot Double Expresso. The basic promise and form of each product is very similar . . . about 100 calories of easily digested sugars and caffeine in a squeezable pouch with a consistency somewhere between chocolate sauce and frosting and possessing a coffee-like flavor. Every hour I took one so I got to try one of each on my ride.

I've gotta give Gu some creativity points for their flavor name "Espresso Love," however, I was a bit confused about the "2X Caffeine" statement since it wasn't given any more detail on pack. Best I could determine is by slogging through their website to find that the standard product has 20 mg, so this must be 40 mg? My general impression is that Gu has their base formula of sugars, antioxidants, aminos, etc well figured out and that this is just another flavor deployed in the portfolio (note, only coffee flavor is added).

Hammer Gel was definitely the dark horse in this comparison, and I felt that overall their offering fell a little short. The hammer shaped packaging was clunky and I wondered why they only packed 90 calories into 36 grams of product when their counterparts both went with 100 calories in 32 grams. To make it more digestible? At least they were clear that they offered 50 mg of caffeine and had coffee concentrate as an ingredient.

The Clif product went with a 'entirely natural' positioning that resulted in a product that may not be as technically advanced from a raw nutritional performance standpoint. They favored organic brown rice syrup over carefully selected maltodextrins (result is probably less nuanced burst of blood glucose offered up to your muscles) and didn't add in many extras. Even the caffeine (100 mg) came from all natural sources . . . dried espresso and green tea extract. The Clif product stood out with one interesting packaging design feature called the litter leash. Unless you've had the problem you don't realize how it is a pain to tear the top and consume this product on a moving bicycle without loosing that little tab to the environment. This simple cut in the foil allows you to consume with ease and retain all the trash for proper disposal.