Pedaling Veganism

Vegan Bicycle Racers
Left to Right: Shaun Matthews, Kelly Colobella (Co-founder), Dook Larson (Co=founder) Photo: Madison Donnelly.

By Esther Meroño

In a world full of fast food, drive-thrus and the seemingly widespread acceptance of animal cruelty, it makes perfect sense that many athletes are turning to veganism. Fast food does not, after all, make one faster, drive-thrus were made for lazy car owners and result in distracted drivers, and animal cruelty is, well, animal cruelty.

For those of you who are hearing the term “vegan” for the first time, or were told by your hillbilly uncle that a vegan is a demon from hell (though they rhyme, fear not, most vegans are not demons), here’s a Webster-style definition for you: a vegan is a person who chooses to adhere to a plant-based diet free of all animal products, including meat and dairy, either for health reasons, in protest of the ethical violations the meat and dairy industries are guilty of, or both. Cycling Utah interviewed Dave Harward, Utah’s 2010 Male Road Racer of the Year, certified coach and 20-year endurance athlete, on his recent conversion to veganism so that next time that uncle of yours runs his mouth, you’ve got some “larnin’” to shut it up:

Cycling Utah: How long have you been vegan and what made you choose veganism?

Harward: I have been vegan for about 7 months now. My diet has been vegetarian for 8 of the last 10 years. The reasons for choosing a vegan diet are ethically centered. Proper treatment of animals became a big reason behind my veganism. I don’t like to make my decision to be vegan polarizing for other people. It fits my beliefs and concerns. I recently read a report from the United Nations that said approximately one-third of the food produced for human consumption is either wasted or lost. That means that one-third of the animals that are killed for human consumption were killed for no reason other than the potential for human consumption. This tells me that there is something wrong with how we view animals as sentient beings.

CU: How do you feel physically now that you’re vegan compared to when you were an omnivore or vegetarian?

Harward: Now that I have a fair amount of time with the vegan diet I honestly feel like I’m burning much cleaner. I feel the difference and can see it as well. Body fat and weight both dropped without a decrease in overall power. Knowing that my diet is very healthy also gives me a positive feeling about how my body operates. I visualize the nutrition I use as “high octane” fuel to keep the engine burning at optimum efficiency.

CU: What kinds of food do you eat now to prepare for a race and what types of food do you suggest for other vegan athletes?

Harward: In preparation for racing I tend to have a fairly tight routine. For example, for a longer road race or mountain bike race I like to eat a breakfast of steel cut oats with some rice milk and brown sugar. The oats are very filling and easy on the stomach. I also like to eat bananas and oranges as part of race preparation. There is also nothing better than a peanut butter and jam sandwich. There are many vegan bread options but I like the “heavier” breads. For a high priority race or stage race on the weekend I will start to make nutritional preparations starting at dinner on Wednesday. As a vegan, I never lack on getting enough carbohydrates. For anyone who knows me well, they would not be surprised by how many burritos I eat. Food prepared at home is typically whole, non-processed foods. A typical burrito will be a vegan tortilla with black beans, mushrooms, carrots, broccoli, onions, red and green peppers, tomatoes and a ton of spicy salsa. I also eat a lot of different dishes that have quinoa as an ingredient. For protein sources I eat a variety of seitan, tempeh and tofu. Seitan is great for me since I don’t have a problem with wheat. Tempeh is fermented nuts and grains and provides a great source of protein. Tofu is soy based and another great source of protein. I tend to eat more seitan and tempeh than tofu. I guess you could call me a seitanist … haha! Any of these three items could be substituted into recipes where you would use meat products. I definitely was not as purposeful in my eating prior to veganism.

CU: Do you ever feel like you are missing out or do you find it difficult to build muscle or retain energy and endurance as a vegan?

Harward: I don’t feel like I am missing out as a vegan. There are no difficulties for me in building muscle or maintaining my endurance. If anything, it is better. As a cyclist, you always want to find a way to drop weight to the lowest possible and still maintain power. Again, it is all about finding out what works for you individually. There are some very great supplement options out there as well created by athletes to help you supplement your diet if you feel like you are not getting the optimal nutrition.

CU: Obviously, you blow most of your competition out of the water, but do you think that being vegan gives you another leg up when it comes to winning races?

Harward: I wouldn’t say that I blow my competition out of the water. I have had a lot of good luck over the years, an important aspect of bike racing, and have been fortunate to be able to have strong off-season preparations during my training. I have had successful seasons in the past and so far this season has been great as well. So far during this season I am feeling good and recovering well with the vegan diet. Probably the biggest change I’ve noticed is psychological. I feel good a lot of the time. This has to do with a number of differences in my life over previous years and I think that veganism is part of it. I feel more centered because of that choice. When you have that psychological comfort, you can definitely perform better in endurance sports. Endurance sports are about patience and suffering. If you are prepared and comfortable mentally, you can do a lot in endurance sports.

CU: You are a prominent figure in the cycling community due to your many wins and awards, what kinds of reactions have you had from your supporters/fellow cyclists to your decision to become vegan?

Harward: I think many people see it as a strange choice. As I mentioned before, I don’t like to use my decision of veganism as a polarizing issue. There are some other vegans in the cycling community and they have expressed their excitement to find others adopting their choice. It’s always good to feel some solidarity. When people do find it as a strange choice I imagine it’s because they don’t have experience with it. Being vegan, whether for dietary or ethical reasons, is just about eating something different when it comes down to it. I have met people, not in the cycling community, who are personally offended with veganism. Again, it just comes down to accepting people for who they are.

CU: There are a lot of negative misconceptions about veganism, especially when it comes to athletes. Do you have to deal with that at all and what do you do to try to dispel those misconceptions?

Harward: I don’t feel like it’s something I have to deal with necessarily. Unless someone has had experience with veganism, it appears to be a very unusual choice. I think in general veganism is viewed as more of a “fringe” choice. Amongst athletes, the first question I get is, “How do you possibly get enough protein?” If they really want to know, I give them a broad rundown of how I eat and how I try to get the right nutrition to match my training. The next impression I get from many non-vegans is that they think I’m missing out. I don’t like to use my veganism as a polarizing issue so I attempt to let people know that I’m satisfied with a vegan lifestyle.

CU: How do you think that your success as a vegan cyclist will influence others to go vegan?

Harward: My success in cycling has been a lot of fun over the years. Now that I am vegan, I hope my performance can show people who are curious about veganism that vegan athletes can perform at a high level in cycling or any other endurance sport. It is also fun to have other vegan athletes introduce themselves and find some solidarity with each other.

CU: As a coach, do you suggest a vegan diet for the athletes you train?

Harward: I don’t usually make that kind of suggestion to athletes I train. Veganism seems to be a bigger choice than just about diet. I am happy to provide support to other athletes who decide to choose veganism. Making major changes in diet can potentially derail a training season, as can any serious dietary change. There are a number of published sources to find out how to properly fuel your training as a vegan and I pass those sources on to my athletes or others who are interested in veganism. Since this choice for me is very personal and significant, I encourage others who are interested to take it as serious.

CU: When you are choosing sponsors, is it important for you that they are vegan-friendly/cruelty-free?

Harward: I haven’t had to think about that before since our sponsors tend to be equipment related. In the future that would be a definite consideration because I would not want to promote a product or company that was not vegan friendly/cruelty-free.

CU: Many people find their perception of food changes once they become vegan. Do you find this to be true as well? How has it changed your idea of athleticism?

Harward: [My] food perception has definitely changed. Prior to really considering a change to veganism, I had to think about animal products as just a package, like a box of cereal. One of the things that made it easy for me to make the adjustment was recognizing that an animal had to suffer so that I could eat whatever product it was. I have a much better focus now on purposeful eating. I eat specifically to fuel my body, whether it is a rest day or a heavy training day. I think about trying to make the best food choices I can where it seems like before I just ate whatever without a focus.

As far as athleticism…the big change would be that you can fuel your body in many different ways to create performance. The way that works for you is very individual and the important factor is that you believe in it. Athletic performance, especially in an endurance sport, is heavily dependent on mental strength, patience and an ability to suffer. You have to believe in your preparation so that you are patient and know that you can suffer when the racing or training gets difficult. In essence, you have to believe in yourself. If you are confident in your training and fueling/nutrition planning, you have something you believe in and that will build your overall ability.

CU: Do you think you’ll remain vegan for life?

Harward: I will remain vegan for life. This is an important decision to me and one that is significant. I didn’t make this decision in hopes I would lose weight or perform better. I made the decision because I am hoping it will have an impact on the industries that use animals for food production. I know that probably sounds idealistic, but I think as a society we can make broad changes through individual action. The brutal treatment of animals in the animal food production industry is not something I want to support and that is not going to change later in life. My hope is that more people decide to reduce their consumption of animal food products or completely remove them from their diet. I know that’s a big stretch, but societal change happens through individual actions.

CU: What are your favorite vegan meals/restaurants?

Harward: I love Dillos [vegan twinkies] from Cakewalk Vegan Bakery… I just need Kelly [Green] to figure out an easy open packaging for Dillos so I can use them as my energy food on the bike.

A big favorite is Omar’s Rawtopia in Sugarhouse. My favorite dish there is the Spicy Curried Seaweed Roll and a glass of Ginger Aid. Sage’s Café in Salt Lake City does excellent Tacos Vegetarianos. The Green Pig Pub in Salt Lake City will also do some amazing vegan tacos. Make sure when you go in to the Green Pig Pub you ask to sit at my daughter Missie’s table. She’s a vegan and will make sure you get the right stuff!

Though Harward currently races with the Canyon Bicycles Racing Team, he is also part of Vegan Athletes, an informal, nation-wide amateur sports team founded by Salt Lake locals Kelly Green and Dook Larson. Owner of Cakewalk Vegan Bakery, cycling enthusiast and a vegan for 17 years, Green started the group in 2009 after joining a triathlon team that didn’t support her ideals. “I started racing and wanted to represent something that was important to me instead of getting on a team that was supporting something non-vegan,” she says. Vegan Athletes welcome all types of athletes, at all levels, either interested in veganism, or already vegan. “We’re certainly not elitist cyclists who are going to snub somebody for not being as fast as we are,” laughs Green. Though the team does get together for rides, track workouts and races, the group’s main purpose is outreach, explains Green. Recently designing jerseys for the team stamped with vegan blogs like Green Is The New Red and other businesses that the local vegan community supports, rather than vice-versa like is customary, Green hopes that those sporting Vegan Athletes gear will spark interest and curiosity in other athletes. “I don’t so much care about winning as much as making a presence―people seeing that we have jerseys, wondering what it’s about and wanting to talk to us about it. It would be great if we could win, but at the same time, I would rather make a presence and get people interested in veganism,” she says.

Those interested in joining the ranks of Vegan Athletes can check out their website at veganathletes.org or search for them on Facebook. Membership doesn’t require much: just show up and support when you can, and buy some gear if you’d like to represent. Those also looking for serious athletic training can go to Harward, who owns Plan 7 Endurance Coaching and provides individualized training plans for endurance athletes. Vegan athletes will find supportive coaching to help them meet their endurance sport goals and can contact him at [email protected], plan7coaching.com or 801-661-7988.

From our June 2011 issue.

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