Not that I ever hold myself up to any kind of journalistic standard, but today’s headline is particularly flawed. I didn’t, for example, go out this weekend and buy a bunch of different kinds of energy gels and try them out. That would be gross.
Further, I didn’t go on the Web to find out what kinds of energy gels are out there right now, and which kinds experts recommend. If you want to do that, though, I’d be interested to know what you learn (but only mildly interested, to be honest).
Instead, I just dug into my years and years of being a gullible gel consumer. I’ll base the strength of recommendation for each gel on how weak of a gag reflex the memory of that gel inspires.
And the thing is, that’s a totally unfair way of reviewing gels. I mean, Hammergel in particular is going to get a raw deal out of my review; my aversion to their stuff is due entirely to my own stupidity.
So, let’s begin: my subjective, non-scientific, unfair, and totally non-comprehensive review of gels I have tried.
This is the energy gel I started with. And I stuck with it for years, for two reasons, neither of which I’m especially proud of:
- Taste: PowerGel Lemon Lime flavor tastes better than any other gel, by any other brand. On one hand, that’s not a half bad selection criterion. On the other hand, admitting that I like the taste of lukewarm key lime pie is not something I’m all that enthused about.
- Cost: PowerGel seems to be free. Oh, sure, you can go into your bike shop and buy it for a buck a shot, just like any kind of gel, but if you race at all, you’re bound to have noticed that organizers always seem to have boxes and boxes (and boxes) of free PowerGel just lying around. And the organizers don’t want to take it home after the event. So, while I have consumed more PowerGel than any other brand, I have spent less on it than on practically any other brand.
I have no science at all to back this claim, but it seems to me that PowerGel hits you faster than any other gel. This is both good and bad. It’s good because just a few minutes after you suck it down, you’ve got a big spike of energy.
It’s bad because I chose the term “spike of energy” in the previous paragraph very carefully. PowerGel drops you off a cliff, energy-wise. If you haven’t queued up the next boost of PowerGel 15 minutes after you took one, you’re in for a sudden and discouraging energy sag.
When Clif Shot first came out, it came in little toothpaste tube-like containers, with a resealable twist cap. It also made a big deal of using brown rice syrup, and so didn’t have that same spikey surge of energy that other gels had.
The problem was, it tasted so bad that nobody ever finished a single tube. People would buy one sample tube, tried it, twist the cap back on, and never twist it back off again.
Clif came out with a second iteration of Clif Shot, this time in the single-serving foil pouch. And this time they did something really clever: they put a little connector between the top tab that you rip off and the main pouch, so that you don’t accidentally lose the top tab and litter.
I used Clif Shot for about two years in this second iteration, because . . . well . . . because I got it for free. I got about a truckload as partial payment from a race organizer for building him a website. I love the bartering system.
The best Clif Shot flavor is to mix Razz Sorbet with Viva Vanilla. The vanilla tones down the insanely sweet taste of the Razz Sorbet to something nearly tolerable. Wow, that’s quite a recommendation, isn’t it?
My final observation on Clif Shot: while it isn’t as obvious as it used to be, the brown rice syrup flavor is still back there, and it leaves a molasses-like aftertaste.
I have always understood the cardinal rule of endurance racing: don’t try anything new on race day. No new clothes, no new equipment, no new food. Especially no new food. So I have no excuse for why, a few years ago, I bought a big Apple-Cinnamon Hammer Gel jug the day before the Brian Head 100. Maybe it was because of all the positive recommendations I had heard. Maybe it was because it seemed so convenient to be able to just put the bottle the gel came in in the water bottle cage. Maybe it’s because I had gotten cocky from having done a lot of endurance rides, and thought the cardinal rule no longer applied to me.
It still applied to me.
Within an hour of the beginning of the race, I had decided that I hated the taste of Hammer Gel.
Within three hours, I had decided Hammer Gel hated me. I was experiencing stomach cramps in a unique, almost exquisitely painful way.
So I stopped using the Hammer Gel. And of course, in the absence of a nutritional Plan B, I bonked in a manner most colossal.
I finished the race, but I have only one enduring memory of that year’s Brian Head 100: Hammer Gel = pain.
Which is unfair to the Hammer Gel folks, of course. I shouldn’t have tried it for the first time in a race. I should have found a flavor I liked. And it’s totally possible that the cramps were due to something I ate the day before.
But that doesn’t change the reality: I can’t even think about Hammer Gel without shuddering.
Honey Stingers (Warning: Website has Very Annoying Audio)
I love honey. I confess, as a kid I would secretly get the honey bear out, upend it and suck out a mouthful (Note to parents and sisters: sorry ‘bout that. Also, sorry I did the same thing with the milk jug. And the Hershey’s Syrup). And so having a company come out with a “gel” that is really nothing more than honey with some flavoring and salt seemed like pure genius.
There are just a couple problems, though:
- Sticky: Any gel is capable of making a sticky mess. However, honey is stickier by an order of magnitude. And it spreads, somehow. You get a little on your lip and soon it’s on your glove, then on your handlebar grip, then on your jersey. Soon, gnats and road debris are sticking to you. It’s less attractive than it sounds.
- Does Not Play at all Well With Others: Most gels mix badly with some things, but as near as I could tell, honey mixes badly with every single kind of sports drink that exists.
I tried making my own honey-based energy gel by diluting honey with water, adding a little salt, and microwaving it to make it easy to mix together. The result tasted really good, but the 5-serving gel flasks I used to hold this honey didn’t seal well, with predictably disastrous results involving me stuck to my saddle.
Gu is the gel brand I’ve settled on for now. Specifically, Vanilla Bean Gu. The way I stumbled on this flavor underscores how subjective these preferences are. My riding buddy Nick had bought a box of Vanilla Bean Gu and hated it so badly he asked if I’d take it off his hands. Always the scrounge, of course I said yes. Turns out, I can tolerate it just fine.
Here’s what I like about Gu: I can slurp one down with a mouthful of water, and it’s gone. The energy pick-up comes quickly enough, but doesn’t pitch me off a cliff immediately afterward. It is, in short, moderately good at everything a gel needs to be good at.
I declare Gu the Honda Civic of energy gels.
PS For DIY Types: Kent’s Choco-Peanut Goop
Cycling guru and expert at keeping things simple Kent Peterson shares the following recipe for making your own Reeses Peanut Butter Cup –flavored gel in a randonneuring ride report. I haven’t tried it yet, but Kent’s ideas are generally worth investigating. Plus, I like chocolate and peanut butter a lot.
- 1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
- 1/4 cup chocolate syrup (like what you’d put on ice-cream)
- 1/4 cup water
Take the ingredients listed above and put them in a mug. Heat the mug in a microwave for about 30 seconds and then stir everything up. It should all blend together nicely and and have a thin, creamy texture. Spoon it into one of those refillable Gu flasks. Be sure you taste the leftover Goop that’s stuck to the mug and the spoon. If you don’t like the taste of this stuff at home, you probably won’t like it on the road. But I find it delicious. Unlike commercial Gu which is basically just carbohydrates, Goop has some protein, fat, sodium, niacin and vitamin E in it as well.
PPS About All Those Brands I Didn’t Mention
Yes, I know. There are a lot of brands out there I haven’t mentioned. Carb-Boom, for example. If they’d like to send me a batch, I’ll try it and even write about it. Same thing goes for pretty much any other brand (except Hammer Gel, which I’d have to give to someone else to try).