Interview with Christine Vardaros professional vegan cyclist
Written by Leigh-Chantelle
Created Thursday, 15 March 2012
Christine Vardaros is a world-class vegan cyclist – and has been both vegan and racing professionally since 2000. She currently races for STEVENS Pro Cycling Team. Christine is a pro road, mountain and cyclocross racer who has competed at top-level events like World Cups and World Championships. Since 2002, she has been one of the best cyclocross racers in the world. Christine is an athlete spokesperson for In Defense of Animals, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and The Vegan Society (UK). In addition, she is a founding member of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, and is a member of the athlete's advisory board for the Stone Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis Research. Christine has never owned a car. Originally, from California, Christine now resides in Belgium with her husband Jonas and their seventeen bikes and an organic garden in the backyard.
READ this article translated into Chinese for VegTomato magazine. Also Simple Chinese.
On a vegan diet, I feel clean – as if I am able to magically hold onto that freshly showered feeling all day, every day no matter how dirty I get while riding my bike. This sensation partly originates from eating an incredibly healthful plant diet but it also stems from living with a clear conscience, knowing that my lifestyle allows me to be clean of all moral shame.
How and why did you decide to become a vegan?
I originally became vegan to benefit from its sporting advantage, as I had just become a professional cyclist. Once I changed my diet, I quickly realized the ethical ramifications of my choices and this is what keeps me 100% strict with how I eat and how I live. I want to be able to say that nobody was hurt for me to achieve my successes on the bike. Thanks to my vegan diet, I am still racing at the top professional level well into my mid-forties.
How long have you been vegan?
What has benefited you the most from being a vegan?
My breathing is much better. When I was only vegetarian, I had to quit races because I thought I was going to die. My breathing was so bad that other athletes were asking me if I was okay – even during World Cups! The moment I cut animal milk from my diet, my breathing significantly improved. I also found that I wasn’t spitting and coughing every few seconds on training rides as well.
What does veganism mean to you?
It is a lifestyle – a way of being.
What sort of training do you do?
I am mainly considered a cyclocross specialist. It is a Winter cycling sport that runs from September to February where you race for under an hour, jump over barriers, ride through sand and mud and run up steep hills while shouldering the bike. My winter training includes mainly rides of under three hours to include short intervals and some running workouts. Over the Summer, I do longer rides, mainly on the road, to work on my base training so that my fitness platform can support the short hard efforts in the Winter. I also add some road races to keep in touch with my top end speed in the “offseason.”
How often do you (need to) train?
I train almost every day, especially in the winter because our cyclocross racing schedule is as intense as the training needed to compete in this sport where we’re racing in upwards of five times per week. While others are celebrating Christmas and New Years’, we are racing on those days.
Do you offer your fitness or training services to others?
I currently coach a few kids ages 13 to 16 for road and cyclocross racing. I also privately consult many athletes on both fitness and pre-event training. In addition, I’ve written many articles on these topics for newspapers and magazines such as VegNews Magazine and one of San Francisco’s newspapers the Marin Independent Journal. I will also begin writing on fitness and training for Vegan Health & Fitness Magazine out of the USA.
What sports do you play?
I am a professional road, cyclocross and mountain bike racer. I also like to think of myself as a runner but I am not particularly good at it. Before that I fenced.
Strengths, Weaknesses & Outside Influences
What do you think is the biggest misconception about vegans and how do you address this?
The biggest misconception nowadays is that people think we all own yoga mats and wear tie-dyed tees and camp everywhere. Just last week I was accused of this– oddly enough by someone who knows me well, which proves just how powerful stereotypes can be. I address this with my unwavering behavior. I have found that by example I can personally have the greatest impact on others.
What are your strengths as a vegan athlete?
I can recover much faster than my fellow competitors after hard trainings and races. I am also rarely sick which gives me extra days to train.
What is your biggest challenge?
When traveling throughout Europe, the food options can sometimes get a bit boring. I once raced the women’s Tour de France and had to subside on string beans and French bread because to many French chefs thought those two foods define a vegan diet. I survived.
Are the non-vegans in your industry supportive or not?
In the past, I found that my diet was put on the chopping block any time I had a bad race. But now people who have personal experience with me know that the diet works and that it is natural to have good and bad days when you race drug-free. Many of them have actually lowered or eliminated their animal consumption altogether based on my example.
I have also won many over through my baking. For the last few years at the final event of the season, I have held a cookie party where I’d serve ten varieties of vegan cookies – all self baked by me. It has become so popular that my supporters and fellow cyclists talk about it year round. It has changed how many of them view my “funny” diet. They now see that it can be not only as normal as theirs but much more flavorful. Attendees at my cookie parties are usually so blown away that, at its conclusion, I am left with a bunch of email addresses from spectators as well as fellow racers attached to requests for recipes…and information on how to transition to a plant-based diet.
Are your family and friends supportive of your vegan lifestyle?
My family and friends are very supportive of my lifestyle. Although my Dad doesn’t quite understand it all, he is very accepting of it. My Mom was vegan for six months and is still mainly vegan. My husband Jonas’ mom makes us vegan meals every time we visit. She now owns about ten vegan cookbooks. Heck, I didn’t even know there were that many vegan cookbooks written in Dutch! As for our friends, they too are very accommodating. We have even attended barbeques where we had our own grill and cooking tools with a variety of plant-based items to choose from.
What is the most common question/comment that people ask/say when they find out that you are a vegan and how do you respond?
They ask if I can really compete at the top level eating only plants. Shortly after the question comes out, they quickly realize that my results and many wins over the years, speaks for itself and they usually retract the question.
Who or what motivates you?
I went vegan at the same time as “Elmo”, my coach. Watching him to see if he dropped dead helped a lot. When he not only didn’t drop dead but progressively got faster on the bike and was also able to recover almost instantly from hard trainings just as I had, it gave me a bit of feedback needed when at that time I was surrounded by the naysayers who thought I was crazy.
As for direct motivation to race my bike hard, I do it as a “thanks” to all my supporters, friends and family who have believed in me from the beginning. Since the winter of 2007, my husband Jonas has helped immensely with my motivation. He has become the ideal teammate I never knew existed. He has made it more enjoyable to be a bike racer. We work incredibly well together to prepare for races and to compete in them. He handles all the driving, bikes, and other logistics while I just focus on riding my bike, eating, and recovering. It is also nice to have someone to celebrate the great results with as well as someone who will let me cry in his arms when it doesn’t work out.
Additionally, I dig that little bit deeper for my sister who died many years ago. If you look under my saddles, you will see a little ribbon that I placed there that reminds me of my little sister. And lastly, I am motivated by the animals. When I succeed, it is a success for them too as I prove that their suffering and death is not needed to fuel a body for top level sports. I am now at the point in my career where I can hand pick the sponsors that go on my jersey. Each one of them parallel my beliefs on living an animal-friendly, earth-friendly lifestyle. This upcoming season my new race clothing sponsor, NoDrugs, has added a plethora of fruits and vegetables to my race clothing where it encompasses my sponsors like T. Strong Transportation – a green transport company, HempAge – maker of my casual clothing, BOOOM Energy products – creater of one of the first vegan recovery drinks to make it to Belgium, and STEVENS Bikes, 3T and Challenge that master the art of recycling. On my butt and collar of my clothing is The Vegan Society logo which gets lots of attention. NoDrugs has also just created a friend/family/supporter clothing line based on my race clothing for purchase by those who want to wear their animal/earth/health-friendly support literally on their sleeves.
Food & Supplements
What do you eat for Breakfast?
Oats and muesli with an apple and banana with tepid water.
What do you eat for Lunch?
Usually eaten on the bike: BOOOM bars and gels, washed down with their energy drink. On occasion, I will supplement it with dried mangos, papaya, figs, dates or the periodic steamed sweet potato.
What do you eat for Dinner?
Pasta with homemade pesto, mixed salad with a balsamic vinaigrette and soup. Last night it was lentil soup, rucola salad and Vegetable Green Curry.
What do you eat for Snacks - healthy & not-so healthy
I am addicted to dark chocolate as I live mainly in Belgium. I also love my own home-baked cookies, which is why I cannot make them very often. My new addiction is well-blended frozen bananas with some shredded coconut, a squeeze of lemon, and chopped dark chocolate bits. It actually tastes like real ice cream but without that heavy mucous aftertaste.
What is your favourite source of Protein?
I keep my protein very low - never more than 6-10% for health reasons. I never ever go out of my way for protein. I once broke my leg and after three weeks, I went back to the doctor for a checkup. He viewed the x-ray and immediately pulled my coach aside to ask what I did because he just witnessed a miracle. A break that should have taken minimum six weeks was completely healed in three. My coach responded that I am on a strict low-protein diet. When I am in a heavy training or racing period, I am very careful to keep my protein low as well for added performance benefits. Even if I weren’t a strict vegan, I would still never go back to eating animal protein as it comes in a very complex form which zaps your body of energy, robs it of amino acids, creates toxins and leaves you dehydrated just to break it down.
What is your favourite source of Calcium?
I just had my calcium/bones checked and was told that everything is perfectly in order. I suppose it is due to my leafy green veggies that I eat mostly every day – and of course also due to my low protein diet.
What is your favourite source of Iron?
I take an iron supplement as anemia runs in my family. If I didn’t do sport at this high level, the pills would not be necessary.
What foods give you the most energy?
Apples are one of my favorite foods for energy. I keep to the sour green ones whenever possible as that is closest to how nature intended them to be. I also drink lots of green tea for its sustained energy…and fat-burning benefits.
Do you take any supplements?
Iron and 2 grams of vitamin C per day. Every month or so, I also take a B12 pill since I don’t really eat any supplemented foods. According to my blood tests that I have done for my sport, everything is perfectly in order every time. In fact, newest studies are proving that animal-eaters are having more of a tough time getting in their B12 than plant-eaters as everything nowadays is overly sanitized.
What is your top tip for gaining muscle?
That is mainly genetic. The rest has to do with how you train that specific muscle you want to grow. DO skip protein shakes, as they certainly do not help to make your muscle any bigger or more optimally recovered. Your muscles need very little protein to get the job done. Anything above that level is simply wasted – and will do damage on your body as it’s processed on its way out the other end.
What is your top tip for losing weight?
Increase your raw vegetable intake. Cutting sugar from a diet really helps if you have a sweet tooth. Cut meal portions down a bit. Eat according to your body demands. If you need your body to do “big work”, then eat a big meal beforehand. If all you will do that day is sit at your desk, then eat a light meal. Add green tea or better yet oolong tea to your daily routine. They also sell green tea in pill form called EGCG for those who aren’t tea drinkers. Three of those pills can burn up to 225 calories per day.
What is your top tip for maintaining weight?
Eat only when you are hungry, unless you need your body for something strenuous.
What is your top tip for improving metabolism?
Ginger, cinnamon, spicy food, green tea and oolong tea. Exercise is the best for this!
What is your top tip for toning up?
Exercise a bit each day. Start the day with a walk around the block or to the bakery for a loaf of bread. Buy yourself mini weights and do them every other day. Buy a simple exercise video and do it as often as possible.
How do you promote veganism in your daily life?
Mainly by example which seems to work very, very well, especially now that we have social media like FaceBook and Twitter at our disposal. I cannot even begin to tell you how many emails, calls and comments I have steadily received over the years from people who thanked me for their conversion to a plant-based diet. Many of them also said that they were initially turned off by the “crazies” who were shoving the animal rights stuff down their throat and beating them down for their choices. When they saw my example, they realized that there were all sorts of folks who live vegan. I also periodically mention or share tidbits here and there through social media about veganism for health and about the animal abuse. I spend a lot of time giving interviews for publications as well as answer many private emails inquiring about a vegan diet.
In addition, I spread the word as a spokesperson for IDA (In Defense of Animals) PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) and OA (Organic Athlete.) I have spoken at many events such as Paris Vegan Day, World Veggie Day in SF, Veggie Pride Parade in NYC, International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg, VegFest UK London, ECOPOP (Ecological conference in Belgium) and for EVA (Belgium’s vegetarian society.) At these events, I talk mainly about a plant-based diet for active lives. Considering my choice to be vegan is also a moral one, I am thankful for all those who work hard to promote a cruelty-free world as it takes many approaches towards the common goal to reach all people.
How would you suggest people get involved with what you do?
Contact a local bike shop and ask about cyclocross or bike racing. They will usually be able to steer you in the right direction.
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