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 for the last twelve years. She currently races for Belgian-based BABOCO Cycling Team. Christine is a pro road, mountain and cylcocross racer who has competed at top-level events like World Cups and World Championships. For the last ten years she has been one of the best cyclocross racers in the world. In addition, Christine 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.
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 12 years ago 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.
How long have you been vegan?
What has benefited you the most from being a vegan?
My breathing is much better. Before I became vegan, 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! Up to this point I was just vegetarian. Cutting animal milk from my diet really helped my breathing problem to go away. As a side benefit, I 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 where you race for under an hour, jump over barriers, ride through sand and mud and run up steep hills with the bike on your shoulder. This summer I will be focusing on mountain bike racing instead of my usual road season. Hence, all year round I need to do some running workouts in addition to riding the bike.
How often do you (need to) train?
I train every day, especially in the winter because our cyclocross racing schedule is as intense as the training needed to compete in this sport. While others are celebrating Christmas and New Years Eve, we are racing on those days.
Do you offer your fitness or training services to others?
I have privately consulted many athletes on both fitness and pre-event training. I also wrote many articles on these topics for newspapers and magazines such as VegNews Magazine and one of San Francisco’s newspapers the Marin Independent Journal.
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.
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. 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 you 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 based on my example.
I have also won many over through my baking. For the last three years at the final event of the season, I have been holding a cookie party where I’d serve almost 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 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 attached to requests for recipes. It is also now at the point that fellow athletes are privately contacting me to inquire about how to make the transition to a veggie 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 almost ten vegan cookbooks. Heck, I didn’t even know there were that many vegan cookbooks sold in Belgium! As for our friends, they too are very accommodating. We have even attended barbeques where we had our own grill 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 on a vegan diet. 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 ride the bike, I do my best as a “thanks” to all my supporters, friends and family who have believed in me from the beginning. For the last five years, Jonas my husband 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.
Lastly, 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.
Food & Supplements
What do you eat for:
Breakfast – Oats and muesli with an apple and banana with warm water
Lunch – Usually eaten on the bike: PROBAR foods like Fruition, their energy bar.
Dinner – pasta with homemade pesto, mixed salad with a balsamic vinegrette and soup. Last night it was lentil soup, rucola salad and Vegetable Green Curry.
Snacks (healthy & not-so healthy) - Halo Bars made by PROBAR, I am addicted to the marshmallows in them. I also eat dark chocolate
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.
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.
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?
I swear by the Fruition bars! I use them before races and during hard trainings and races. They give me energy within three minutes that last for at least an hour. My friends and I always joke that they must be illegal for competition because they work so well! They are made with dates.
Do you take any supplements?
Iron and vitamin C. 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.
What is your top tip for:
Gaining muscle – that is mainly genetic. The rest has to do with training that specific muscle so work it out! Skip protein shakes as they do not help to make your muscle any bigger than it can be from genetics and working it out.
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.
Maintaining weight – eat only when you are hungry, unless you need your body for something strenuous.
Improving metabolism – ginger, cinnamon, spicy food, green tea. Exercise is the best for this!
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. 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. (On a personal note, 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.) 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 about veganism for health and about the animal abuse such as the wool industry, etc. 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 vegan 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, ECOPOP (Ecological conference in Belgium) and for EVA (Belgium’s vegetarian society.) My next event is International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg in September.
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.
Photos of Christine Patricia Cristens (face shot) and Brecht Toelen (action shot)
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