Cyclists use gel packets when riding, but the small tears (if not the whole packets) are often found on the ground, resulting in plastic waste.
THE RESEARCH METHOD
We ran a survey with 35 respondents, interviewed 2 cyclists who frequently consume energy gels during rides, and casually talked with several more amongst cyclist friends and acquaintances.
THE MAIN TAKEAWAYS
There is a love/hate divide amongst cyclists regarding energy gels. According to the survey, (which is a small sample size, but varied across demographics and location) about half consumes gels while the other does not or has never tried (46% no, 37% yes, 17% sometimes). Of those that do consume gels, they consume them pretty infrequently (53% of gel consumers say a few a month, 21% say a few every several months).
(please note these data are from a sample size of 35 cyclists)
The pro-gel cyclists that we talked tend to be vigilant of their riding time. These riders typically use gels during long and difficult training rides leading up to their events (namely duathlons and triathlons), because they need something that’s quick with energy and easy to use without getting off the bike. The consistency of these packets is easily digestible so riders don’t have upset stomachs. But most importantly, the body quickly absorbs the gel, providing the instant energy sought after during intense rides. These packets are also easy and fast to open and consume with one hand.
There’s a divide between cyclists because those that casually ride don’t have the constraints of staying on the bike or weight. They prefer more natural nutrition and bring snacks like fruit and nuts. However, real food is bulkier and harder to consume for racing athletes (think about eating an apple while biking). Racers also don’t have the luxury of stopping on the side of the road to eat with both hands.
Experienced racing athletes, especially in duathlons and triathlons, have a system down to the timing of consumption (some by mileage, others by time on bike). They prepare their bikes ahead of time and get creative in their storage. One cyclist explained taping gels to her bike’s frame in the shape of a fan so she can easily grab them one at a time, and so they don’t fall off. (She’s experimented with several configurations and this one has been the best). Another cyclist we talked with carries her gels in a bento box (a pouch attached on the frame of the bike near the handle bars). Several other cyclists (racing or casual) store them in pockets, sports bras, jersey back pouches, water bottle pouches, etc.
Energy gels don’t always have the best usability, which is why casual cyclists prefer other options, but the racers get over it (or at least cope with it). The biggest pain point, other than flavor (but we’re not tackling that due to the scope of the project), is storing the gels before and most importantly after consumption. As we heard with the two cyclists, they had to use creative ways to make the gels easily accessible to avoid distractions and not fumble with outlandish gestures to grab the gels during the race. The methods are hacky, but working.
Storing the gel after consumption, on the other hand, is a big nuisance. The first cyclist stuffs hers in her sports bra or under her cycling shorts when she finishes her shot. However, because of the constant moving, the empty packets might get lost along the way. Not everyone intentionally throws them on the ground (though some do), but they occasionally get loose and fall. The second cyclist has a specific plastic bag in her bento box that she puts it in because she doesn’t want the sticky residue to get all over her clothes or box.
For more casual consumers, another big pain point is the consumption itself. If you’re not used to it, tearing the packet can be difficult, and not to mention creates another piece of trash often found on the ground. The sides of the packet, depending on your ability to open it, can also cause consumers to cut the sides of their mouths. And to top it off, it’s not always easy to squeeze all of the gel out of the packet. Some use their hands to squeegee it out, which unfortunately makes hands sticky (and then gets all over the bike handles).
Some casual consumers also only partially eat the packet, since they are not aiming for speed and efficiency. Half eaten packets are not resealable and, just like with the second cyclist, has the potential of leaving unwanted gel residue wherever stored.
That said, gel packets also have its upsides that we need to keep in mind in the redesign. The packets are great because they’re small, compact and easy to store anywhere. They’re a good size for one dosage of energy (for racing athletes). And they are easy to open and consume with one hand, especially for those in races who don’t stop for food.
We should also consider the appreciation for variety of flavors, that energy gel packets are rarely consumed without anything else (alongside water or another form of hydration at the very least), and the racer’s need for light and aerodynamic solutions.
Although not always acted upon, some cyclists are aware of the trash the gel packets product. If we couple the aforementioned usability challenges with gels with redesigning them to be environmentally friendly, there will be a greater chance of adoption.