Going The Distance: A Guide To Long Distance Cycling
March 30, 2014 8 Comments
Long distance cycling is some of the most challenging, and rewarding, riding that a cyclist can do. Nothing compares to the feeling of satisfaction of setting yourself a goal that seems difficult—if not impossible—and reaching it, exhausted, tired, but full of pride.
Everyone’s definition of what a long ride is will be different, but for the sake of making this easy, we’ll say a long ride is 100 miles, a type of ride also called a century. It sounds daunting—and it is, but there are few things as defining and rewarding for a cyclist as riding your first century.
But before you start thinking “how hard can it be?”, and go off to jump on your bicycles, bear in mind that long distance cycling puts unique demands on your body, and it’s something you need to work up to and prepare for.
So here are some tips for that first big ride—whether it’s the first century you’ve ever done, or if you’re just putting in some base miles for the season ahead.
1. Work Up To It
First things first, you need to make sure you’re in shape to ride this kind of distance. Just hopping on your bike and trying to set out to ride 100 miles without any preparation is not a smart thing to do. Set a date on the calendar at least 6-8 weeks in advance (if you’re doing an organized ride, then you’ve already got a timeframe to shoot for), and do multiple weekly rides, trying to increase your mileage by 10-20% every week (depending on your fitness level).
2. Plan Your Route
You should have a definite route set before you head out the door. Even if you have a GPS or a smartphone, make sure you bring a cue sheet so you can always find your way back. Also ensure that your route will include plenty of places to stop and top up on water, pick up some food, use the bathroom, and just get off the bike for a few minutes. Ideally, your route should include a rest stop every 20 miles.
If you’re a little uneasy about getting stranded in the middle of nowhere if you bonk or have a mechanical issue, try finding a 20-30 mile loop near your home that you can ride repeatedly. This way if something goes wrong you can always make sure you can get home.
Lastly, plan a “B” route that will get you home faster in case of a mechanical problem, bad weather, or an emergency.
3A. Have The Right Gear
Depending on your speed, riding 100 miles means you can be on the bike anywhere form 4-8 hours. That’s a lot of time for the weather to change or something to go wrong. Always make sure you have the follow with you when you set out on a long ride:
- Jacket or vest
- Mini pump/Co2 system
- 2 tubes
- Patch kit
- Tire levers
- Emergency lights
- ID, insurance card, credit cards, etc…
- Plenty of fluids (either 2 full bottles or a hydration pack)
Remember though that tools are useless if you don’t know how to use them. Before you set out, make sure you know how to repair a flat tire, fix a broken derailleur, or adjust loose brakes. To learn more about basic bike maintenance, check out the How To page on our Learning Center.
3B. Pick The Right Clothes
This also isn’t the ride to wear your “B” gear. Wearing the shorts with the ok-but-not-great-pad, a pair of ill-fitting shoes, or a jersey that is either too thin or too warm will have you hating life somewhere around mile 55, if not sooner. For your big ride, break out your best shorts, favorite jersey and make sure your shoes fit properly. You’ll thank yourself later.
4. Fuel Up
Inadequate fueling is the biggest reason most failed attempts at a century ride don’t succeed. You need to start eating before you even leave the house, with a good breakfast that includes plenty of carbs and protein. The second you get on the bike and start riding, start eating. Gels and chews are essentials to bring, since they pack plenty of energy in a small package. But you also want to avoid having a belly full of nothing but sugar, so ensure you’re eating real food too, like bananas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers, and other high-energy, easy to digest foods.
You also need to make sure that you are drinking. Drink one bottle of plain water the first hour, then a bottle of hydration mix the second hour. Keep alternating water and hydration mix every other hour.
If you find yourself cramping, that’s usually your body’s way of telling you you need more salt, so make sure you pack some chews (Clif Shot Bloks margarita flavor is a delicious choice) or other snack with plenty of sodium.
And the biggest thing to remember: bring twice as much food as you think you’ll need.
For more tips on cycling nutrition, check out our guide.
5. Sit Up and Stand Up
Most professional riders can spend 6-7 hours on the bike no problem, but they’re getting paid to suffer like that. When riding a century, make sure you take plenty of stops to stand up, get off the bike, walk around a bit, and stretch. This will help restore blood flow, stop muscles from cramping, and help you feel better during the day.
You also don’t have to hammer all day. Riding a century is more about your ability to endure than to go fast. Take it easy, spin in an easier gear than normal, and really take the time to enjoy the sights you’re riding by.
Check out this article to learn more about preventing fatigue.
6. Mentally Prepare
There’s no two ways about it, no matter how fit you are, riding 100 miles is tough. You need to mentally prepare yourself for the inevitable aches, pains, and defeatist thoughts that are going to come to you. Things are going to get sore, weird muscles are going to cramp up, you’ll be riding into a bad headwind at some point, and you’ll probably reach some dark places where you think you can’t do this. You may even get chased by a dog or two.
Just remember that this happens to everyone, and our minds and bodies are much more resilient that we give them credit for. Riding through those aches and pains and low moments are part of what makes riding long distances so rewarding—overcoming our own perceived limitations and doing things we thought were impossible.
7. Don’t Go It Alone
What’s harder than a century? A solo century. Being alone with your thoughts for 100 miles can undo even the hardest of cyclists. If you have other friends who ride, see if anyone is up to going for the 100 with you. Not only will it be fun to get out and train together, but doing a long distance ride is much easier when you have someone else with you. You can talk to each other to take your mind off the miles, help keep each other motivated, and draft off of each other if the wind picks up. Plus, in case of an emergency you’ll have someone around who can get help if needed.
Have you done any long rides lately, or do you have any planned? Do you have any tips or tricks that we missed? Let us know in the comments section.