Going The Distance: A Guide To Long Distance Cycling

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.

A GPS computer like this Garmin 810 can help you stay on your route

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:

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.

Commuter Kit (carried in messenger bag): Tire lever, multitool, patch kit, spare tube, pump
A comprehensive tool kit, like this one, can save you some trouble down the road

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.

24 thoughts on “Going The Distance: A Guide To Long Distance Cycling

  1. The heat of the Houston area poses a definitive problem.As a commuter I’ve conquered, and as a “distance rider” I’ve learned. Number 6 is important, right up there with number one!

    I can do a century on just about any given day, but a double century I’ll find “taxing”, and I’m 57 years old. You see, it is that which propels us, the motion,freedom, adventure, and the fact…”No one can take that away from you!”

    You do you first century, and you’ll begin to understand!

  2. At 69 I bought a touring bike and 5 weeks later I loaded it up with 50 lbs of gear and headed out from Tucson to northern Michigan. Having no experience with touring, I planned 100 miles the first day, it was mostly uphill and about 90 miles out I was done, and looking at another mountain to climb. Fortunately a guy with a pickup took pity on me when he saw me sitting along the road and took me to the next town. On the 4th day I did 115 miles in 103 degree temperatures, but that was flat with a tailwind, took about 7 quarts of water though. I ended up with 2400 miles in 27 days. At 73 I loaded up again and completed a 3800 mile coast to coast when I was 74, I actually rode on 43 days on that trip.

    1. Tom: You are doing the rides I dream of. I’m 62, just retired and training for my first entered ride in 7 years. I hope by the end of the summer, I will be doing my first century ride in 7 years. have already entered 2 metric century rides. Been training now for about 2 months and longest ride has been 76 miles. Yes it is tough!!!!!!

  3. Ride day isn’t the day to explore fuel choices. Use the 6-8 weeks to figure out what works for your body and train with those. For instance Gatorade gives me bad indigestion when I’m riding, I either need to water it down a lot or use another hydration supplement.

    Replenishing fuel properly between training rides is huge.

  4. 162.4 miles in one day. As a regular Century rider (almost every other weekend when I’m not travelling), let me add this for after the ride: be prepared to have your body way out of adjustment for about a day (it does get better!): sleep will be wrong, your appetite will be fine at first then off, and your lower GI system will let you know it isn’t happy with you. These relatively mild discomforts (more annoying than anything else) are worth it!

  5. Your first challenge you face is getting on the bike in the first place. Then you go thru the preparation. Then the rigors of training. Then you fight those little voices in your head saying your not up to a training ride. There in lies the challenge to meet your goals. You have to put things behind you and go for it!

  6. I do many century plus rides a year and am just getting into doubles this year. I think you covered many great tips but left out what is as important as fueling (the most important one you mentioned) The one you left out is pacing. A century ride for most of us is done at an endurance pace or Zone 2 for those familiar with zones. The more times you attack a hill or sprint during a long ride the more you eat away at your high intensity reserves which won’t come back that day when they are spent. When it’s gone, you may find yourself pushing your bike up the hills. Additionally if you are riding too hard, your stomach may shut down and your body will run out of fuel because it’s not processing what is in your stomach, no matter how much you are trying to consume, and GI distress is next. If it get’s hot during the ride, it’s often a good idea to drop the pace a little to prevent stomach problems also, and drink more fluids.

  7. Next weekend, if all goes well, will be my second double English century (over two days).
    The New Bern MS150 is the best place for it – flat, and with the support of my friends at TeamCBC… it’s great. Last year was, hands down, my best ride in 25 years of cycling.

  8. I agree with your tip about creating a biking loop around your home area if you are uneasy about getting stranded in a place you aren’t familiar with. My husband and I sometimes bike together for long distances and he is faster than I, so I always make sure I know the route well in case we lose each other. I will share these long-distance biking tips with my husband.

  9. I learned last year that hydration the day before is also critcal. My wife and I did RAGBRAI last year and are doing it again this year. The first day was about 50 miles and over 2600 feet of elevation. Lots of 10+ degree climbs in a row. At about mile 30, my legs and feet started cramping. All the walking and stretching didn’t really relieve the pain. A two hour massage at least let me sleep and get on the bike the next morning.

  10. Also make sure the bike fits you like a glove. That little nag will become a major pain by about mile 60. Same with your gear. That little pinch will be come a major ouch. Lastly, investigate some sort of lubricant for your bottom. There are many brands. Find what works for you and stick with it. NO CHANGES ON LONG RIDE DAY! Nothing like doing the 20 meter hurl because you had a reaction to your food or drink.

  11. 103 Road Miles at one time. Would be nice if Performance Bikes would respond to 4 emails I have sent to them. Thank You.

  12. Food… eat while you ride. I eat every 30 minutes, or whenever i feel hungry. As Tony would say… Drink your water! Don’t get dehydrated… I regularly do double centuries, and I see people bonked and dehydrated all the time because they don’t eat or drink regularly between rest stops.

    Ride to finish… ride at the best pace you can keep up for the entire ride. Don’t kill it for the first 50 and then die.

    Chamois butter! Take those little packets with you. Reapply BEFORE you find out you are getting sore down there.

    Ride your ride… let the person that flies by you ride their ride at their pace. At the same time, don’t stick with slow riders you might happen upon if you feel like you are going too slow. Taking longer on a ride than you need can often be mentally and even physically harder than riding it quicker at your pace.

    Don’t stop pedalling … if you can pedal down hill, do it. Dont’ coast and rest… shift down and pedal at a pace you can sustain. Every bit you don’t pedal just makes the ride longer.

    Don’t stop between rest stops to rest – keep moving.

    Don’t sit at rest stops. Get water, food, use the rest room and go.

    Don’t skip rest stops unless you are a God.

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