Are you planning on riding a century, double century or an even longer distance in 2022? There’s a lot of misleading or just plain wrong information on the web relating to long-distance cycling, but I’m here to tell you what I have found makes for a successful, lengthy ride.
Plan to succeed
While the idea of riding through lonely rural landscapes may sound attractive, you’re unlikely to pass through many populated areas, which means you’ll need to be self-sufficient on the bike and will have few (if any) convenient bail-out options.
On the other hand, spending hours riding through big towns, and invariably traffic, eats up a lot of time, bringing your average speed down. Even a small reduction in your average pace can be the difference between finishing at stupid o’clock and sensible o’clock.
While you could avoid these concerns and ride around a closed track until you’ve reached your target, you’d no doubt pedal yourself into dizzy oblivion and give up due to sheer boredom before anything else.
Striking a balance between the two on your first ride is the key; neither huffing excessive diesel fumes or bonking in a ditch on the side of a desolate moor will get you closer to your goal, so pick where your route takes you carefully.
For planning the ride, we recommend using an app such as Komoot, Ride With GPS or Strava, and exporting the route to a GPS. While the idea of travelling down unknown roads may feel romantic and adventurous, after the first few wrong turns, it’ll quickly get boring.
If you don’t own a GPS-equipped bike computer, paper maps will of course suffice, but they do add an element of stop-start hassle that, if possible, is best avoided.
When planning your route, if you don’t feel confident and would like some help along the way, you should consider entering a sportive or audax (also known as a randonnée outside of the UK).
The latter in particular is a great way to make friends and ride in a supportive and non-competitive environment. Audax UK, the body that regulates and runs events in the UK, has an excellent guide to riding your first audax.
What should I eat on my first century?
Nothing else is as mercilessly and unnecessarily fussed over by cyclists as food.
The established distinctions between what is and isn’t appropriate cycling food – this sickly gel is special cyclist’s food; this honey and peanut butter bagel is the scoff of mortals – shouldn’t be taken as gospel, particularly for long-distance cycling.
Basic rules should be followed, but there are no right and wrong foods for every cyclist in the land – while a diet consisting of only caffeinated jelly beans, dusty protein bars and other freaky science-foods may work for some riders, for others, all that performance nutrition causes is a noisy tummy.
Why not incorporate sports nutrition into real food and save money by baking homemade energy bars for cycling?
Experimentation is the key to working out what fuels you best on long-distance rides – try out lots of different food before your big day out and you may stumble on something that works perfectly for you. That way you’ll know how to avoid bonking on a bike ride.
On a long-distance ride, choosing the right food is also a psychological decision. Spending half a day hunched over handlebars will invariably ruin your appetite, and switching up what you eat throughout the course of the day will help to keep things palatable and you motivated.
I personally recommend you carry as much food with you as possible on your first ride. Being able to eat on the hoof means you can avoid the wasted time of stopping at shops or cafes for nourishment.
When you are able to confidently pace and plan a long ride, that’s the time to start indulging in more gourmet off-bike dining experiences.
I’d recommend investing in additional on-bike storage for your cycle snacks. Panniers may seem like the obvious option, but these are unnecessarily bulky for a lightweight, single-day excursion. A better choice is something along the lines of a Carradice saddlebag.
Setting up your bike for long-distance cycling
As long as you feel comfortable on it, the likelihood is that whatever bike you’re currently riding is pretty much fine for long-distance riding.
While a drop-bar, dynamo-equipped, be-fendered, plump-tyred, relaxed-geometry audax wagon will be the most comfortable way to ride more mileage, not owning a bike like that shouldn’t be a barrier to your enjoyment of long-distance riding.
However, there are still things you can do to improve the performance of your existing bike for long days in the saddle.
The first thing is to address the fit of your bike.
While a super aggressive, butt-up, head-down position will be more aero – and, thus, faster – than an upright stance, if you’re not used to riding in this position for an extended period, you’re likely to put excessive strain on your hands and arms over the course of a long day.
However, bear in mind that, like food, bike fit is highly personal.
While an upright position may work for some, it won’t necessarily for you, even for long-distance riding – again, experimentation is key but, if you don’t know where to start, consider getting a bike fit.
If you ride in wet weather, or even on wet roads, you’re going to get damp. The morale boost of being warm and dry on your bike cannot be overstated and I would always recommend fitting proper, full-cover mudguards for long-distance riding in inclement climates.
Even if you don’t plan on being out after dark, it’s always wise to bring a set of bike lights with you. What if you have a mechanical failure and have to limp home via the nearest train station? What if your average speed drops a little and you’re going to get back after dark?
Simply put, avoid the stress of worrying about not having lights – fit them to your bike and forget about them until you need them.
While no one expects you to swap a headset or bottom bracket in the field, you should always bring some basic tools and know-how to carry out simple repairs – you may get lucky and flat outside of a bike shop… but what if you don’t?
After scheduling your marathon ride, you’ll need to gradually increase your mileage in the weeks and months beforehand.
If you’ve chosen a spring or summer date, your winter training must include base training. These long, steady miles will boost your endurance for the big outing. You’ll begin to understand training zones and identify a pace you can hold for hours.
Unless your route is pan flat, raising your power-to-weight ratio in advance will pay dividends on the climbs. Turbo trainer workouts on training apps such as Zwift are an effective and efficient way to do so.
Moreover, Wahoo SYSTM allows you to create a training program specific to your goals while addressing your strengths and weaknesses. The workouts can be done on the best smart trainers or on the road.
If it hurts, stop
When I used to work in a bike shop, I was regularly shocked by the injuries that customers had as a result of their cycling.
Cycling is an exceptionally low-impact sport and these injuries were most commonly the result of poor fit on their bikes.
Sure, if you’ve just finished riding 200 miles, it’s not unreasonable to have a tender behind and feel a little stiff the day after, but you shouldn’t be incapacitated in any way.
If you think something isn’t right about the fit of your bike, or if you’re not quite physically ready for that long-distance goal, go home and try another time. The roads will still be there tomorrow.
Cycling marketing often fetishises ‘epic’ experiences on the bike – remove the rose-tinted glasses and you can easily translate ‘epic’ to ‘unpleasant’. There’s nothing noble about hurting yourself for the sake of hitting an arbitrary number.
Also, ruining future days out because you’ve ridden through injury isn’t big or clever. Pain is not a shared experience and few will care how hard you worked to ride those miles. Remember, this is supposed to be fun.