Are you planning on riding a century, double century or an even longer ride in 2020? 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 think 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 bailout 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’ll 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 online tool 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, paper maps will of course suffice, but they do add an element of stop-start hassle that, if possible, is best avoided.
If you don’t feel confident about planning your own route 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.
It sounds obvious, but choose a route that takes you through interesting places you actually want to visit. Riding 100-plus miles for the sake of it merely serves to give you aching muscles and embolden your Strava-ego – you may as well take the time to enrich your life in some way.
What should I eat on a long-distance ride?
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.
Like anything that aims to fit something subjective into neat categories, even established and proven ideas behind the science of nutrition won’t apply to everyone. 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.
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.
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Back to where it all started; it was this very Stephens Bakery in Stirling where I first bare witness to friend and fixed gear mile muncher @stu_86 concoct a most culinary innovative, not to mention delectably delicious meal: a steak pie in a well fired and buttered roll. Finished off with a pink jammy and a 500ml bottle of Bru, this, the ultimate meal of The Roadman, will carry you for countless miles of pedalling, through the good and the bad. This ones for you, Stu.
Matthew Hawkins, a rider based in Edinburgh that I admire very much is a great example – he and his Scottish fixed gear cohort in equal measure inspire and horrify me as they fuel 200+ mile rides on a truly outrageous diet. But, hey, it clearly works for them. Maybe you’ll be the same!
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 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 indulge 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 the Carradice saddlebag.
Adjust your riding style
If you’re used to shorter efforts on the bike that last no more than a couple of hours, you will have to adapt your riding style for long-distance cycling.
A big day on the bike should be seen as one long effort rather than a series of short sharp bursts broken up by lengthy breaks – the first approach will likely only serve to bring your average speed down and won’t be very much fun at all.
Your goal should be to maintain a consistent and moderate pace, which you can comfortably ride at for many hours at a time, interjected occasionally by short periods of quality rest.
When recovering, my advice is to clip out and switch off – periods of rest are much better spent not worrying about the worldly worries you left behind when you set off on your day’s adventure.
Setting your bike up 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 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. Personally, I prefer a slightly more stretched out, lower fit than is normal because putting more weight on my back doesn’t work for me.
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.
Seemingly opinions differ on this subject, but you couldn’t pay me to ride a ride in the winter months without mudguards. I digress.
Even if you don’t plan on being out after dark, it’s always wise to bring a set of lights with you. What if you have a mechanical failure and have to limp home to 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, 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?
If it hurts, stop
When I used to work in a bike shop, I was regularly shocked by the injuries (many of which would nag for years) 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: the woman whose knee locked 60 miles into a ride had the most bizarre cleat position that gave her splayed feed on the bike; and the gentleman who described saddle sores “the size of angry golf balls” after his ride around the Outer Hebrides, you should’ve come in for a saddle fitting before you left…
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 sheer sake of it.
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.