Are you planning on riding a century, double century or an even longer ride in 2018? There's a huge amount of misleading information on the web relating to long-distance cycling, but we're here to tell you what makes for a successful, lengthy ride.
Planning a successful long-distance cycling route
Although it may seem obvious, choosing a route that is appropriate for your first long ride can be the difference between a successful ride and a frustrating one.
While the idea of riding through lonely rural landscapes may sound attractive, the likelihood is you won’t pass through many populated areas, which means you'll need to be self sufficient on the bike, leaving you with few if any 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. A few kmph lost 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 a dizzy oblivion and give up due to sheer boredom before anything else.
Striking a balance between the two 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 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 faff that is best avoided if possible.
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 to eat on a long-distance ride
Nothing else is as messed about with by cyclists as food, or, as it is often referred to, ‘nutrition’.
Our desire to make 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 nosh of mortals — shouldn't be taken as gospel. But like anything that aims to fit something subjective into neat categories, established ideas behind the science of nutrition won’t apply to everyone.
The truth is 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’ just causes a noisy tummy.
The point is experimentation is the key to working out what fuels you best on long-distance rides — try lots of new things before the big day and as long as your chosen sustenance isn’t too bulky and gives you the energy you need, you’ll be golden.
You should also note, there’s nothing noble about forcing yourself to put away a dozen brioche buns on a long ride, no matter how much you try to convince yourself that you’re enjoying them.
Spending half a day hunched over handlebars will invariably ruin your appetite and switching up what you eat throughout the course of the day should help to keep things palatable.
Failing variety, maybe you too just need a healthy dose of Sriracha in your diet (what is it with cyclists and this spicy sauce?)…
Lastly, I would always 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 (and cost) of stopping at shops or cafes for nourishment.
And, I’d recommend investing in additional on-bike storage for your grub. 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 tweed-toting Carradice saddlebag.
Why not try eating something weird and local on your ride? Perhaps one of your interesting points to visit could include a short, adventurous culinary excursion?
Adjusting your riding style for long-distance cycling
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 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.
My advice is to clip out and switch off — your 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 randonneuring beast will be the most comfortable way to ride more mileage, not owning a bike like this 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 (aero, schmaero) than an upright stance, you’ll 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 and 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.
Lastly, 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.
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 lady whose knee locked 60 miles into a ride had the most bizarre cleat position that gave her splayed feed on the bike. And to 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.
For information about training for long-distance riding, visit our training section.
This article was updated 3 January 2018