by Stan Purdum
How long is long-distance on a bicycle?
It depends on how experienced a rider you are, how fit you are, how old you are, and the distance goals you set. There are ultra riders who will cover 200 miles in a day, and participants in the Tour de France typically pedal well over 100 miles in each day’s stage in that great race, stages that often include steep mountain routes.
But those of us who are mere mortals often think of 100 miles (a century ride) or 62 miles (a metric century) or even some lesser number of miles as a long distance, and they are. And it’s a praiseworthy accomplishment to complete such a ride.
So here are some tips for pedaling long distances with at least some measure of comfort. While some of these suggestions can apply to bicycle racers, they are in a specialized category with rules and practices of their own. These tips are for the rest of us, whether entering a bicycle event, touring on two wheels or undertaking a challenging ride of great length on our own.
Set your bike up for long-distance comfort. This has to do, first, with the geometry of your bike frame and how it is set up to begin with. And if the bike shop staff was doing their job when you purchased the bike, they should have helped you get a good-fitting steed right from the start. But you can also schedule a post-purchase bike fitting with a reputable shop. They will look at the fit of your saddle — its width and fit for your particular bottom, its height above the pedals, its tilt, its fore and aft position in relation to the handlebars — the height and spread of your handlebars and how far you have to stretch to reach them. Much of this can be adjusted to better suit your anatomy and riding style.
Learn more: Top 3 Bike Fit Problems and How to Fix Them
While riding, move around on the bike. Even if you have a bike that fits you well, it’s not going to remain comfortable when you stay on it for 6-10 hours. Even an easy chair in your living room gets uncomfortable when you sit in too long. You should change your hand position frequently (drop bars especially provide lots of hand positions). Stand on the pedals occasionally. Later, let one leg hang and pedal with the other one, and then switch. Shake your arms, move your torso, shrug your shoulders, lift your head and turn it from side to side, and so on. And of course, get off the bike every so often, do leg and full-body stretches, and walk around.
Think about your upper body. When on the bike and not otherwise moving around, try to keep your upper body relaxed, with your forearms approximately parallel to the ground and your shoulders not hunched. You’ll expend less energy that way.
Acquire proper clothing. Yes, you can ride in regular street clothes, but you won’t be comfortable long when doing so. All those seams and the extra material in regular shorts will bunch up to make it feel like you are sitting on a pile of rough sticks. Spandex bike shorts weren’t invented to make riders look sexy, but to be comfy while pedaling. The non-flexible soles in bike shoes help prevent foot fatigue and numbness, and a helmet is essential for safety. Use sunscreen on parts of your body not covered by clothing. Add appropriate clothing for cold or inclement weather.
Learn what and when to drink. You need to take in fluid regularly. Standard advice is that you should consume a 20-ounce bottle of liquid every hour or so, especially in hot weather, and that it should be a mix of sports drink from one bottle and water from another, favoring the water. In my experience, a bottle per hour seems excessive, except in very hot weather. And I find taking in lots of water without some sports drink leaves me feeling slightly ill.
I find it better to fill my bike bottle with as much ice as it will hold and then pour sports drink over it. The melting ice dilutes the sports drink and keeps it cold. I simply let my thirst guide how quickly I drink a bottleful. Later in the ride, increasing the amount of water versus sports drink seems to work best. I find cold drinks so helpful (except on winter rides), that I fill a bike-bottle-sized thermos with ice and water to drink when I’ve exhausted my other supply. And when there’s an opportunity to get a chilled can of Coke toward the end of the ride, it makes a good pick-me-up — cold fluid, carbs and caffeine all at once!
Learn more: Cycling and Hydration, a Guide
Learn what and when to eat. If you haven’t ridden these kinds of distances before, you’ll be surprised at how thirsty and hungry you will become if you wait too long to start drinking and eating. And a long-distance ride is no place to be minimizing intake for weight loss. The effort of the long ride will deplete your stored calories quickly and after the first hour, and you’ll be helped by ingesting small amounts of food every 20 minutes or so thereafter.
Keeping the food heavy on carbohydrates is best, as our bodies convert carbs to energy faster than they do proteins or fats. There are energy bars and gels that give you measured amounts of food, but I prefer to use regular food — fig bars, salty snacks like pretzels or Fritos or chips, bananas, and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches on multigrain bread. Event rides often have planned pit stops along the way where you can pick up more nourishment (but don’t count on that unless it’s been promised in advance).
Carry enough gear to be as self-sufficient as you can if a mechanical problem or injury occurs. On long rides I usually carry two innertubes, a mini-pump, a few small tools, my cell phone, some cash, my ID and a note about who to contact in an emergency. And if you have a medical alert ID, be sure to have that with you where it can be seen.
Take several training rides before the event. These build fitness and endurance and also enable you to field test the clothes, food and gear. It’s not necessary that your training rides be as long as the event ride will be, but as you work up to longer distances on successive rides, your comfort range will increase as well. If you can eventually ride a distance equal to about 75% of the event ride, you will likely be able to stretch that enough on the event day to go the distance.
When riding, try to maintain cadence rather than speed. Cadence refers to how fast you spin the pedals and is measured in “revolutions per minute” (RPMs). While you can’t count those yourself, most GPS devices for cycling and some of the bike cyclometers do. For many riders, 90 RPMs is a comfortable cadence that will move you along quite nicely on a flat surface.
When you come to a hill or encounter a headwind, you have the choice of pedaling harder and slower without shifting gears or shifting to a lower gear that will enable you to maintain the 90 RPMs. You will expend more energy if you make the first choice but will economize it with the second choice. As the hill becomes steeper or the headwind stronger, you may run out of lower gears and be forced to slow your cadence, but you still won’t expend as much energy as you would if you just cranked harder without downshifting.
As the terrain flattens or you turn out of the headwind, you can shift back up and resume the 90 RPMs (or whatever number works best for you). Of course, once you top the hill and start down, don’t feel restrained to the 90 RPMs. Let the bike roll as fast as you feel safe doing, especially if there is another hill ahead and you can use the momentum to get partway up that incline before you have to start pedaling again.
Learn more: What’s the Optimal Cycling Cadence?
Ride your own ride. Don’t try to keep up with the stronger or faster riders. You may do so successfully at the beginning of the ride, but you will pay for later when you bonk.
Insofar as possible, don’t dwell on how far you have still to go. Enjoy the moment and be glad that you can be out pedaling in the fresh air rather than anchoring down your couch at home.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.