The name of my first ever organized century ride was the "World’s Toughest Century," and with almost 10,000 feet of climbing over 105 miles, the event lived up to its name for my limited cycling experience. It also revealed areas where I was woefully underprepared.
If you’re considering a metric or imperial century ride this year, or another long-distance organized cycling event, we've collected advice from seasoned coaches to ensure that you’re still friends with your bike when you cross the finish line. And yes, the title is a reference to a song by Canada's The Tragically Hip—did you know there's a VELOTHON event in Edmonton, Canada?
Comfort is key
Even the most expensive bike in the world can make you miserable if it doesn’t fit you right. If you’re going to tackle 100 miles—aka, be on your bike for upwards of 5 hours—you absolutely need a bike that is comfortable. "I always recommend athletes ensure they have a comfortable bike fit before embarking on long rides," says Alaska-based cycling coach, Rebecca McKee. Do some preliminary research and then consult your local bike shop to dial in your fit.
What to wear
As well as your bike fit being spot on, you should also ensure you have the appropriate clothes for the long haul. "There are so many brands, styles, colors, and fill-in-the-blank when it comes to bike kits these days that it’s hard to sort through it all," she says. She recommends finding shorts with a chamois that will keep your butt happy for 5 or more hours, a process which make take some trial and error. The other key components of cycling attire, according to McKee are layers and pockets. "You may need to peel off clothing as the day warms up and pockets are essential to stash the extra clothing—as well as to store food and other necessities like sunscreen and ID."
We hope it goes without saying that you should always wear a helmet, but we will say it again: Always wear a helmet! McKee also recommends wearing brightly-colored clothing and getting front and rear lights for your bike to boost visibility in the early morning hours.
Friends and family
Endurance events like century rides come with long hours of training, so it's useful to enlist the support of your family and friends to keep you motivated. McKee reminds us that even if they are not participating in the event, there are ways for friends and family to get involved. Consider asking them to help out on long training rides or even meet you at the halfway point of a ride for a lunch break. "Having the support of family and friends will help you stay on course when you start to dread the distance or have thoughts of 'why did I sign up to do this?'" adds McKee.
Know how to ride your bike
No one expects you to be popping wheelies in the parking lot, but there is much to be said for basic bike handling skills. Derick Williamson, the Cycling Specialist for USA Triathlon's elite development pipeline suggests you get comfortable moving your hands around the controls of your bike and the different positions on the handlebars, as well as reaching for your water bottle and into your jersey pockets while riding. "All of the above needs to be done without your bike swerving!" he adds. Williamson recommends new riders practice the following single hand drill in a grassy field:
Single hand drill: Ride at a slow speed and practice riding with one hand. Work to do this with both hands and be sure you continue to pedal throughout to maintain momentum and balance. Advance this by reaching down to grab your water bottle and put it back in the cage without looking, and while continuing to pedal.
→ Pro tip: Develop the ability to always be looking ahead while doing this drill so that you remain aware of the environment and ready to react as needed.
Did you know that IRONMAN operates scenic, closed-course VELOTHON events all over the world? Find one here!
Your first century ride will likely not be a solo endeavor. Several hundred or even thousand fellow riders will be joining you on the roads, and it might feel crowded at times. "It's essential that you get comfortable riding in groups and around others," says Williamson. He advises achieving this by doing a few group rides in advance of the century, as well as trying these additional drills:
Slow pedal drill: On a grassy field, ride holding a straight line while pedaling and moving as slowly as possible. You can advance this drill by doing it with fellow riders on each side. This drill teaches balance at slower speeds, e.g. start of an event, as well as illustrating how subtle shifts in weight impacts your direction of travel permitting you hold your line more effectively.
Shoulder to shoulder drill: Pair up with a partner or two and work to ride slowly around a large perimeter while keeping your arms/shoulders abreast of the other rider. Advance this drill by getting closer and closer to the other rider(s) and even making incidental contact that you can easily and quickly correct
→ Pro tip: The above drills are a small sampling of things that will make you a better, more efficient and safer cyclist. Continue to develop your skills by seeking out a cycling coach that can work with you or your group one on one.
While the greatest hazard for newer riders may appear to be the wheel immediately in front of you, if you’re too fixated on what’s directly ahead of you, it can force you to overreact. It’s best to focus on several bikes ahead of you when riding in packs so that you can see things developing and be prepared to respond in measured tones rather than a panic brake that may cause a crash behind you.
Bike maintenance 101
On one of my first ever road rides, I was forced to play "damsel in distress" on the side of the road as I had no clue how to change a flat tire. The incident shamed me into signing up for a basic maintenance lesson at my local bike shop. Ensure you know how to change a flat before you embark on long training rides. Williamson also advises checking your tires a week or so before the event, and if there are any significant cuts, nicks or wear, replacing your tires
→ Pro tip: Consider prepping your tubes with a sealant such as Orange Seal or Stan’s sealant, this way if you pick up a small puncture or cut it will automatically seal and you’ll be flat free. This is an easy DIY fix that you can research online or you have your local bike shop handle it.
Feed the machine
Century rides can be a rolling buffet of snacks and foods with water and feed zones every 20 miles or so. While the offerings may look tasty, it’s useful to understand what your stomach can handle during an endurance event as that turkey sandwich may not sit so well halfway up the next climb on the course. Both McKee and Williamson recommend that you practice your race day nutrition and execute it on the day of the event. "It’s so easy to get caught up in excitement and nerves of event day that you forget to take nutrition in until it’s too late," says Williamson.
Knowing the course can instill tremendous confidence on the day of the event. While it may be impractical to pre-ride sections of the century course in advance, ensure that understand whether the course is hilly or flat, how long the climbs are and whether they are early or late in the event. You never want to be surprised by a 5-mile climb, 95 miles into your day! Williamson recommends you incorporate sessions that mimic the course demands in training: "If hilly, make sure you’re doing lots of climbing or low cadence work to prepare for climbing. If the course looks windy make sure you’re getting out and riding in some wind so that you’re prepared to power through that wind as well as handle your bike effectively."
There will be plenty of riders ready to charge off the line but for your first century, resist any urges to be at the front of the pack. Your goal should be to pace yourself to the finish. "If you’ve trained with metrics like heart rate or power, be sure that you know how to use that data for proper pacing during the event and know the upper limits," Williamson says. "For your first century, you want to be pretty conservative those first 60-80 miles, and if at any point you think you’re going too hard, you’re going waaay too hard!"