Ever since I heard about the idea cycling 100 miles (known as a century) I’d wanted to try it. I only have a Fixed Gear/Single Speed bike, and would love to do it Fixed, but thought it best to do one Single Speed first. Had I been told that a Century bike ride on multi-speed bike was thought to be the equivalent of running a marathon, I probably would have given up before I started. A marathon isn’t something I thought I could ever achieve.
Having visited family in Oxford with my girlfriend that weekend I had intended to cycle the 160miles home to Exeter over 2 or 3 days, whilst she drove straight home in the van. But one thing led to another and I ended up leaving at 7pm in the evening on the first day, only riding 30miles before bedtime. My girlfriend decided to stay in Oxford for the evening and meet me near Swindon that night so we could sleep in the van together. She wanted to make sure I got at least 1 good night’s sleep on my journey.
The following day, with 130miles to go, I realised that if I left my camping stuff in the van, I could attempt a Single Speed Century be home the same day, negating the need for any luggage. Taunton train station was roughly 100miles from Swindon and it would be a £10 train ride back to Exeter from that point. So how did I end up riding 130miles instead?
I was aware that over the summer my weekly mileage had dropped to 20-40miles. Not a good state of fitness to be in for the challenge, but my bike had been greatly upgraded since last year, which would help. It’s over a kilo lighter than the last time I cycled long distances and fits me much better. It’s also smoother to ride so I’d have less risk of injury. Previously the furthest I’d ridden was 80miles, Fixed Gear, with 20kg of luggage on the bike. I’d often wondered if that in itself was equivalent to a Fixed Gear Century, but none the less I wanted to try a REAL century.
Despite my lack of preparation, I felt encouraged to try for 100miles, because I knew that I could give up and take the train at any point. The route I had chosen had plenty of train stations along the way. Ironically, it was probably this safety net which made feel able to ride all the way home to Exeter. I did it because I didn’t get tired enough to feel like taking the train.
Ok, that’s not exactly true… by the time I got to Tiverton, I was shattered, but the trains had been cancelled, so I had to keep going for those last 12miles.
So I’ll start by saying that it goes without saying that it was a fantastic ride, and I felt totally freed by it. I saw some amazing places, towns, villages, views, animals, skies, sunset and more and more and more. Needless to say, I love being on my bike and I love what happens to my mind and body during and after a whole day of riding. Some people find it’s an adrenaline thrill, but instead I tend to become very calm, peaceful and elated. Even when it’s tough going, I never think to myself ‘Oh woe! When will this be over!?’ If I was thinking like that, why on earth would I keep going for 14hrs?
People often say that endurance exercise is about mental strength. I’d rather say that it’s about mental AWARENESS. It takes strength to push through pain, but pain might be a sign of damage being done. With the right awareness, I was able to enjoy every mile and take action to avoid pain before it started.
For those of you who enjoy cycling as much as I do and would like to try a century ride, here’s what made it work for me:
Food and drink – Powder is worth it.
When I first did a 50mile ride I didn’t know about the need to eat carbohydrate and had a horrible experience of cycling on empty. The wisdom is that simple, low fat carbs and sweet things are best. Sugar will work as fuel but isn’t the best, although many long distance riders end up eating chocolate anyway just because it’s always available to buy on the journey. A couple of months ago, I tried out powered sports drinks and bars and to my surprise I found them to be MUCH better! The drinks often contain caffeine and sweeteners, both of which I think of as unhealthy. So in the end I went for Torque powder because it’s natural and doesn’t contain any crap. It looks and smells a bit like sherbet. I carry 2 water bottles and the powder and make up fresh bottles of the formula as I refill the bottles along the way.
Advantages include fast and effective rehydration, meaning I drink less overall (which is great because drinking too much water used to make me feel sick) and a constant supply of energy with no highs and troughs.
On my 130mile ride I got through 8x 500ml bottles of the Torque formula. And because it was tough going, I brought confectionary to supplement the drinks. 1 big bag of M&Ms to snack on the bike, 2 scoops of ice cream for lunch and a milkshake for dinner.
When I got home, I was aware that I had 30mins to replace the glycogen I’d lost during the day by eating or drinking the right amount of pure carbohydrate. However, I normally do this with fruitjuice, and didn’t have any. So I improvised with honey on toast and an extra extra sweet hot chocolate. I was worried because I’d got back too late to be able to eat supper too. However, I woke up hungry at 4am and had to get up and make myself a meal.
Amazingly, my muscles were a little jellylike, but NOT painful the following day, which must have meant I’d got my endurance nutrition just right.
Technique – Vary it.
When I first did an 80mile ride I jarred my hands and they took 3 months to recover fully. As well as getting a better bike, and double taping the handlebars, I learned to avoid this problem by changing my hand position on the bars every few minutes to vary the wear, and to keep the weight off the outer sides of my hands by resting on the thumb side instead. I wish someone had told me this in the first place. Jarring can also be diminished by avoiding drains and bumps in the road where possible and being strict with unweighting the bars and saddle as you ride over any bumps that can’t be avoided.
Using 1 gear and a speedometer helps me to pick the right pedal technique for the speed I’m riding at. I like the gear I’ve chosen (68 inch) because it gives me optimum cadence (around 90rpm) at 16-20mph, which is what I usually do on the flat. Up hills, I like to stay over 10mph, but if it drops to 8mph I might have to get out of the saddle. At 6mph I definitely have to stand up.
Down hills I’m comfortable up to 26mph, which I’ll accelerate to and then freewheel, getting down on my drops and staying low to pick up the maximum speed possible, and then watching the speedo so I can start pedalling again when it drops to 26mph to make the most of the acceleration gained in that downhill. A lot can be said for being brave and not touching the brakes on a downhill section if it’s straight and safe to do so.
Never mind what these figures are, the point is, I KNOW them. I know how fast I can pedal, what I should be doing on the flat if it’s not windy, what speed to climb in the saddle and what speed to get out of it and swing the bike. These figures help me psychologically and they help me last longer. I’ll put in the extra effort to stay above 10mph and stay in the saddle on a hill because I know that standing up on the pedals tires people quicker. I’ll know if it’s windy or slightly uphill if I can’t make it to 16mph on a seemingly flat road.
How to stay in the saddle on a hill: When I first cycled with one gear, I thought hill climbing was about being able to stay out of the saddle for long periods. I had 2 methods of riding – pushing the pedals around happily on the flat, and slogging it out on hills, standing up and swinging the bike.
Now my rides are about staying in the saddle much as possible, which means developing different techniques. The bike may only have one setting, but the rider can have several as shown below.
- Pedalling around evenly
- Pedalling around focusing on the downstroke
- Pedalling around focusing on the upstroke
- Pedalling whilst consciously tensing the core
- Pedalling whilst locking the arms by pressing them down on the bars (this automatically tenses the core and gives a bit extra too. It’s good for short bursts of power)
- Pedalling whilst bobbing the body from side to side.
- Pedalling whilst swinging the bike, but staying in the saddle.
- Finally getting out of the saddle and swinging the bike.
On a hill, I’ll only stand up as a last resort if I’ve tried all these methods. Leaning back on the saddle can provide extra power too as it’s a slightly more favorable angle. I might rotate a few of the in-the-saddle techniques on a long slow hill to vary the muscle groups used so it takes me longer to get tired.
Mindset and awareness – Stay in the present
The biggest thing I learned during this journey was to take every mile as it comes. It may sound like a cliché, but there were literally ups and downs. Thinking about all the hills that were to come, I felt like giving up. But keeping focused and riding every mile as if it were the only mile was the only way to get through it. I realized that I didn’t need enough energy for the future now I just needed enough energy now. Being totally in the moment and putting all my focus on the current pedal stroke, I was able to enjoy each and every one.
For the record, there were 121,130 of em.
Happy cycling to you.