This season I’ve noticed an increase in people “getting into cycling” and wanting to go on bike adventures, which suits me nicely. I got into cycling long distances in a big way and have mostly been doing it solo, listening to random audiobooks and podcasts while I cycle around the mountains in New Jersey. As pretty as it is, having company is always better.
As well as the number of friends getting into cycling as an ongoing hobby, I have noticed the frequency over the last few years the number of charity rides popping up exponentially. A lot of folks want to get ready for these charity rides, but maybe aren’t as interested in making cycling a huge part of their life forever, which is totally fine too.
Getting started with long distance cycling can be tough. Not physically, because literally anyone can cycle 100 miles in a day. The only difference between a super-fit cyclist and a beginner is how long that ride takes. A beginner who averages 12mph moving time and stops every ~10 miles will get there 9–10 hours, but a more experienced cyclist might average over 20mph and stop every 30 miles, meaning they get there in ~5 hours instead. That is not a huge difference.
The harder part is working out what to do before hand, what to wear, and what to carry with you on the day.
Let’s say you’ve signed up to do a century (100 mile ride). There’s great advice on how to get ready, and how to ramp up your training schedule in How to Go from Riding the Couch to Riding a Century from Chicago Magazine, which I would recommend following.
Here is my advice on top of that.
Jersey and Shorts: A lot of people fear getting the spandex top and bottoms because they feel silly, or are worried they’ll look like a try-hard. Don’t.
The padded shorts are a *must *for longer rides, or you’ll be walking like John Wayne afterwards. They also dry real fast when it gets wet, keep you warm when it is cold, and breath when it is warm. I wear a bib, which is like shorts with suspenders. It looks bloody ridiculous, but you hide that under your jersey, and they avoid builders bum, which neither you or anyone else on the ride wants.
Some organised rides will give you one of these jerseys which saves a chunk of money, but if not you should grab your own. Cycling jerseys have big stretchy pockets on the back, which stop you needing a backpack. Riding with a backpack sucks, and you can get all sorts of shit in these pockets.
Shammy Cream (a.k.a Chamois Cream): Also known as Ass Lube. This is one of those things a lot of people don’t think of, but friction can lead to some serious chafing, even with the proper puffy butt-pad shorts. If you’re riding more than 40ish miles, especially if there is rain, you’ll really want some of this.
Take an extra single-serve sachet in one of your jersey pockets, because enough rain *can *wash away your cream, leaving you with a sore arse and terrible morale.
Pumps: I have a big foot-pump at home, and used to ride with a little hand-pump attached to the bottle cage on my down tube. Hopefully you never need to use one of those tiny little things, because they are a royal pain in the ass to inflate a road tyre back to 80+ PSI.
Some folks use CO2 cartridges, but that might be a complication at this point. Seeing as most organized rides can help you change a tyre anyway, spending a bunch of money on gadgets might not be the best move. If you do go the CO2 route, get one with a trigger. Common problems with non-trigger CO2 adapters are: exploding the tube by over filling it, or getting paranoid about over filling and under filling it, which is almost as useless.
Gloves: A lot of people seem to think you only need gloves for when it’s cold, but no. Generally cycling gloves are fingerless jobs, and when it’s hot they absorb the sweat and stop your hands flying off. For colder weather you can get other gloves, and I have some that look a lot like ski gloves for when it’s snowing out.
The main benefit of cycling gloves for beginners is the gel-pads they have for that hammy bit of your hand by the thumb. We’re not meant to lean on our hands so much we hurt them, but we do, and to help with that are gel padded cycling gloves. Get them. They’re only about $20 and it stops you wanting to cry.
Sunglasses: Cycling has a lot of people throwing a lot of money at various things, and cycling goggles get insanely expensive. They come with different colour lenses, black for if the sun is really out, orange for day riding when its not so bad, and clear plastic for when you don’t want any discolouration/its night time. You can go ahead and throw $200 at some of these, or buy some crap deli sunglasses.
It can be easy to forget your sunglasses while you’re heading to the starting line at 4am in the pitch black, but dammit when that sun starts coming up and you spend a few hours heading east staring right at it… I didn’t feel ok. After trying about 20 delis and every CVS/Walgreens we went past to no avail, I eventually stole some sunglasses off the ride photographer and it was a whole different world.
Multi-tool: To start off with you wont want to be messing around with your bike too much, especially if you got fitted when you bought it. But, you’d be amazed how often a bike tool can be handy. Mostly you’ll just need 4, 5 and 6mm allen keys, but you can get some cheap and super fancy stuff like this VelChampion swiss army nuke with a fucking chain splitter/joiner and all other fancy stuff.
Snacks: Most rides will have a mixture of snacks and drinks, but some might not have what you want. If you need energy gel, or energy blocks, they might not have that stuff, so you should buy a few just in case. I’ll eat whatever bananas and Oreos and donuts and whatever, but if you’re picky then plan ahead.
Some rides won’t have energy drinks, so between you and your friends, taking along a tube of electrolyte tablets is probably a good idea. Basically if you’re sweating out of your face you’re losing a lot of salt, so you should put some of that back in with electrolytes.
Loud speaker: Many rides will have non-advertised rules about earphones, that they only mention at the start line. Some organizers say you may only use one earphone, but commonly they require no earphones. If you’re used to riding with music, then suddenly riding with no music will have quite an impact on morale. Low morale means low speed, and more importantly it can ruin the experience entirely.
I have a Boombotix Rex and I cannot recommend it enough. I bought it for city riding, as I’d had a few too many pedestrians wander out in front of me.
It turns out most people forget to bring music, and when you meet other cyclists on the ride they’ll either cheer and have a little dance, or tag along. I’ve started a ride solo and picked up a whole peloton of music fans, all enjoying Beach Boys greatest hits, or whatever heavy metal I decided to smash on that day.
Battery — Power bricks these days are incredibly cheap, and have amazing capacities. I have my iPhone plugged in for longer rides, and theres always somebody on the team who forgets something and needs help. I find the extra weight worth the hassle. I got my current power brick for free from Uber, when I signed up for UberRUSH.
Waterproof Wallet: Even if the weather is looking good, get a waterproof phone case or small bag to put things in. If you are a runner then you probably already have an armband for your phone and that’ll do just fine, and take a card and some money too. If you have nothing then just grab any old sandwich bag or plastic bag from Tescos, it will do the job.
You’ll want this regardless of the weather because the weather could change, you could get stuck outside if you have a problem, some asshole might spray you with a hose by accident, or if it’s hot you might get so sweaty you water damage your phone. I have a friend who rode with her phone tucked into her sports bra and… well she had to buy a new phone.
Get your bike serviced:** **I borrowed a bike from a friend to do a 60 mile ride and it had been serviced by a muppet. There were all sorts of problems with the gears leaving me stuck on the middle crank, and after 30 miles of average 20mph with only a third of your gears… I stopped for a cider and crawled along the rest of the ride. Not fun. Your bike needs to be ship-shape and ready to go, and most bike shops will check it out pretty cheap if you can point out anything that rattles or feels funny, and you dont bring it in the evening before the ride.
Download the GPX route: Whilst many rides are marked with spray-paint or signposted, you can still definitely get lost if you’re riding by yourself, or your group misses a turn. I turned my first 300 mile ride into a 315 mile ride by missing turns and struggling to get back to the route.
Knowing where you’re going is handy, and these days a lot of rides will supply a GPX file. You can put these into your fancy bike GPS computers if you have one, but you can also import them to Strava as a “Route” and call that route up when once you’ve started recording the Strava activity.
This saved my ass a few times on a century in gale-force winds, where the signs had been blown up-side-down, back to front, and one made it into a pond.
If none is provided, see if you can get a turn sheet ahead of time and make your own. Failing that… buddy system works nicely. At least then if you get lost, you’re lost with a friend.
Chill and Swim — Do a bit less cycling the few days leading up to the ride. Commuting is probably fine, but if you’re just getting started smashing out 30 miles the day before doing a big 100 mile ride is probably a bad idea. Do a bit of swimming instead, it totally helps all the other bits of your body that cycling isn’t helping, and can offset stuff like tendonitis.
On the Day
Stretch: A lot of my friends skip stretching, or just do the cursory “bend one foot up to your arse” stretch, giving it about 10 seconds on each side. If you’re doing that you might as well just not bother.
Hold each stretch for 30–45 seconds per stretch will do the job, and do quite a few. You’ve got a bunch of muscles in your legs, thighs, lower back, etc., so one stretch just isn’t enough.
Bicycling has a great set of stretches that you can do before a race. If you’re concerned those might make you look like a bit of a knob on the starting line, either do them at home first, or try this set of stretches from BikeRadar which are a bit less intense.
Breakfast: Don’t skip breakfast just for that energy goo crap. Sure, have one of them whenever you feel like getting a boost, but if you’ve got an empty stomach you’re going to have a bad day.
A bacon sandwich is probably aggressive if you’re going to be riding 20 mph, but is totally acceptable for more tame speeds. If you want to go fast but still have energy then some yoghurt and a bit of oatmeal could work nicely.
Tyre Pressure: The amount of air you have in your tyres can make a big difference to the ride. Just because the tyre looks ready to go, does not mean it is fully inflated. An under inflated wheel at best will wear you out, and at worst can lead to more flats, or even damage to your rims.
Most foot pumps will have a gauge on there showing PSI (Pounds per square inch) and often there is an arrow next to one of the numbers on the gauge. This little arrow is misleading. Your pump does not know what type of inner tube you are pumping up, so don’t assume that arrow is appropriate for you. For a road/racing tube, 80 is on the low side, and 130 is probably max before it blows. If unsure, go with 100. I ride at 120.
Take Money: Regardless of doing an organized or unorganized event, you might get yourself in a bit of a pickle. Many rides have food, drinks, mechanics, etc. every 10–20 miles, but that means you could be 5–10 miles from the nearest stop, and the support cars (if they have any) might all busy for a bit.
My friend and I trained really hard for my first century, and we blasted through the first two rest stops and were a long way out in front. We were told it would be about thirty minutes for us to get help after an inordinate number of flats blew through our supplies, and no other riders were around to help. We noticed a bike shop a short walk away, loaded up on inner tubes, and off we went.
Probably a better example, last ride where I was stuck on the middle crank, the last rest stop was a pub. I bought myself a cider while the mechanic unfucked the derailleur, and all was well with the world; my speed went from 14mph to 20mph just like that.
If you’re worried about your first long distance ride, you should not be. Follow the advice, do a bit of training, and take it easy. If you find you like it then crack on and keep at it. If you think that spending that long on a bike is daft and hate it, remember you won’t need to spend so long on a bike in one go if you get faster.
A few friends have said “Spending 6 hours on a bike sounds terrible”, then I explain that I spent 6 hours cycling along a beach to the Hampton’s, listening to music with friends, then partied on the beach for the rest of the evening. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so lame.
Besides, it beats taking the train to the gym. Don’t pay to work out, work out and explore the world while you’re at it.