Life is like riding a bicycle – in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving. ~Albert Einstein
WARNING: this is a long article and intended for the first time century rider based on my own experience. Said experience comes from someone who could not ride more than 10 miles per day 16 months ago to the same person who just logged over 700 miles in a month with over 36000 feet of elevation gain.
DISCLAIMER: this is my story and my advice. I have gotten plenty of well meaning advice over the course of time and some of it did not work for me. It stands to reason that some of what you read here might not work for you. Ergo, pick and chose what feels right for you.
REASON FOR WRITING ABOUT A FIRST CENTURY: – I just received an invitation to partake in a century ride next Saturday and barring any surprises, I accepted without even blinking an eye. That got me thinking: – it was only a bit over a year since I purchased my road bike and made an effort to exercise regularly. It was less than 9 months ago when I sat on the eve of my VERY FIRST century, nervous and excited all at the same time, but probably more nervous than anything else. What follows is a recap how I lost my century virginity in the hops that there might be some useful information for some who wonder if they can.
The internet was (is) the best friend for me when I started to research “How to train for a century ride”. Copy and paste or type that exact phrase into Google and you will get 34.7 million hits. Of course, not everything is relevant, but the first 5 pages (50 articles) will give you a wealth of information from training ride schedules to how to make your own high energy bars. It takes a long time to sift through all this information and no, I am not making my own energy bars. Since I rode my first century in September 2008, I rode three more. Does that qualify me as an expert? – No! But, I gained enough practical knowledge, and my first century is recent enough, to be able to relate to the ‘first timer’.
If you are single and unattached, skip this part. “You want to do WHAT”? – that was the reaction I received from
my wife Sue when I first told her, closely followed by “WHY”? If you are in a relationship, you got to have the support of your partner. How else will you be able to get the ride time needed to build your strength and endurance? Imagine the misery trying to get some ‘me time on the bike’ ending up in arguments when you do. There has to be give and take, as with anything in a good relationship, and in my case it boiled down to doing an excellent and willing job at my assigned “honey-do’s” without grumbling or delay. I also made it a point to share my progress with my wife who cannot join me in these adventures because of a bad back.
I decided to ride a 100 mile ride because I wanted to see if I can. Once I decide to do something there is no stopping me. Just ask Sue (I think the term she would use is – compulsive)! The reason I bring up perspective is because it is so easy to lose yourself (and others) in any regiment. All of a sudden you find yourself thinking, breathing, eating, dreaming – riding, riding, riding. Stay grounded, it is only a century – a challenge ride! Well, I know that now but back then it was that momentous event looming on the horizon. Just break it down – a century is nothing but 4 segments of 25 miles of riding your bicycle back to back. (no, we are not talking about metric centuries which are measured in km, thus a metric century = 100km = 62.14 miles)
You must have an idea which century you are going to ride. There are websites which list all/most organized rides and give information about the level of difficulty. Since I live in Southern California and we have mostly great weather year round it is easy to find rides. In my case I chose the easiest ride I could find between 2 to 3 months out form my decision time to allow for training.
My choice was the ‘Amtrak Century‘ – a yearly ride organized by the Orange County Wheelmen, which departs from the Amtrak station in Irvin, CA and terminates at the Amtrak station in San Diego, CA. Once I made that choice, I started learning about the route profile, which has little elevation gain (2700 ft). Now I knew that my training should be focused mostly on endurance.
You probably thought I would never get to this part, but if you lack support, lack perspective and don’t
know where and what route you will ride, how would you ever know how to train? In my case I used Google again and searched for the elevation profile of the Amtrak century. With that I learned that a big portion of the elevation gain comes from two climbs; one very early in the ride and one around mile 80, with the rest of the elevation gain sprinkled over the length of the route. My priority was:
- be able to stay in the saddle for more than 6 hours
- be able to ride at a 15 mph average speed
- be able to have enough strength so the two major hills won’t bonk me
The longest ride I had ever done prior to starting my training was 14 miles. This is the schedule I worked with to build up to my first century ride:
In order to get the training in, some sacrifices were needed, such as getting up earlier in order to get rides in before work. That sort of stinks the first couple of weeks, but I got used to and eventually looked forward to these early rides. It really changes the bounce in your step when you go to work after a good ride in the morning.
So much of our equipment is personal preference and I am not one to tell you which one is best. Case and point: I ride a Scattante CFR, which is the Performance Bicycle store brand. (Yes, I do have a dream bike: 2009 Cervelo RS – but that won’t happen for a while for many of reasons).
Rather than focusing on the brand of equipment, lets focus on the functionality and fit of your ride. If you have not been fit to your bike by your LBS (local bike shop) go there now and have it done. A proper fit will make more difference than all the carbon vs. aluminum vs. titanium vs. whatever ratios. A proper fit might not be able to take the proverbial pain out of your butt after a 100 miles or riding, but it will surely help eliminate a lot of other pains. When I purchased my ride I had one item at the top of the list which was non-negotiable: the bicycle fit must be included in the purchase price! Performance did just that and if you followed the link above for the Scattante you know the rest.
Next – the seat: I am not even going to attempt to recommend a type or shape. Our butts are about as unique as we are – enough said. I do best with a very narrow, rigid seat and ended up with a Fi’zi:k Arione Wing Flex Saddle.
But, that is for my butt, I don’t know about yours – it is a trial and error sort of thing and it really helps when your LBS allows you to take loaners a day at the time (mine did).
Another important part is the gearing of your ride. “Triple, Double or Compact?” – ah, so many choices, just what to do? Let’s try and strip down the decision making process:
- You are in great shape, little body fat, your muscles are clearly defined – why are you even reading this? Just go and ride with whatever your gears are and I bet you ride a double (usually 52×39 crankarm) anyway.
- You work hard and it is tough to find time for regular exercise between work and family. You used to be pretty athletic and still young enough to remember that. You still can manage spurts of intense aerobic workouts, but you also start to feel it the next day. Yet, you shudder at the thought of having to use a ‘granny gear‘ – yes – you are the compact man or woman (usually 50×34 crank).
- You are similar to me, meaning you have seen and lived more than 5 decades of excitement and the last time you really worked out was, well, come on remember?! You are the triple (usually 52x39x30) kind of guy or gal. But wait a minute! – “Many people (particularly men) have this macho-thing about being strong enough to climb a hill without the help of so-called granny gears (a semi-derisive phrase for triple cranksets). There’s not much you can do about this type of attitude…the only “cure” is a pair of busted knees, and that “cure” usually ends the cyclists’ riding career“. (quote credit goes to: Chain Reaction Bicylces).
This is my non-scientific explanation for which crankset you should ride. Now, if you are really interested in the difference a crankset (and of course your rear cassette) makes, you must read Sheldon Browns website. My ride originally came with a triple and a 12/23 cassette in the back. When I started riding I had a tough time climbing some hills even with the granny (the combination of the the smallest ring in the front (30 teeth) and the smallest ring in back (23 teeth). I changed the rear cassette to a 12/27 which really helped me getting up those hills (Note: a year and thousands of miles later my overall strength has improved to the point that I rarely use the granny). However, when I get to mountain roads exceeding 10% grade, it is nice to know that the “granny” is there and I am not ashamed to use it.
While you train for your big ride you should also take care of your equipment. This is for two reasons:
- you get to know your bicycle
- you learn to trust your ride
At the beginning of my riding I used to bring my bike to my LBS because I had no clue how to do anything on my bike. I would ask permission to hang with the wrench monkeys to observe and learn and since I brought a case of good beer along, the chief monkey gave me consent to hang in the shop. Before that, I truly thought that cleaning a chain, or heavens forbid a derailleur, would be something done only by a mechanic. Now I know it is easy to take apart your crank, strip your chain and have a brand new looking drive train in about an hour. This is not another lesson in how to clean and maintain your bike, I am trying to point out that once you made up your mind to ride a century, you should also be able to understand the basic mechanics of your bicycle.
Why? Because you should not be the one sitting on the side of the road and wondering how to get a jumped chain back onto the cogs. You should not be the one puzzling how to fix a flat tire. You should have been in your backyard, balcony, driveway or garage or wherever and say: “self, lets change a tire!”
“WHAT”? – deflate a perfectly good tire? Work with tire levers? How do you work them? Do you use the pointy side or the groove side of the levers to get the tire off? Should I have more than one lever? Ah – I see, you think because it is an organized ride there will be one or more SAG cars (Support And Gear) and you don’t need to worry about it. OK, that works for me, as long as you are willing to sit on the side of the road and wait and wait and….
In short, I am not advocating for you to become a bike mechanic (if you don’t want to disassemble the crank that’s fine too), BUT you must know basic emergency repair. Not because of your century ride day (which is likely well supported anyway), but because of your training days which will lead you far from home without support.
Riding solo or with a buddy
When I started riding, my main purpose was exercise. I chose cycling because I could do it at any time of the day (technically at least) and I could leave from home and did not have to waste time getting to and from a workout facility. Because of that I grew accustomed to riding solo and really don’t mind it. Having said that, there are times when it is really nice to have someone to ride with, especially on those long rides.
Having a buddy to ride with is nice for many reasons: the camaraderie, the moral support, the ability to draft, being able to help each other through low points in the ride and to sharing some laughs. To put it simply, it is nice to share the ride experience with someone else. I did not know anyone when I registered for my century, but read that it was advisable to seek out groups or individuals with the riding ability to match your own. I always found that to be pretty horse dopey advice. What? – you are supposed to run around the start line with a big sign around your neck “I think I will ride a 15 mph average – are we a match – do you want to ride with me?” – Nope, didn’t think so.
In reality it is easy to start solo. You start, you ride at your speed and before long you will hook up with someone or that someone hooks up with you. If you are the one coming upon another rider and you want to stick with them, just be sure to ask if it is OK. Don’t forget that you are supposed to return the courtesy of a nice draft, which means, exchange lead.
The day before your big ride
Most century rides are held on Saturdays and traditional start very early. Unless you live in the backyard of the start line you also need to plan for travel time. If it takes you more than 2 hours to get to the start line, you might consider renting a motel/hotel room for the night at your destination to assure you get some well needed rest. The last thing you want to do the day of the ride is to get your gear together at 3 am while you are still half asleep. Therefor, the day before your century, your bike should be ready to load (or already loaded) onto your car and all your gear should be packed and stowed.
Here is the link to the best century ride checklist I could find on the net. I have used it on all my rides and never missed an item yet. Once you have everything packed and double checked it is time to relax. Yeah, right! That is so much easier said than done – at least for me it is. I mean, you are excited, this is going to be your first century. You worked so hard on conditioning your body and mind and it is hard to calm down and find sleep. But try to get a good nights sleep, as well as a good dinner, perhaps a nice glass of wine (or two), or a beer (or two), depending on taste. Both, food and alcohol, in moderation will help you relax and more important, will help you the next day with much needed fuel. You may have noticed that I did not write anything about nutrition and I will not, except I will say one thing: Don’t eat foods you usually don’t consume before and/or during the ride (same goes for beverages).
Finally – the day of the ride
This is it – this is what you trained for. You have arrived and you are probably in a parking lot and although you
are preregistered (I hope), you still need to check in to receive your ride number (for your jersey and/or bike), wrist band (not always), route sheet (always and very important) and any last minute advice which might be given by the volunteer who checks you in. The ride check in usually works in one of two ways; lines will form either by last name initials, i.e. A-C, D-F etc. or by registration number (you got that in your confirmation email or letter), i.e. 0-125, 126-300 etc.
If you are really early, chances are that you are in company of riders who are also first timers, or riders who understand their abilities. That means they don’t ride very fast and know their limitations. They know that by starting at the first possible time and taking their travel speed into consideration, they will finish the ride while SAG support is still in place. These riders are experienced and are usually a good source for information and are often a blast to ride with.
This is one of the most important pieces of equipment for your ride and not knowing what to do with it made it difficult for me on my first ride. Upon start check-in I received a piece of paper (8.5×11) with turn-by-turn directions for the 100 miles. Most are printed in such a way that one can fold the sheet in half, then half again, and the result is a manageable piece of paper with riding directions in four segments, usually designed to get you from rest stop to rest stop (the idea being that while you are at a rest stop you fold the paper over to the next lag).
Three route sheet mistakes I made on my first ride which hopefully you will not.
- The first was not to bring a little plastic bag (I found out little sandwich baggies in quart size work well). Why: the plastic protects the sheet from your perspiration. In my case I shoved the folded unprotected paper into the back of my jersey; by mile 20 all that was left were shredded and soggy pieces – not very helpful
- I did not know about a clip system to hold the route sheet secured to the handle bar, which of course
resulted in having to store the cue sheet in my soggy jersey pocket to begin with. I have seen home made clip systems (using paper clips on the gearshift cables) to commercially available cue sheet clips
- The third mistake I made (after shredding my soggy route sheet) was following a group of riders assuming they knew where they were going. Lets just say that my first century which should have been 101 miles ended up being 109 miles. My drill instructor in the army always said: “Assume means you make an ASS of U and ME” – he was so right. I have not followed another group in hopes of direction since.
The alternative to a route sheet is using your GPS if you have one. Be mindful that not every ride provides the data files and be very careful when using ‘last years route downloaded from the net’ as ride routes often change from year to year. For now, the turn-by-turn print directions are still the most reliable.
And off you go
I have experienced two start systems: One is a ‘free start’, meaning whenever you are ready – you can roll; the other is a timed group start, in which the organizers allow a predetermined number of riders out of the gate, usually between 25 to a 100. It is the second start scenario which really requires you to be 100% in tune with your surroundings. You will always have riders in these groups which never rode in a group before and they are not accustomed to the close proximity of other riders. This very much described me for my first start. Stay clear of other rear wheels, allow room for yourself on both your sides and be patient. Many riders don’t get the fact that this is NOT a race but a challenge ride. Regardless, the ‘racers’ are always there, unfortunately most of them come equipped without the proper etiquette. As a result you have to expect that riders streak by your left and right without announcing themselves, jockeying for position in a race that is not one. Usually within the first 5 miles the madness subsides, the racers are long gone, but there will be others coming up from the rear. The large group has naturally separated itself into smaller clusters and you may or may not be with a group. You are riding your first century – what you don’t know yet – you will be hooked for life.
Savor the moment
The one thing I still kick myself for is that I did not take any photos during my first ride. Yes, I had my camera with me, but I was so preoccupied with my route sheet, the fear of getting lost, the excitement of doing the ride, the joy of finding the rest stops and the need to finish, that I did not take the time to enjoy my surroundings as much as I should have. The only photo for my very first ride is the one to the left, taken by an event photographer (hm, still pretty pudgy back then).
My first century was a blast. Through preparation I knew what to expect from the route, and although the ride was not always easy, there were no surprises which could deflate me. I met plenty of great people along the way and fought through my low points. It seems the stretch between mile 65 to 75 was the the worst for me. I was strong enough for the ride and well prepared, except for my butt which really didn’t like me weight on it from mile 70 t0 90. Funny though, it stopped complaining in the last 10 miles and I am sure it was the endorphins kicking in, knowing I made it.
Enjoy your first century – let’s ride!