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In praise of the century

Trevor Ward
31 Aug 2016

In a metric world, the 100-mile ride remains a landmark for all cyclists.

One hundred is a solid, imposing number – not as elusive as one thousand but certainly more impressive than 10. It’s a goal, rather than a dream, but also a challenge, not a certainty. Completing a first 100-mile ride, or century, is a rite of passage for all cyclists. 

It’s a distance that demands respect and takes serious commitment. This isn’t a quick blast before lunch. Unless you have the luxury of a support crew and a pan-flat parcours, this is effectively a full day of your time sacrificed at the altar of cycling. 

Your first century is a step into the unknown. You’ve never spent that long perched on a sliver of moulded nylon/carbon before. You’ve never worn your shoes or bibs for that many hours, and your body has never spent so much time hunkered in that position. A hundred miles in the UK will probably mean cycling through four seasons of weather. Layers and lubrication – for both body and bike – will be a major consideration.

Unless it’s an organised event, there will be no feed stations or broom wagons. Two bidons of water won’t last you 100 miles, and you’ll need more calories and electrolytes than your jersey pockets can hold. So you’ll have to replenish supplies along the way. But make sure that apparent village marked on the map does actually have a shop, pub or garage. During my first century after moving to north-east Scotland, I found myself having to knock on the front door of a remote farmhouse to beg for food and water, after having not passed so much as a garage in more than 70 miles. (Fortunately, I chose the right door. The kindly oil worker’s wife treated me to lashings of tea, toast and cake.) 

US ultra-cyclist Alicia Searvogel has been averaging around 100 miles a day since the start of June as she seeks to break the women’s record for highest mileage in a year (29,603, set by Britain’s Billie Fleming in 1938). Recalling her first century ride  Searvogel says, ‘It was hard to fathom riding 100 miles. That would be the distance from my house in Sacramento to San Francisco! Anyone who could do that was, in my mind, hardcore, a real cyclist. So I threw a backpack on and went on an adventure. It took me over 10 hours. Speed and time didn’t matter – just being able to finish did. I believe anyone can do a century in a day if they want to.’

A century isn’t the cycling equivalent of a marathon, the origins of which are shrouded in myth. It’s much more real than that. The century was forged by hard men riding primitive machines on rutted tracks, decades before tarmac and sat-navs became the norm.

Many of these pioneers were members of one of the UK’s oldest cycling clubs, Anfield BC, which to this day still runs the Anfield 100, the longest-surviving event of its type in the world.

‘The century was the target to aim at for any penny-farthing rider worth his salt,’ says ABC historian David Birchall. ‘It was a measure of prowess. In the earliest days when penny-farthings ruled the roads, a silver star was awarded to members completing 100 miles on any machine in the natural day.’

As bicycles evolved from penny-farthings to the machines we recognise today, riders’ ambitions grew, so that ABC members such as GP Mills – the winner of the first ever Bordeaux-Paris race in 1891 – were soon turning their attention to place-to-place records. But the prestige of completing 100 miles continued to be celebrated. A popular poem of the period, The Centurion by William Carleton, included this opening verse:

‘He tumbled from his weary wheel, and set it by the door; Then stood as though he joyed to feel, his feet on earth once more. And as he mopped his rumpled head, his face was wreathed in smiles; “A very pretty run,” he said, “I did a hundred miles.”’

Incidentally, this poem from 1894 proved remarkably prescient about riders’ obsessions with numbers. When asked about what beautiful sights he had seen during his many hours in the saddle, the rider replies, ‘I cannot say. I did a hundred miles.’ Although no longer a prerequisite for membership, the achievement continues to be commemorated in the names of many of today’s cycling clubs, such as Liverpool Century and Fife Century.

‘As a distance, 100 miles has stood the test of time, spanning the entire history of road racing,’ says Birchall. ‘It survives, in my opinion, because it still is a classic distance to which riders aspire, time-triallists and tourists alike.

You could also ask why 100 miles is favoured over, say, 100 kilometres. Is it those hard extra miles over and above the metric equivalent that make the difference?’

This is a moot point. If kilometres are the ‘official’ unit of measurement for modern cyclists, should 100km count as ‘a century’? Put bluntly, it’s a bit like comparing a croque-monsieur with a ham and cheese bap, or a continental breakfast with a bowl of salted porridge. 

Some things will forever remain imperial.

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