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The problems you encounter on long-distance cycling events and the best ways to solve them

Emily Chappell
12 Apr 2019

Riders can enter events not realising some of the problems they will face so we've got some solutions to get everyone to the finish line

We’re not sure why multi-day sportives have become so popular. Perhaps cycling fans are keen to emulate professional Grand Tours as closely as possible, perhaps the 300km parcours of the Dragon Devil and the Mallorca 312 are no longer enough – or it could simply be that we’ve decided we like riding sportives, so why not stick a few of them back-to-back, and call it a holiday?

Riding long distances over several days will ask a lot of you, not just physically, but also logistically and emotionally, and physical training will only get you so far.

I frequently speak to riders on multi-day events who tell me they had no idea of some of the challenges that lay in store, and that they wished they’d known in advance, so they could prepare for them.

Thankfully, there is always a solution, and if you’ve signed up for an event like Haute Route, or the Ride Across Britain, you still have time to get some strategies in place so that you’ll be ready to tackle these problems, should they arise.

Problem 1: Exercise-induced insomnia

This is the challenge no one thinks they’ll face, because surely a nice 200km ride in the sunshine, followed by a big dinner and a glass of wine, is the perfect recipe for a sound night’s sleep?

What they’re perhaps forgetting is that alcohol interferes with our REM sleep patterns, heavy meals breed indigestion, and the physical strain of all that exercise stimulates our bodies to produce cortisol, a hormone that’s supposed to peak in the morning, to wake you up.

Add to that the stress of an unfamiliar routine and environment – on some of these events you’ll have a different bed and a different room-mate every night – and you’ll start to see why sleep is such an elusive quantity for some riders.

The strategy

• Develop a pre-bed ritual in advance. Your bedtime might vary over your trip, but spending 20-30 minutes going through a familiar winding-down process will initiate a Pavlovian response, and help convince your mind that it’s time to go to sleep. This could include turning off your devices, doing some stretching or yoga, drinking a cup of herbal tea, dimming the lights, and reading a book or magazine (subscribe to Cyclist here).

• Control your sleeping environment. Team Sky famously bring their own mattress toppers on tour, and while this is not an option for most sportive riders, you could bring along your own pillow, pillowcase, soft toy, or anything else that’ll remind you of your bedroom. Smells are evocative, so bring a sample of your partner’s perfume, or start using a pillow spray while you’re still at home, and bring it with you on tour. (Lavender, valerian and bergamot are recommended for promoting sleep.) Ear-plugs and eye-masks are a great idea, but practise using them at home beforehand, so they feel familiar and safe.

• Don’t dehydrate. There are all sorts of reasons why you need to keep your fluids up, and one of the lesser-known ones is that dehydration raises your core temperature and increases heart rate – both of which will make it harder to doze off. There’s no shortcut here – you’ll need to get in the habit of drinking constantly, refill your bottles whenever you can, and keep an eye on your urine (it should be the colour of champagne).

• Monitor your caffeine and alcohol. I won’t deny the occasional necessity of a 4pm espresso, or the ambrosial taste of a post-ride beer, but it’s worth keeping track of how much of each substance is going into your system. Caffeine has a half-life of 5-7 hours, so that afternoon pick-me-up may well still be swirling around your system at bedtime, and although alcohol initially causes drowsiness, it can significantly impair the quality of your sleep, or mean you wake up later in the night. Be aware of how much caffeine you’re getting from your gels and painkillers too.

Problem 2: Hot-foot

If you’ve trained in the chilly climes of Northern Europe, you may be unfamiliar with the agony as your feet are slowly grilled by the summer sun reflecting off the tarmac.

The resulting swelling compresses the nerves between your metatarsals, and leads to the characteristic burning pain that can ruin a day’s ride. Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do in advance to prevent it.

The strategy

• Wear white shoes. Dark colours absorb heat; light colours reflect it, so you’ll be slightly less prone to overheating if you avoid blacks and navies. You’ll also want to think about ventilation – air-flow isn’t just about aerodynamics.

• Make sure your shoes fit well. Never buy shoes without trying them on – ideally with professional assistance, and make sure your insoles are an appropriate size and shape for your feet.

• Give yourself space. In ultra-distance events like RAAM, riders’ feet often swell by more than a size, and most will carry extra pairs of shoes with this in mind. You can adjust the fit of your shoes by swapping insoles around, but I’d strongly recommend bringing along a spare pair if you can – an old pair of touring shoes might not match your fancy bike, but you’ll be past caring once your carbon-soled beauties start to pinch. I met a rider on the Transcontinental who had decided to race in SPD sandals, and couldn’t stop talking about how blissfully comfortable he was.

• Take your shoes off wherever possible. Dunk your feet in mountain streams and public fountains whenever you get the chance, and give them a few minutes’ recovery at feed stops. If you have a support vehicle, stash a pair of flip-flops (or better still, sliders, as you won’t have to take your socks off), so you don’t have to hobble around barefoot.

Problem 3: Gastrointestinal distress

You may already be familiar with the ways in which your stomach can go haywire on longer rides. I’ve heard fellow riders complain of bloating, flatulence, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, and almost every other way in which a digestive tract can malfunction.

When we’re riding hard, our muscles monopolise the blood supply and our digestive system slows down to compensate. Foods hangs around for longer, which can irritate and inflame the digestive tract, and more gas is produced as gut bacteria have more opportunity to ferment undigested food.

Add to this the effects of dehydration, and the increased risk of infection when sharing facilities with dozens of other riders in a warm climate, and you’ll begin to see why there’s often such a long queue for the toilets.

The strategy

• Train your stomach. The good news is, it’s possible to adapt your digestive system to absorb fluid, carbohydrate, and even fats and proteins more efficiently while you’re cycling, so take snacks on your longer training rides, and make a point of eating them. Aim for little and often, so as not to overload your stomach, and try to consume a wide a variety of foodstuffs. On a multi-day ride you’ll need to be eating fruit and veg as well as the usual cakes and nuts, to stop you from getting constipated.

• Check your labels. I wouldn’t recommend relying on energy products for a multi-day ride – after a day or two your tastebuds will be as tired of them as your stomach lining – but if you can’t do without, make sure you use products that you’ve tried and tested, and keep an eye on the ingredients. As well as looking out for caffeine, you’ll want to check for fructose, which has been shown to be more irritating to the gut than sucrose, dextrose or maltodextrin.

• Pace yourself. Not only will riding too hard diminish your body’s ability to process food – overloading your stomach with large quantities of food or water can cause bloating, nausea and even vomiting. There’s a limit to how quickly your body can absorb fluids and calories, so eating or drinking a lot in one go isn’t going to do you any favours. The only sensible solution is to find a speed at which you can comfortably digest, and get used to eating and drinking regularly, in smaller quantities. It’ll take a little while to get this right, so don’t leave it to the last minute.

• Maintain good hygiene practices. An event in which hundreds of cyclists compromise their immune systems by riding hard in summer temperatures is the ideal breeding ground for bacteria. To protect yourself and your fellow riders, carry hand sanitiser at all times (some events will provide it), sterilise your water bottles in the evenings (I use Milton tablets), and be scrupulous about washing your hands after you use the toilet or fix a puncture.

Problem 4: Saddlesore

If you’ve entered a multi-day sportive, you’re probably a fairly serious rider, and have already figured out your preferred saddle, style of shorts and flavour of chamois cream. But be prepared for saddlesore to rear its ugly head again if you’re tackling a challenge like Le Loop, with its 3,000km parcours and three weeks of cycling.

While saddlesores take various forms, the causes are fairly consistent:

Friction + pressure + heat + moisture

The first two damage your skin: chafing removes layers of the epidermis, and the weight of your body pressing onto the saddle reduces blood flow to the area. The resulting damage to your flesh – whether it’s invisible micro-abrasions or dramatic open sores – makes it more susceptible to infection.

The second two create a welcoming environment for bacteria to multiply – and if you’re pedalling for several hours a day, generating a lot of heat and moisture is pretty much unavoidable!

The strategy

• Consolidate your position. Everyone’s unique when it comes to saddlesore, and the only way to figure out your optimum saddle width, shape, height and angle is plain old-fashioned trial and error. I’d recommend a bike fit, and if you’re having trouble finding a saddle that works, an increasing number of shops have saddle libraries, from which you can borrow multiple models until you’ve found one that works. Get this sorted as early as you can – you do not want to be dithering over saddles in the final weeks before an event.

• Keep it clean. To minimise the likelihood of bacteria getting into broken skin while you’re riding, keep your saddle area as clean as you possibly can. This may mean carrying wet wipes for those mid-ride chamois cream reapplications – some may even carry spare shorts. Whether or not to remove pubic hair is very much a personal choice. British Cycling recommends keeping hair, as it wicks sweat; others claim that on longer rides it can harbour germs, dead skin, and other nasties.

• Maximise recovery time. You’ll only have a few hours before you’re back on the bike, so make the most of them. Get out of your chamois as soon as you can, get yourself clean (British Cycling recommends an antibacterial shower gel called Dermol 500), and put on something loose and well-ventilated, like a skirt or baggy shorts. ‘Letting your skin breathe’ is a misnomer (skin isn’t capable of respiration): what you’re actually doing is keeping it as dry as possible. You’ll also be doing yourself a favour if you spend as much time as possible lying down – sitting puts more pressure on your posterior, and gives less room for air to circulate.

• Take care of your shorts. Wearing a clean pair every day should go without saying. If you’re doing your own laundry, use a sports wash like Halo, which is designed to work at low temperatures, and finish them off with a hairdryer if they don’t dry overnight. I carry a small pot of baking soda with me, to soak my kit on rest days (it also removes odours), and some riders will sterilise theirs with Milton tablets. In longer events, your shorts may loosen over time, because the fabric deteriorates, or as you lose weight, meaning the pad is less securely held in place, and introduces friction. A nice excuse to bring along a new pair as a halfway treat!

Forewarned is forearmed, and knowing what challenges lie ahead will help you plan what to purchase, pack and prepare, to ensure that your first multi-day sportive doesn’t end up being your last.

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