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How to ride your first century: Tips for beginners to reach 100 miles

In-depth
2 Jun 2021
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Here are all the top tips and tricks needed for cycling 100 miles for the first time

Words: Joe Robinson

Riding a century is a huge deal in the world of road cycling. Arguably it is the main thing, the benchmark distance to which we all strive to hit at least once in our riding lives. Even the most experienced riders cannot hide the satisfaction of ticking off 100 miles in the saddle.

But, unfortunately, riding a century is not quite as easy as just riding a bike. Hitting that mercurial 100-mile mark involves plenty of off-the-bike preparation as well as some prior training and nutrition knowledge.

So if you are relatively new to cycling and thinking of riding your first century this spring or summer, we have compiled these essential tips and tricks on how to ride your first 100 miles.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

So you’ve decided to ride your first century but before you even consider swinging a leg over the bike, there is some prep work that you need to do before leaving home.

First things first, you need to choose a time and date to ride that century.

One way of doing this is by riding a specific sportive or gran fondo, something like the RideLondon Sportive (which unfortunately isn't taking place this year) or the Dragon Ride in Wales. This method will help solve plenty of logistical issues such as route planning, while also giving you a concrete day in the diary to aim for.

Alternatively, you may want to forgo an organised event in place of a ride you have full control over.

If that’s the case, we suggest getting yourself online and having a look at a long-range forecast with the aim of plucking for a good weather day.

You don’t want to be tackling six or seven hours in the saddle for the first time when it is pouring with rain, howling with wind or even icy. On the flip side, you also want to avoid extreme heat because that’s just as tough as riding in the cold. Mild and still is always the best bet.

Next on your preparation tick list is route planning. You could just head out on the bike and ride 50 miles in one direction, turn around and then ride back home, but not only will you be making life harder, but you’ll also probably find that an extremely mundane experience.

What we recommend is using an app like Komoot, Strava or RideWithGPS to pre-plan your century ride in order for you to follow it on the big day.

With that, try and design a route which you know you will be capable of riding. Hills are fun but ultimately hard and while going up and down all day may sound like a laugh now, it’s nowhere near as easy as riding 100 miles on the flatter stuff.

We also suggest sticking to roads you know as much as possible, too. Speaking from experience, nobody wants to be riding a new 20% hill after 80 miles in the chair. Chances are you may be getting off and having to walk (I know I sure did).

If you do include some roads or places that you’ve yet to explore on the bike before, it’s even worth cross-referencing them with something like Google Maps and Street View so that you can make a judgement decision on whether those new roads are suitable for road cyclists in terms of their surface or even how busy they are.

Also, you will need to plan your route in tandem with the weather forecast. Have you ever ridden 30 miles into a block headwind? It's not advised. Use the weather to your advantage, a tailwind home is never to be smirked at. 

Finally, try and find a cafe or a decent shop at around the 50-60 mile mark so that you can have a pre-planned stop in mind to take a break, get some food and fill up your bottles – within local coronavirus rules, of course.

Training before the big day

Right, so you’ve earmarked that balmy spring day or exciting sportive to ride, wasted hours of your life on Google Maps memorising that route, so you’re good to go!

Unfortunately not. You actually need to make sure you are physically ready to ride 100 miles and ensure you have put in the sufficient work on the bike to make that century achievable. Thankfully, the good news is that it doesn’t take as much work as you may think.

A good starting point is commuting to work by bike. If riding to work is not an option, then try fitting in 60 minutes before or after work out on the road or on the turbo trainer as an alternative. Either way, that hour or two each day in the week will build a great foundation for when the weekends roll around and you have more time.

This is when you can slowly build up the distance and time in the saddle. Start with a two-hour ride on the first weekend, ignoring distance, just seeing how that feels. If it was ok, then add on half an hour in the saddle with every weekend ride you take on.

Before you know it you will be happily riding four to five hours at the weekends with relative ease and comfort and inadvertently getting closer to that 100-mile mark.

Realistically, you do not need to follow a training plan to ride 100 miles. But if you do prefer to follow a more structured approach, it certainly won't hurt. We've even got a handy guide on how to build a training plan here

Dress to impress

Each and every cyclist will have a differing opinion on what clothing is necessary for a big ride but in our opinion, there are two non-negotiable pieces of kit regardless of the weather: the packable gilet and the baselayer.

The gilet will always be a cyclist’s best friend. Neatly folded in your rear pocket, on 9 out of 10 rides you will not need it, completely forgetting you’d even taken it out with you. But then, every now and then, it comes to the rescue. If it begins to pour with rain, it can help keep your core dry; if the temperatures drop, it’s an added layer to keep you warm. And if the wind picks up? Then it can stop that from finding your chest, too.

Always wear a base layer, its versatility is truly something to admire. The base layer is excellent at providing a thin extra layer of warmth if the temperature drops while also being designed to wick away sweat from the body on the warmer days. It also stops any chafing from the strap of your bibs, which is a bonus.

Your body is like a car, it needs fuel!

Another big component of riding 100 miles is ‘fuelling’. Ultimately, the body is like a car and needs fuel in order to move.

Realistically, this starts the night before and the morning of the ride. You should be treating yourself to a nice carb-based dinner the night before like pasta or rice and then for breakfast something slow-burning like porridge.

As for when you’re actually on the bike, there is plenty of science around why and how to fuel properly – which can be read here – but we are not going to bore your with the details here. Instead, we are going to keep it simple by telling you to eat little and often.

From the moment you start riding, you will want to be eating every 45 minutes, sticking to carb-based foods like energy bars, sandwiches and bananas with the easier they are to eat on the bike the better.

A big tip from us is to start savoury at the beginning of the ride and then finish with the sweet stuff later. If you go sweet from the off, consuming large amounts of sugar for near-on seven hours will have you feeling sick in no time. So, if you stop for a proper lunch on the ride, which we always do, maybe go for a sandwich, a sausage roll or even a Scotch egg rather than cake.

Also try to steer clear of fatty food. Your body will have a nightmare trying to digest it on the bike and chances are it will leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable.

Actually riding the thing

Before any ride, let alone a century day, make sure your bike is in good nick the night before departure. Make sure it’s clean, the gears are all working fine, the brakes are functioning. The Cyclist YouTube channel has you covered with most of the important maintenance issues.

Then, also make sure you’ve got sufficient spares to take with you: at least two inner tubes, tyre levers, a multi-tool with chain tool and mini-pump being the bare minimum.

Also, try and convince a friend or a loved one to join you in this century adventure. Not only will their company help the miles tick by faster and potentially come in handy if you face any mechanical or safety problems, but the opportunity to draft in their wheel occasionally will also make the ride much easier too. 

Then when finally out on the road, pacing yourself is going to be important. Ride to a level that you know you will be able to sustain for the entire ride, don’t go out too hard otherwise you’ll only end up running out of legs before you’ve reached home and having to call a cab to get back. Don’t go out too conservatively either, otherwise you may find yourself getting home after dark.

A good perceived effort to ride is a speed at which you can still chat to your friend while pedalling. Do this on the climbs, too. Don’t go full biscuit when the road rises – this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

And finally…

Enjoy yourself! It is easy to forget that bike riding is predominately about having fun, not just a masochistic ritual we use to make ourselves fitter.

So when you’re out on the road, make sure to take in what’s around you. Even stop and take a photo, if you want. When you break for some sustenance, make sure you enjoy that sandwich, coffee or piece of cake. Cherish the company of the friend joining you on the journey. And most importantly, take joy from being on the bike.