15 October 2016
I have often been asked for tips by people planning to get into long-distance cycling, or people still new to the discipline. There’s a plethora of advice out there but I think there are a couple of universal messages which universally apply.
When asked to deliver the most important pieces of advice on this topic, in a nutshell, I’d say: “If you really want to do it just do it. That’s really all there is to it. Don’t procrastinate…”
My 4 most important points of advice for people who ask me about taking up long-distance cycling are:
1. Don’t set self-limiting goals, start with what you would really like to achieve in a perfect world and work from that. If you aim for the stars you’ll at least hit the moon – but if you aim for the moon you will definitely not hit the stars.
2. There is a fine line between quitting and failure – most people quit, they don’t fail. It’s a fine line to tread, but that is the secret to mastery of long-distance cycling. Learn to distinguish between these two terms and commit to finish whatever you start. Training is where you build your character for long distance cycling, so don’t form ‘quitting habits’ during your training and preparation – challenge yourself and learn what works best for you.
Quitting is a habit – and so is success. Develop the right habits through your training. I always finish my training sessions, even if they are not going to plan. I never cut my sessions short, or deviate from my session goals midway. Of course, if there’s a genuine emergency or threat to your health & well-being this will not apply (but keep going back to the ‘fine line’ I discussed above, whenever you are making those decisions).
This advice applies to cycling – and life in general. There is a fine line between quitting and failing – learn to distinguish between the two.
3. Learn to pace yourself. There is almost no limit to how far you can ride if you learn how to pace yourself. That is probably the biggest skill to long-distance riding, outside of the mental approaches outlined in the 2 points above. General fitness is usually sufficient to take you a long way if you know how to pace yourself optimally.
Of course, it pays to optimise your fitness before a long-distance cycling challenge (especially as you approach the limits of what is humanly possible for you), but fitness alone is not everything in this discipline.
Part of your “pacing” strategy will also relate to your ‘nutritional pacing’ (working with a nutritional strategy appropriate to what you are trying to achieve). If you can get your nutritional intake, your hydration and your actual cycling effort correct, the effects are huge (and go well beyond the applications of simple cycling fitness training).
In other words, regardless of how fit you are, your cycling range is limited if you do not understand bike pacing, appropriate nutrition & hydration for the challenge you are attempting – and the effects of those factors on your ability to move comfortably for very long periods.
The easiest nutritional strategy for riding long distances is to feed yourself hourly on very long rides. Lower GI foods (like sandwiches) seem to work best for long-distance cycling (and less sugary foods tend to be better, for food tolerance purposes). Sugary foods tend to become unpalatable after a day of continuous riding, so they should be used sparingly – and interspersed with more ‘wholesome’ meals, wherever possible.
One of the fastest ways to learn the optimal pacing for Audax long-distance cycling is to aim to ride at a very even effort – from the start to the finish of an event – and to try to use almost all the available time in the event. So if the time-limit for a 200km Audax event is 13.5 hours, aim ride your first 200km event at a very comfortable and steady effort (pacing to finish in about 12.5 – 13.0 hours).
Use most of the available time, with just a small contingency for routing mistakes and mechanical setbacks. That will show you a very different experience to trying to ride the event as quickly as you can and will help you learn the skill of long-distance pacing. You will gain confidence when you realise just how straightforward long rides become when you pace yourself appropriately.
With experience, you will learn to do the same distance faster and faster (whilst still using an even effort) and that practice will help you identify your own optimum pace for the distance you are exploring. It is my experience that a rider’s optimum effort over the 200km distance is valid over all the longer distances and can be sustained almost indefinitely, as long as the correct nutritional and rest strategy is employed.
Aim to ride at a very easy effort, but try to cut out any unnecessary stops, because overall pace is determined mainly by your stops, rather than by your moving pace. Take the example of riding at 16kph. This is a very slow cycling speed – and it’s very easy for most people to maintain that pace for a long time. If you ride at 16kph, without stopping, you will cover 160km in 10 hours. However, if you ride at 36kph, it is a much harder pace to sustain – and will require frequent stopping, just to rest.
Those rest stops can quite easily reduce your overall pace for a 160km journey to just 16kph. That 16kph overall pace sounds slow (and it is) – but riding at 36kph, with frequent stops which reduce your overall pace down to 16kph, is much harder (and much less pleasant) than just riding at 16kph with no stops at all.
4. Surround yourself with (and listen to) the right people. They will help you get the best out of yourself. Get advice mainly from people who are achieving the sorts of things you would like to achieve. Those are the people who will help you plot the right path to what you want to achieve. Anyone who has achieved anything remarkable in cycling has had help and assistance from a wide variety of people. It is a useful skill to learn (how to draw the answers you need from the people around you). So be sure to get the right advice, or just hang around the right places and people.
Don’t seek advice from people who will make you feel content with your perceived limitations, or from people who are not of similar levels of ambition to yours. If you know people in the local cycling clubs who are excelling in the way you’d like to excel, then spend more time with them. It will rub off – trust me! Same thing applies to seeking advice from acquaintences on the internet.
I personally rely on a close inner circle of athletes from whom I draw advice and inspiration. We have helped each other over many years, we communicate regularly and we continue to inspire each other and to hold each other to account.
Hopefully that’s useful information if you’re considering getting into long-distance cycling?