How to Finish a Cycling Century (100 Miles)

cycling on the road

photo by jp26jp via pixabay

One of my goals this year was to complete a cycling century (that’s 100 miles).

My cycling accomplishments include pedaling 115 miles in one day. However, the long ride in which I went well past 100 miles is highly supported with mandatory rest stops involving sit-down meals, extended periods waiting for all cyclists to regroup, and plenty of time to eat, drink, and be merry. A century event done in this fashion may start at 7 a.m. and conclude at 7 p.m.

So, after years of developing my endurance and speed, I became curious about my ability to do a century ride with minimal breaks. After talking and then conspiring with friends, I decided to tackle the 100-mile route associated with the Bike MS event. Based on my experience as a cyclist (not as a coach or expert), here is my advice on how to finish a cycling century:

Start with a foundation of fitness

I believe that nearly anyone can do a cycling century, given enough daylight hours. But having a foundation of fitness can allow you to have fun and finish within a reasonable time period.

Ideally, you’ll start your distance training with the ability to ride 20-40 miles on a regular basis, one to three times each week. During the spring and early summer, you can probably fit such a regimen into your schedule fairly easily. Cycling during the winter is more challenging but with the right gear and moderate weather, you can keep riding at least once weekly and maintain your fitness level.

If you decide not to ride outside during the winter or need to supplement your cycling, stay in shape by running outside (or indoors on a treadmill), swimming, participating in fitness classes, or using an indoor cycling trainer.

Ride longer and longer distances, one day each week

When spring arrives, riding 30 or 40 miles on a regular basis is useful but eventually you need to start riding longer distances. Gradually, build up to at least 70-75 miles by adding 5-10 miles to your longest ride.

From my perspective (as someone who seems to be gifted at endurance), the point of the long ride is not as much about fitness but about:

  • developing mental stamina
  • gaining an understanding of pacing appropriate for a longer ride
  • devising a nutrition/hydration strategy that keeps you fresh or at least aware of your surroundings for safety purposes

Note that a friend and I had a general goal for increasing distance but we adopted the goal of riding 70-75 miles based on a century training plan developed by Selene Yeager.

Get mentally tough

Mental stamina or mental toughness is often gained from long rides that go awry. For example, the longest ride that my riding partner and I finished contained multiple elements of disaster:

  • the route that I built on Ride GPS included a dogleg to nowhere and an unfortunate iterative loop (my riding partner deciphered the way out; otherwise, I would still be circling a lonely stretch of road in rural North Carolina)
  • the roads that we traveled were hilly, almost mountainous, though I had intended to create a relatively flat route
  • our┬árest stop at a country store in a historic area (miles from a convenience store) was closed on the day of our ride (though my friend convinced the owner to provide us with water and a restroom)
  • the temperate rose to 95 degrees (this ride happened during one of the hottest days of the summer, and we weren’t acclimated to the heat due to an unusually cool season)

After surviving such a misguided ride, we realized that we could do well in moderate temperatures (the century was slated for the end of September, so 95-degree heat was a near impossibility) on a route with stocked rest stops and marked roads.

Figure out your pacing

The pacing and effort involved in completing a long ride is much different than a shorter one, even 40-50 miles. You really need to learn how to spin, moving the pedals in a way that encounters little resistance.

This past year, two of my riding buddies suggested that I learn to spin in order to last longer and finish stronger. One explained that cyclists have two sources of strength and energy: the first comes from leg strength, the ability to push hard against strong forces of resistance (which come from your gearing and the grade or hilliness of the road); the second comes from your cardiovascular reserve. Energy from the legs is easily exhausted, often after about 30-40 miles of cycling; cardiovascular energy can be replenished, over and over.

Spinning uses cardiovascular reserves, which last for a long time; whereas the use of leg strength is limited. Naturally, you want to spin (as much as possible) so that you can pedal long distances, such as 100 miles.

Test and refine nutrition and hydration strategies

While training, test various strategies regarding food and drink. Very often, your cycling deficiencies occur because of improper nutrition/hydration, not lack of fitness.

Specifically, consider taking electrolyte supplements (such as endurolytes or HEED mixed with water), carrying mustard packets to prevent or stop muscle cramps, and consuming concentrated carbohydrates (such as gels). Figure out what works for you, keeping you strong and focused without overloading your body with extra calories and unnecessary nutrients.

Practice sipping water from your water bottle during training rides, rather than stopping to slurp water. Learning to consume water on the bike can save time (you no longer needed to stop, drink, and/or frequently replenish your water bottle or use the restroom after massive consumption at rest stops) and make you stronger (you can keep pushing because of the steady hydration).

Never try anything new during a big event or a century ride; whatever you take in may not disturb your system but the doubt you’ll feel from doing something new can wreck your emotional state.

Do shorter, faster, and/or harder rides

While conditioning yourself to the long ride is essential, shorter rides can also be helpful (Selene’s plan includes these). To get yourself into great shape, concentrate on speed and/or hills on shorter distances.

Realize that your long rides don’t have to involve sprinting or difficult hill work. You can develop those skills and strengths in separate training rides yet reap their benefits during the century ride. For example, if you really push aggressively on a short ride, then your spinning speed (pedaling with little visible effort) will naturally increase over time. Similarly, you’ll develop the muscles and techniques for climbing hills, which can then be accessed on a hilly century.

Devise a strategy

Developing a strategy may sound too analytical for a recreational ride but I recommend having a firm plan. Making decisions on the fly when you are fatigued is not a good idea. You can’t anticipate everything that might happen but the fewer surprises, the better.

For starters, consider the route when planning your approach. For example, my partner and I rode the route in sections to get a feel for the terrain. I’m so glad we did: many of the roads were rough; certain areas were unusually windy (both on the days of our training rides and the actual ride); and there were tons of hills. As a result, we had a better idea of how to pace ourselves and allocate our energy; resolved not to be discouraged by the hills; and even plotted out rest stops (we visited most but not all of them).

Components of your strategy may include: pacing; timing of rest stops; use of supplements (you won’t need to carry as much on a supported ride but know that some stops are more adequately stocked than others); timing of drafts and pulls (with your riding buddies and/or those you meet along the ride); and the resolve to finish the ride.

My century route passed by the finish line at 80 miles and required pedaling 20 more long, hilly miles. There was absolutely no question that I would quit before the final loop. Honestly, I didn’t want to spend weeks training for the ride, only to miss the mark and make myself train next year. I wanted to cross this century ride off my list and move to other endeavors!

I started the ride at 7:30 a.m., traveled at approximately 16.5 mph for 100 miles, stopped a few times, and finished at 2:30 p.m. A massage therapist worked on me after the ride and I never felt sore. The next day, I rode 50 miles at a leisurely pace, visited every single rest stop, and immensely enjoyed this “short” ride.


Julie, soon after starting the Bike MS century ride; photo by Jason Fedler via Mike Sampson Photography

Have you completed a century ride? What are your tips for finishing strong?