How to Finish a Cycling Century (100 Miles)

Is a cycling century on your bucket list? Learn lessons from a recreational cyclist on how to finish a cycling century.

cycling on country road

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

Previously, my cycling accomplishments included 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. Here’s what I’ve learned about finishing 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 is essential to having fun and finishing within a reasonable time period.

Ideally, I’ll start training for a century with the ability to ride 20-40 miles on a regular basis, one to three times each week. During the spring and early summer, fitting in such a regimen is done fairly easily. Cycling during the winter is more challenging but with the right gear and moderate weather, I’ve kept riding at least once weekly and maintained my cycling fitness level.

As an alternative, when the weather outside was too brutal or I wanted to supplement cycling workouts, I stayed in shape by running, 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 develops a base of cycling fitness. Gradually, I’d build up to at least 70-75 miles by adding 5-10 miles to my longest ride.

The purpose of long rides is to gain fitness as well as the following:

  • mental stamina
  • understanding of personal pacing appropriate for a longer ride
  • a refinement of a nutrition/hydration strategy for energy and mental focus

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 rest 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 pacing

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

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 and are generally more readily replenished; whereas the use of leg strength is limited. Naturally, I wanted to spin (as much as possible) so I could pedal long distances, such as 100 miles.

Test and refine nutrition and hydration strategies

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

Specifically, I’ve learned which electrolyte supplements or sports drinks and which concentrated carbohydrates (such as gels) to consume. Figuring out what works is a process. The idea is to determine what keeps an athlete strong and focused without overloading the body with extra calories and unnecessary nutrients.

There are also techniques to learn and adapt to preferences. For example, practice sipping water from a water bottle during training rides, rather than stopping to slurp water. Learning to consume water on the bike can save time (I’d no longer needed to stop, drink, and/or frequently replenish my water bottle or use the restroom after massive consumption at rest stops) and make me stronger (I can keep pushing because of the steady hydration).

Note: 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.

Mix in shorter, faster, and/or harder rides with long rides

While conditioning for the long ride is essential, shorter rides can also be helpful. To get into shape, consider concentrating on speed and/or hills on shorter distances.

Long rides don’t have to involve sprinting or difficult hill work. I developed those skills and strengths in separate training rides yet reaped their benefits during the century ride. For example, if I push aggressively on a short ride, then my spinning speed (pedaling with little visible effort) naturally increased over time. Similarly, I’ve developed the muscles and techniques for climbing (some) hills, which can then be accessed on a hilly century.

Devise a riding plan

Developing a strategy may sound too analytical for a recreational ride but I recommend having a firm plan. Making decisions on the fly when fatigued is not a good idea.

For starters, consider the route when making a plan. 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; we resolved not to be discouraged by the hills; and we identified which rest stops to visit, skipping some of them to save time.

Components of a strategy may include: pacing; timing of rest stops; use of supplements (generally, less is needed on a supported ride but some rest stops and rides are more adequately stocked than others); timing of drafts and pulls (with riding buddies and/or those encountered 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.

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

One of the biggest take-home lessons from completing a cycling century is the value of encouragement. I received (and offered) encouragement from my riding buddy, fellow cyclists, and rest-stop crews. Doing a century alone would have been lonely and possibly, well, not doable. This camaraderie among cyclists is strong. As a result, I’ve doubled down on giving encouragement.

“Therefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as you also do.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (World English Bible)

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

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