How to Bike a Century 4 Steps to Survive 100 Miles

Updated: December 19, 2011

Lindsay Hunt

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This is a guest post by Lindsay Hunt of Women Cycling Tips.

Sometimes the fastest path to becoming an expert is to implement quickly and perfect as you go. That's the approach I took when I signed up for my first century bike ride (100 miles) last spring.

A cold and snowy winter in Boston coupled with a job that sucked the life out of me left me very out of shape. My precious few minutes of free time were typically spent sleeping. Every now and then I managed to get up in the darkness and trudge to a 5 AM spinning class.

After a series of major life changes (I quit my job, moved to Colorado and started my own business), I signed up for the Denver Century Ride with a resolution to get back into shape. I hadn't ridden my bike for at least 6 months. Walking up the stairs at 5,280 feet elevation left me huffing and puffing and I only had 12 weeks to go from 0 to 100 miles.

I'm convinced that anyone (including you) can train to bike 100 miles. In this post, I will walk you through what you need to know to start training for your first century ride.

Step 1: Set a Date

The most important step is to set a date and sign up. You will be more motivated to train once you pay an entry fee and have a date on your calendar. Knowing when the big ride is will also help you set your training schedule appropriately.

A few things to consider when choosing your ride:

Location: Is there a ride organized in the area where you live? Do you want to travel to another city? Is the ride location important to you?

I chose to ride in a local century because it didn't require any travel or overnight expenses. I also wanted to train by riding parts of the route. If you choose to travel for your century, make sure to think through the logistics of how you'll get there, whether or not you'll bring your bike or rent one and if you need to arrive a few days early to look over the route or acclimate to the new environment.

The Route: Before you register for your ride, check out the route to see how much uphill climbing is included, what the elevation gain is, whether you'll be on roads, in bike lanes or on paths. You may prefer a flat route for your first ride. Or perhaps you're like me and love climbing hills. Make sure to choose a ride that has terrain you like and that you're physically capable of handling.

Unorganized ride: You don't have to participate in an organized century. Nothing is stopping you from going out and riding 100 miles on your own. However, I recommend choosing an organized ride for your first century. You'll have rest stops every 10-15 miles to refill your water bottles and eat snacks. Most organized rides also provide maintenance in case you have problems with your bike along the way. I think it's more fun to ride with the support of other cyclists and people cheering along the route!

If you decide to ride 100 miles on your own and not as a part of an organized ride, you'll need to plan your route along areas where you'll have access to food and water or have someone drive along with you to help you refuel. You might consider having someone on-call in case you need help with repairs or can't continue riding.

Find your event: has a list of cycling events in the United States that you can filter by state.

Step 2: Assemble the Gear

You will need more than a bike to start training for your century. The more I ride, the more gear I accumulate, but you don't need to be outfitted like Lance Armstrong on a $10,000 bike to ride a century.

First let's talk about the must-have items.

Bike Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but you will need a bike. Try to train on the same bike that you'll use to ride the century so your body can get used to the fit.

Helmet Please, please, PLEASE wear a helmet when you ride. There are too many unknowns in cycling to risk going without one. Most organized rides will require you to wear a helmet at all times during the ride. Be safe. Wear the helmet on short and long rides. No one cares about how your hair looks anyway.

Water Bottles Sometimes I see cyclists riding with hydration packs on their backs, but I prefer to bring two water bottles that fit in the cages on my bike. If you're riding in hot weather, Polar Insulated Bottles will keep your water cold. CamelBak bottles have easy to use spouts for drinking while riding. On longer rides, you will need to stop to refill (gas stations will give you free ice and water), but two bottles will last you for at least two hours.

Food and energy snacks Did you know that you can burn between 300 to 1,000 calories an hour while cycling? Since you're burning so many calories, you need to bring food to refuel. I learned this the hard way during my training. Several times I rode for 30-50 miles without any food. I made it home, but with so little energy that I couldn't even take a shower before devouring a bag of Cheetos.

A more experienced cyclist told me that if you start to feel hungry or thirsty when you're riding, it's too late to recover. Drink before you're thirsty and eat before you're hungry. It's easy to forget to eat because you don't feel hungry and the thought of eating while riding is often unappealing. Until I got used to monitoring my energy levels, I stopped every 15 miles to eat and made sure to drink at least one bottle of water each hour.

Granola bars and dry snacks are hard to eat while exercising. Gummy snacks, gels and easy to eat energy snacks work best. Not all energy snacks are created equal. If you're looking for energy snacks that actually taste good, look no further than Honey Stinger. They make all natural waffles, gels and gummy snacks that provide the energy you need and taste delicious!

Padded shorts I used to make fun of bikers in spandex and padded shorts. Then I became one and realized how necessary the padded shorts are for a comfortable ride. Your butt will be sore when you first start riding, even with padded shorts. Your butt will definitely be sore after biking 100 miles. Do yourself a favor and buy the padded shorts. They make a world of difference.

Gloves Padded gloves will make the impact of riding and holding onto the handle bars for hours much easier on your hands. You can buy full length gloves for cooler weather. The gloves without fingers (like these) work great for warm weather.

Tools for basic repairs I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't carry around a spare tire tube with me until the day of my century ride. I was lucky enough to ride my bike many miles before getting my first flat, but you never know when your tire will pop and you'll need a spare. Tire tubes are cheap (usually about $3) and easy to carry.

Make sure you also have the tools you need to change a flat on the road. In addition to a spare tube, bring tire levers, a pump or CO2 inflator and a multi tool.

If don't know how to fix a flat (no shame, I had no idea), YouTube videos will help you learn the basic steps. Watch this one for an in-depth tutorial or this one to learn how to change a flat tire on the road.

IDs I always ride with a credit card, my driver's license, my insurance card, some cash and my Road ID. The Road ID displays your name, emergency contacts and any health information for emergencies on a bracelet or neck tag.

Once you have the must-haves, you may want to consider buying some of these nice-to-have items, especially as you ride longer distances.

Road bike You can ride a century on a hybrid bike, but it's much easier with a road bike. Road bikes are lighter with skinner tires that help you ride faster. Road bikes will also make cycling easier if you're riding in windy conditions. Whichever bike you choose, make sure that it has a variety of gears so you can increase and decrease resistance while riding. You don't want to ride a century with a fixed gear bike.

Cycling jerseys These jerseys wick away the sweat and have convenient pockets on the back for storing food, tools and other items.

Clip in shoes and pedals The efficiency of your pedal stroke increases when you have clip in shoes and pedals. Instead of only getting power by pushing down on the pedals, you generate power on the upstroke, too. This is especially helpful when riding up a hill. If you're not quite ready for the jump to clip in pedals and shoes, you can buy pedals with cages to slip your shoes into.

Bike computer Bike computers are helpful to measure distance, speed and time as you ride. The cheapest models only cost $25 and are worth having to keep track of your progress.

iPod If you're training by yourself, the long rides that take several hours can become a little tedious. I like to bring my iPod to listen to music and podcasts as I ride. If you do choose to listen to music, don't turn it up so loud that you can't hear traffic and other riders. I usually ride with only one earbud in so I can hear what's going on around me.

Step 3: Plan Your Training

Develop a weekly plan Once you've selected your century and have the gear you need, map out your weekly training schedule. There are a variety of different training plans depending on how many weeks you have and your skill level. In general, aim to ride at least 5-6 times each week.

You will increase your mileage and intensity each week. During my training, I rode 10-20 miles on weekdays (either at the gym or outside) and aimed for one long ride every Saturday with a day of rest on Sunday. I increased my long ride by 5 miles each week.

When I started riding 50 miles or more, each 5 mile increase seemed impossible. I would finish riding 55 miles and return home completely exhausted. The thought of riding 5 more miles the next week was unbearable. The next week I set out to ride 60 miles and would finish thinking that I'd never make it to 100. But each week I made it 5 more miles. Each week I kept working and pedaling. And before I knew it, I was calling 30 mile rides "easy" and "quick".

I worked up to 85 miles before riding the full century.

It helps to map out your long rides instead of just hoping you hit the right mileage when you leave your house. A useful tool for mapping rides is MapMyRide. You can map out the path you want to take or view other routes in your area submitted by users. I found this very helpful in finding the best roads with bike lanes and the best paths for long routes. You can also access MapMyRide as an Android or iPhone app that records your progress and gives you speed and mileage updates. I love using the app, but it drained my battery for rides longer than 50 miles.

Indoor cycling You don't have to train outdoors for all of your riding. I started my training in March, the snowiest month in Colorado. I tried to get outside as much as possible, but spent quite a few spring days riding on the trainer at the gym. When cycling indoors, work on your pedaling technique. Strengthen legs individually with single leg drills or work on speed with interval training.

Don't forget your arms It's easy for cyclists to focus only on cardio and leg strengthening, but don't neglect your arms! I noticed on my long rides that my arms and shoulders became sore much faster than my legs did. Studies have shown that cyclists with stronger arm muscles, especially biceps and triceps, have better endurance.

Cross training You don't have to bike every single training day. I mixed in one day of skiing each week in March and April and some hiking in May and June. (Yes, you should be jealous. You can bike in Denver in 70-degree weather and ski in feet of powder the next day in the mountains.)

Ride part of the route If you're riding in a local century, try riding on part of the route before the day of your ride. It helps to be familiar with the course so that you know how to pace yourself. I practiced on parts of the entire course during my training so I would feel comfortable and know when the big hills were coming.

Don't be afraid to take a break If you're sick or injured, don't push through the pain. Your training won't be shot if you take a few days off to recover. I took a week off when I had a cold and missed several other days while traveling. It didn't impact my training or set me back.

Note that there is a difference between feeling sleepy and being sick. There were many days when I didn't feel like riding, when I didn't want to go to the gym, when I wanted to put on sweats and watch TV, when I didn't want to wake up early. You have to fight through these feelings and ride anyway. Having a goal and a training plan helps with the motivation. I found that the temptation to skip a day of training was very strong in the beginning, but the more I beat it and trained even when I didn't feel like it, the easier it was to consistently ride. By the end of my training, it felt strange when I didn't ride my bike on my day off.

Find a riding group or buddy You may find it's helpful to find a partner or riding group for your long rides. Many local bike shops have organized rides on the weekends. I went on a few during my training and it helped to have others around to push me and entertain me. I also learned quite a bit from cyclists with more experience than me.

Step 4: Ride 100 Miles

You don't need to be a cycling expert to start riding. I wasn't an expert when I started or finished my century, but I kept learning and perfected as I went. I learned about proper nutrition. I learned proper techniques for riding downhill at fast speeds. I learned when to shift and how to change flat tires.

There were plenty of times when I didn't finish my rides as quickly as I had hoped. I barely made it home some weeks because I didn't eat enough. I felt weak and lethargic at times. Instead of thinking of these setbacks as failures, I chose to think of them as practice. If a slow finish is failure, then you don't have any reason to keep going. If it's practice, you learn from the experience and resolve to do better the next time.

You have to start somewhere. My starting place in March was 0 miles and very out of shape. In June, 12 weeks later, I rode 100 miles in 6 hours.

My first century was so much fun that I signed up for another race later in the summer. I rode an average of 100-200 miles each week for the rest of the summer and even did a few unorganized centuries with my riding buddy. I'm looking forward to challenging myself with harder centuries and rides next summer.

I'll never be the next Lance Armstrong, but I'll continue to learn and improve my cycling skills each time I get on my bike.

Have you ever considered training to bike 100 miles? Share in the comments if you have other tips for those starting out in cycling.

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