“You rode your bike HOW FAR?”
It’s a common refrain – usually uttered shortly after I answer the question “How was your weekend?”
I’ll mention the Saturday morning club ride, or the Sunday gravel ride – both of which usually clock in at between 75 and 100 kilometres. After 15 years as an avid cyclist, riding these distances have somehow become routine.
Care to join me?
If you fantasize even a little bit about turning an occasional ride around the block into a bigger adventure, here are five key milestones and a bunch of tips to help you coast past each of them.
In general, you’ll improve most quickly by riding three days a week – even if that means starting with very short distances – then increasing your distance by ten percent a week. If you’re already fit and active, you’ll be able to progress in slightly bigger jumps.
The one-hour ride
Come on, now. You can do this. Pump up those tires, lube up that chain, put on your helmet and start pedalling along a bike path or a few quiet roads or a bike path. Try to pick a route without much traffic (obviously) and with fewer stoplights and signs. The key here is to keep the bike in motion in a safe setting. Consider riding a loop that keeps you close to home. If you’re riding an “out-and-back” route, set a timer for 30 minutes and turn around for home when it sounds. Or, if you like, reach this milestone on an exercise bike.
When you can ride for an hour without stopping for more than 30 seconds, you’re ready to move on.
25 km/15 miles
If you’re comfortable on the bike and you already exercise regularly, it might not be that big a jump for you to move from the one-hour mark to this milestone. For most, though, crossing the 25k threshold calls for about an hour-and-a-half of pedalling. If you weren’t drinking (much) before, then you definitely have to start now. Drink early and often. Water should be enough, unless it’s very hot outside. You might even bring a little snack. A couple of fig bars are good will get you through the ride. Treat yourself to a glass of chocolate milk afterwards. Studies have shown that it’s a great recovery drink.
40 km/25 miles
Okay, we’re definitely riding for more than an hour now. Maybe even more than two hours. Set aside a morning, an afternoon or an evening – and don’t make any plans that might cause you to cut the ride short.
Don’t leave home without two bottles on the bike – one filled with water, the other filled with an electrolyte drink. Personally, I find Powerade and Gatorade a little harsh. Look for milder options such as Nuun tablets or Skratch Labs powder. You’ll find one or the other at your local bike shop.
This is also where you need to start eating while you ride. Mostly, you want carbohydrates. Many cyclists favour fig bars, dates, Stinger waffles or gummies such as Clif Shots. Lately, I’ve been leaning toward less processed options: homemade waffles or – get this - boiled baby potatoes. They’re easy to chew and they digest easily. I keep them in my rear pocket and pop ‘em like candy.
60 km/37 miles
Here’s where the lessons you’ve learned along the way really start to come together. This is a full morning of cycling. Plan to drink at least one bottle per hour. Start eating after 45 minutes, and keep it up throughout. How much you eat depends on your weight and your effort. Roughly, you want to consume 50-60 grams of carbs per hour. That’s 5-6 baby potatoes, two Stinger waffles or four fig bars. Now is NOT the time to cut calories. You want to finish the ride feeling like you could still ride another 5k.
A 60k ride offers the opportunity to really see things. Plan a round-trip ride to a different town. Schedule a brief coffee stop at a favourite bakery and treat yourself to a light pastry. (Keep it to 15 minutes, so your body doesn’t go into recovery mode.) Refill your water bottles at the stop and continue to drink and eat all the way home.
If you find yourself fading, stop at a corner store and grab a Snickers bar. Cramping? Down a Coke and a bag of chips. They are cheap sources of potassium and sodium, long used by professional cyclists.
80km/50 miles and beyond
Once you’re comfortable riding 60 km, you’ve learned everything you need to ride even further. You know how to pace yourself. You know how to fuel and hydrate your body. You’re also well on your way to planning routes that include reliable options for a pit stop.
Before you step up to 80k, try back-to-back rides on consecutive days. Maybe 60 the first day, then 40 on the second. Then 70/50. And so on.
From here, the biggest obstacles are mental. As you become fitter and stronger, you’ll come to see a 100k ride as a full-morning ride. 160k? That’s a good day. 200? That’s a really good day! You’ll definitely want a light lunch (and some company) for that one. Wraps rather than sandwiches, with a little protein. And after the ride, eat whatever you want!
Now: get on your bike and ride!
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