Ride of the century

Tips, hints, and for-the-love-of-God-don't-make-the-same-mistakes-I-did for tackling a "century ride," or 100-mile bike trip

My first 100-mile bike trip was 116 miles long.

We had slept on a tarp under the stars, got up at the crack of pre-dawn to scarf down some Pop-Tarts, then blearily but resolutely biked eight miles in the wrong direction before realizing our mistake. Actually, Mark's mistake.

That was a good 25 years ago, back when I was proud of my all-steel Schwinn proto–mountain bike that handled like a water buffalo and weighed about the same.

Since then, my Boy Scout troop has refined its annual 100-mile "century rides" through trial, error, and miles of bottom-numbing experience. We have also never quite forgiven Mark (who to this day claims it was "only a mile or two" of errant biking).

Here's a list of (often painfully acquired) guidelines to help you tackle any long biking day.

Plan ahead

Drive the route in advance, preferably with the windows down. One year we let someone pick our route off the map and ended up spending a lovely Saturday biking through the Great Chicken Belt of the Mid-Atlantic.

The chicken farms smelled fowl enough, but couldn't hold a candle to the cloud of stench surrounding the massive Maryland chicken rendering plant. And it wasn't just the odor.

As we approached the plant, the air took on a hazy, Romantic painting look to it, and the sun-softened asphalt faded slowly from tar black to pale gray. I couldn't figure it out until the overpowering smell forced me to pinch shut my nose and gasp through my mouth just as the queer haze in the air coalesced into a drifting, gravity-less snowfall.

Only it wasn't snow. It was a floating soup of machine-chopped chicken down, and I sucked in great lungfuls as we whizzed past.

I was coughing up chicken feathers for a week.

Prepare for punctures

My buddy Stew Lee remembers that same ride less for the feathers than for the fact that he blew out three tires in 15 miles.

Standard bicycle wisdom assumes you carry two spare tubes (and a hand pump). Going 100 miles, you should pack three or four spare inner tubes.

Also bring a multi-tool for tightening cables and frames. My handlebars once popped off while I was zipping along a bridge at 18 mph.

My friends said the look on my face as I held aloft the bar in confusion was hilarious, as was the subsequent wipeout.

Have a sag wagon

There's always someone who thinks that idea of a 100-mile bike trip sounds great...except for all that pedaling.

This is the guy you get to drive the "sag wagon," the truck or van that hauls all the bikes to the starting point, then spends the whole day hop scotching ahead a few miles at a time, waiting for the bikers to pass, then drives ahead a few miles more to wait again. Hopefully, he's brought a good book.

The sag wagon carries spare inner tubes, tools, and parts (a spare bike is also handy, since some glitches prove unfixable on the road but you'd hate to bag the whole ride).

It's also your roving water cooler, snack machine, and first-aid station.

Plus, on those days you find you just can't bike the full 100 miles, you can always retire to the sag wagon.

Avoid hills

Unless you're training for the next Tour de France, keep it relatively flat.

Coastal areas—oceans, gulfs, Great Lakes—are good for that.

Fitting 100 miles into a day is enough of a challenge without tossing the Rockies in your path.

Expect to average 12 to 16 mph

Also plan on ten-minute breaks every hour and an hour for lunch.

To go 100 miles, that adds up to a solid ten hours of biking.

My century rides rarely finish before nightfall—except that year we discovered a new and particularly vicious breed of tiny, biting flies which followed us in clouds with Terminator-like relentlessness. The amazing thing was the buggers could go 18 mph, meaning we had to stay at 19 or 20 mph (without stopping) just to stay ahead.

We kept that pace up for a good 25 miles before the flies lost interest and we collapsed by the roadside, wheezing.

Did finished the ride in time for sunset on the beach, though.

Cushion the ride with comfort on either end

We tend to begin (sometimes end) our century rides at the Ocean City, NJ beach house belonging to fellow Assistant Scoutmaster Tom Finley—or, more accurately, to his generous mother-in-law, whose epic list of house rules and penchant for decorating with precious tchochkies have led the boys to dub the place the Thomas P. Finley Memorial Do-Not-Touch Museum.

The last thing you want to do is try to ride 100 miles stiff from camping rough on the hard ground. Get a good night's sleep and an early start.

Try to end up somewhere with soft beds, good pizza, cold beer, and a hot tub.

Remember, biking is fun

This may all sound like a grueling way to spend a Saturday, but there's no substitute for sightseeing from the saddle of a bicycle. You go fast enough to cover decent distance, but slow enough that the details of the changing landscape unfold slowly.

Century rides have taken me across the cranberry bogs of Delaware and the sun-dappled pine barrens of New Jersey, down retro beach boardwalks and the main streets of timeless small towns.

I've coasted along twisting Chesapeake Bay roads and cruised causeways along the Atlantic Ocean, wolfed down roadhouse burgers with jovial biker gangs and picnicked under blue skies amid endless cornfields.

By bike, I've glimpsed a richness that, by car, would have sped past in the blink of an eye while I was intent on going somewhere else.

A century ride is not about the destination but the act of getting there. It's about enjoying the side of America you see when you slow things down to 15 mph (20 mph if there are flies).

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in January 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.