Bike distance riding hacks and tips
May 29, 2009 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Recommendations, tips or techniques for distance cycling.

Last year I rode in a fifty mile event, which was marred by sweat mixed with sunblock running into my eyes. I had liberally coated my forehead with sunblock, then wore a helmet in 90 degree heat resulting in squinting through the miles with stinging, tearing eyes. Duh!
This year I'm planning a few longer rides and would like some tips in water storage, snacking, comfort and general pleasure inducing (or pain reducing) bicycle riding techniques.

posted by readery to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Consider using sweat blocking headbands like this one from Halo. They have a piece of material (rubber?) that diverts sweat from going into your eyes. I've used several different kinds over the last few years and the Halo is my favorite.
posted by Dave. at 8:01 AM on May 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

For rides over 30 mi, I take a camelback full of plain water. I can get electrolytes from mini clif bars, or such things.

As for sweat, make sure to uh, coat the insides of your legs with something to keep from getting funky either from nasties or from grindage. Body Glide works wonders. THen get a bandanna. I found the ventilation drop from no longer having cooling vents ducting air to my skull was minimal compared to the convenience of not having sweat pouring down and making my glasses look like there was fog.
posted by notsnot at 8:13 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I always wear a bandana or some other type of absorbent do-rag under the helmet. It covers up much of your forehead, removing the need for sunblock there, so you don't have to worry about it dripping into your eyes.

I have no experience with this product, but it looks interesting.

I usually carry three water bottles on long, hot days. On a really long, hot day, freeze ice in one of the bottles so it will be thawed and nice and cold for the last part of the ride. CamelBak makes some hydration packs that are small enough to wear while cycling. I tried one for a while, but never liked it because it rubbed on my back.

On long rides (75 or 100+ miles) I found that it's crucial to eat A LOT. I usually carry snacks like granola bars and candy bars, and sandwiches in my handlebar bag. Some people don't like handlebar bags, but they are extremely convenient for carrying stuff like food that you want quick access to. I don't like loading up my jersey pockets with stuff like that.

Good sunglasses make a big difference when you're riding for hours in the sun.
posted by JeffL at 8:25 AM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: I had the sunscreen problem for a few years - I'm a copious sweater when I exercise. Then, one day last summer, I had an epiphany. In all honesty, if you're wearing a helmet, you can probably skip the sunblock on your forehead - your riding position is usually such that your head is down or downish for most of the time in the sun, and your helmet will cover most of your forehead anyway. Or, the do-rag works well also. Either way, sunscreen on the back of your neck and ears should suffice in the head region.

As for your other questions:

1. Water storage: Camelbak. Absolutely essential for long hot rides. I use the Mule because it allows me to store tubes, air, wallet, keys and energy bars in it, rather than in a seatpost pack, but there are also smaller ones if that's what you want. If you have bottle cages on your bike, fill the Camelbak with water and put two bottles of Gatorade or your favorite electrolyte drink in the cages.

2. Snacking: I eat a lot of Clif bars and PowerBars. For longer rides, I break a PowerBar into bite sized chunks and stick the chunks on my top tube; that way I don't have to stop or unwrap anything very often. It means a little extra cleaning of your bike post-ride, but you should already be doing that, so no big deal. I have also recently discovered the energy gel one-shot; these things are amazing when you need a mid-ride jolt of energy. They come in all sorts of flavors and whatnot, and they're great; don't use them as a sole source of energy, but if you're 50 miles into an 80 mile ride and you start to flag, down one of these and you'll rev right back up again. On sponsored rides with rest areas, take generous advantage of the rest stop foods - all those bagels, fruits, and various carbs are the underpinnings of a successful ride.

3. Comfort: Body Glide or Bag Balm. They're both amazing. Also, even though I ride pretty long distances (typically 50+ miles), I don't wear skintight jerseys - I wear MTB t-shirts, because I don't like feeling constricted. Seconding the good sunglasses thing, as well - I just got a pair of Oakley Flak Jackets and they're the best bike-stuff purchase I have ever made.

4. General stuff: On long rides, it's always good to vary your hand position on the handlebars. And even if you're feeling good, get off and stretch every now and again - I have a bit of a dodgy knee, so about every 25 miles or so I get off and stretch for 10 min and then I'm good to go. And when you stop, stop where there's shade. Even if you don't stretch, though, a 5 min break every now and again in a 100 mile ride makes a huge difference. In the heat, it's important to keep hydrated, as well - if you wait until you're thirsty it's too late.
posted by pdb at 9:03 AM on May 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sweatproof sunscreen (kinesys is great) and decent glasses do a lot to prevent sweat running into your eyes. I have two bottle cages on my bike and a two bottle seat tube mounted cage (the bottles sit under your saddle). For the 75m+ rides take along some little snacks (I'm a fan of boiled fingerling potatoes with salt and pbj sandwiches) but something to give yourself a break from your sports drink. Experiment to find which drink works for you, try a few options out - drinks plus gel or drinks only etc. I'm affected a lot by heat and you might need to adjust your fuelling accordingly.
posted by poissonrouge at 9:09 AM on May 29, 2009

I am a huge convert to eLoad. I was turned on to it by an Afghanistan veteran who also bikes. I took it out to Utah to ride all the big trails and it was astonishing. I was able to ride hard for 4+ hrs in the heat without bonking and without having to continously consume clif bars or powergels. As a bonus, the electrolytes mean that I don't have sore legs the day afterwards. I never ride without it now. Everyone who I've given it to has been converted too. It's expensive, but my God it works.
posted by unSane at 9:43 AM on May 29, 2009

Oh yeah and I also use a Camelback M.U.L.E., amazing bag.

Finally I highly recommend Bag Balm. Yes, it's for that.
posted by unSane at 9:46 AM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: I am randonneur and, as such, regularly do centuries and 70 mile rides are 'training' for ultradistance events. Currently planning on going out to the Berkshires tonight to do a 250 mile / 400k event which, itself, also serves as training for a 1000k event in Vancouver Island next month.

My general comments and advice:

1. Your first priority should be comfort on your bike. Make sure that your bike is fitted properly to you, as a lot of fit issues don't tend to creep in until you're past 30 or 40 miles. The slightly long reach between your handlebars and saddle will turn into shoulder and upper back pain after 8 hours in the saddle. A saddle that is too low or too far forward might start to bring on front knee pain after 50 miles. If you have to sacrifice a little bit of aerodynamic efficiency for a slightly more upright posture, do so. The .5 mph speed loss that you trade off in the beginning will be returned by not having your average speed drop off precipitously as the course and your bike steadily beat you up.

2. Hydration. I have two 750 ml water bottles and a 1.5 L hydration pack. I personally don't enjoy carrying a lot of weight on my back, and thus only use the hydration pack for rides in sparsely populated areas or for overnights, where access to 24 hour stores may not be guaranteed. Two 750 ml bottles or 1.5 L of water is usually enough to get me through 50 miles before having to refill. Your mileage may vary, but if you do go with a Camelbak or similar, I would advise you to just store water in the reservoir. Use your water bottles for Gatorade, Cytomax, Heed or whatever, but unless you enjoy having to religiously scrub out the awkward plastic sack to keep bacterial colonies at bay, keep your hydration reservoir pure with just plain water.

3. Nutrition - 250 - 300 calories per hour. That's your target. Any more and your body will have trouble digesting it while you're on your bike. Any less and you'll slowly and steadily detour into BonkTown. You don't want to visit BonkTown.

Whether this is from Clif bars, sports drink or hunks of raw cheese in a handlebar bag is up to you, and feel free to experiment. Everyone has their preference and pecularities related to their digestive system. Generally, you want your food to be easy to digest and pleasant to eat. If it isn't tasty to you, you won't eat it as often and you won't get your nutrients in. If it's difficult to digest then your stomach will put up a big red light and your ability to absorb additional food will suffer. I've gone around the spectrum and back on bike food, starting with Cilf and Powerbars, then trying out some liquid diet stuff with Sustained Energy, and currently lean on a lot of Fig Newtons, bananas and a flask of Hammer Gel for quick energy. So try eating different things on a strenuous ride and see what you prefer. That's part of the fun.

If you do find yourself getting some indigestion, I'd recommend sitting down and resting for a bit. Get a little more water in your system and see if you feel better. A lot of times, it's just a matter of your body being asked to do too many things. It also isn't a bad idea to stop for a small meal if you can afford the time and haven't been hitting your 250 calories / hour target consistently. You can absorb a lot more than 250 calories in one sitting if all you do is sit.

You'll also want to be mindful of electrolyte intake, especially in hot/sweaty conditions. I personally tended to find Gatorade to be a little too sweet and high fructose-y to have on a sustained ride. By 75 miles or so, my mouth would just be tired of the taste. My current preference is to use Endurolytes, but you can also pick up Nuun tablets at any outdoor/camping store, and those work rather well, too. Other alternatives are to have salty potato chips, pickles or salted peanuts at your snack stop. I have also been known to shoot an entire bottle of V8 while foraging my way through a convenience store. That's a pretty good source of electrolytes, but isn't exactly bike portable.

I also agree with JeffL on the utility of handlebar bags. If all of your food is on a trunk rack or seat bag, or somewhere that forces you to stop and dismount, you will not eat enough. Jersey pockets are easily abusable and it's a pain in the ass to try to root through a pocket one-handed for a dozen different things while focusing on the road. If you aren't one to put a handlebar bag on your bike because it affects handling, considering getting a top tube bag, like the Bento Boxor Detours Goodie Bag. Holds less than a conventional handlebar bag, but is still relatively accessible and I found the Bento suitable for carrying everything I'd need for the next 30 miles/2 hours or so.

4. Miscellaneous -- To keep sweat out of one's eyes, some folks have mentioned bandanas or headbands. I'd also suggest getting a nice little cycling cap as absorbing sweat is part of their function, and the brim is also useful as a shade and rain visor.

If you're currently on a road bike with 23mm tires, consider going up to wider 25 or 28's if you have the clearance for it. Wider tires with slightly lower pressure can do wonders for relieving hand and neck pain (I currently ride on Panaracer Pasela 28's pumped up to ~95 psi)

Also, if you're on a roadbike with drop bars (and especially with STI/ergo levers) I would reiterate pdb's advice about rotating hand positions. On flat terrain, it's easy to just sit on the hoods for hours on end, zoning out while cruising along at the same gear. Don't do that. You're crushing nerves in your hands in microscopic intervals by doing so. Move your hands around and give them some relief.
posted by bl1nk at 10:28 AM on May 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

oh, a piece of side advice that I'd give if you're a bit of a weight weenie. Water is probably going to be the heaviest thing that you'll add to your bike besides yourself. While it's certainly tempting to carry as much water as is possible, just to be safe, this strategy can be counterproductive on hilly courses, where the added weight will affect your ability to climb quickly and easily. Figure out how often you're going to stop and tailor your hydration load to that schedule.

If you're on a supported century that has rest stops every 15 miles or so, do a 30 mile ride on your own and see how much water you've consumed on that ride, and just carry that much.

If you're doing an unsupported tour of some sort, and the greatest distance between towns is about 20 miles then figure out how much water you need for 40 and bring that.

It's really funny listening to guys talking about how they've spent $$$ on a titanium saddle that's, like, 50g lighter than their old steel railed saddle, but then think nothing of carrying around a 3L Camelbak that is full of Cytomax.

As a follow-on piece of advice ... if you ride in hilly or mountainous terrain, and if you have a mind towards completing rides quickly and comfortably, then build your climbing speeds and technique. Being a slow climber has a greater effect on your overall average speed than being a good time-trialer. The slower your average speed, the more time you'll spend on the course, the more tired you'll get and the more stress you might have in getting to rest stops or checkpoints later in the schedule; trying to stay ahead of the broom wagon.

In this vein, it's also a not a bad idea to learn some basic paceline etiquette and behavior. On a flat or windy course, being able to ride in and share pulls on a paceline can make a huge difference in overall endurance and speed; and conversation within the line can also help the miles pass a little faster.
posted by bl1nk at 10:48 AM on May 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all this great info. I am somewhat resistant to gear, gel and sportsdrinks, coming from a background of less physical pursuits, but I have been learning that there is a reason people wear and ingest special stuff.
I received a pair of high quality pants/tights with the chamois thingy as a gift and when I finally got around to utilizing them, was pleased at how well they worked. An epiphany of sorts.
Thanks - keep the great tips coming!
posted by readery at 12:40 PM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: Eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty, don't upshift on a hill. Advice given to me by a guy who didn't think twice to ride 130 miles round-trip... to renew his driver's license.

Anyway, 50 miles isn't really that much if you start riding more. My club's usual Sunday morning winter base ride is about 55. Still, you have to take care of yourself, so eat a lot (I usually have a gel packet every 45 minutes or so, plus a Kashi or Clif bar at the halfway mark, and I should be eating more, as I'm a bigger guy at 195 lbs) and drink a lot. I drink 2 bottles in the winter on these rides, probably 3-4 in the summer. I don't worry about bringing >2; I just stop at a convenience store and refill. Chamois cream--DZ Nuts or Assos are my preferred brands, though people have strong opinions on mentholated vs non-mentholated creams--also is great for reducing saddle sores and increasing comfort.

Proper bike fit is important, and a good wind-resistance-reducing posture helps to conserve energy.

Also, my bald friend, through trial and error, found out that the old-school sunblocks, the ones that contain just metals like zinc and not x thousand chemicals, don't burn the eyes so much.
posted by The Michael The at 1:04 PM on May 29, 2009

I've heard that watering commercial Gatorade down to half strength is the appropriate mix of water and electrolytes for rehydration. They made it super-sugary to make it more palatable to the masses.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:39 PM on May 29, 2009

yeah, regarding quality shorts ... distance events do bring out a palpable quality gap between the $30 Nashbar special and $100 Pearl Izumi Ultrasensors. The premium shorts are stitched with better, less obtrusive seams, and their padding cushions only what needs to be cushioned. Lower quality shorts have more of a diaper like chamois which tends to bunch up and applies pressure in ways that become uncomfortable over many hours.

Ever since I got good shorts, I've never needed to use Bag Balm or Chamois Butt'r for any of my rides.

I will also say that a lot of the gear helps but it isn't necessary. In the past, I've done more than a few centuries on a $400 entry level Trek hybrid with platform pedals, cheap shorts, and scavenging off the giveaways at checkpoints, feeding on free Clif bars, potato chips, watermelon and PB&J sandwiches. All of the gear that I've acquired since then has made it easier to go faster (which can be important for timed events) but assuming one has a bike that fits, even if it's a big tank of a mountain bike with slicks, then one can do a century with proper conditioning, a patch kit and pump for flats, a couple of full water bottles, some food and a bit of cash for supplies down the road.
posted by bl1nk at 3:49 PM on May 29, 2009

re the Camelback/bottle thing, I'm 100% camelback when riding trail and 100% bottle when riding road.

re the water/gatorade thing I can totally understand keeping them separate with gatorade but one of the virtues of eload is that it remains palatable after you've drunk a lot of it, and it's titrated so that you're taking in the right amount of calories for the right amount of fluid.

re shorts, get the best you can. MEC do a really nice $58 short which is the best I've used.

re bag balm, I never need it on the ride, but afterwards, hoo boy.
posted by unSane at 7:38 PM on May 29, 2009

In addition to all the gear and food advice, I'd like to say that learning to ride efficiently and smoothly will a long way toward making your ride more pleasant. Do not thrash your hips around, or bob your upper body. That won't make you go any faster, and will just make you more tired. Your upper body is the lever against which your thighs are moving up and down. Practice drinking without looking for your cage. Wrap your thumbs around your handlebars so an unanticipated bump in the road won't cause your hands to fly off the bars. Learn to turn around and look behind you without swerving halfway across the road. Learn to sit up and take your hands off the bars. Learn to find the gear that is the ideal cadence for you: not too easy, but not grinding at 30 rpm. Buy and use "clip-less" pedals.

I use Udderly Smooth for a chamois cream. It's much cheaper than any of the cycling-specific brands. (FWIW, I am in the non-menthylated camp.) I always ride with a cap and glasses with changeable lenses to keep sun and rain out of my eyes. I always wear gloves so I can brush glass off my tires, or for hand protection in the event of a crash. I always have two tubes, a glueless patch kit, and a full size frame pump. Tubes go in my jersey pockets, because more than once I've had tubes acquire holes from being jostled in a seat bag over the course of weeks or months. (In my seat bag are tire levers, spoke wrench, multitool, glueless patches, and tire boots--the superdurable items.)

I always have some food with me, just in case, even if it's just a gel. Keep your food in the pocket on the side that you most easily can reach back with. My drinks of choice: orange Accelerade in one bottle and cola Nuun in another. If you are somewhere really hot, it's nice to have a bottle of plain water to spritz your head or face.

And the food you eat before the ride will play as important a role as what you have during the ride. I have very whole wheaty cold cereal with banana, and that lasts a good long while into any ride.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 11:07 AM on May 30, 2009

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