Physiotherapist, bike fitter and endurance racer Scott Cornish on why to take your cycling ambitions to the next level this year, how to choose the right event for you and how best to prepare for your chosen challenge.
Words and cover photo credit: Scott Cornish
You are getting fitter, faster, stronger and you’ve decided to take on a challenge with big mileage and/or big hills and big scenery. Whether its stepping up from the 100km sportive to the 100 miler such as Prudential RideLondon-Surrey, taking on the Etape du Tour, a Gran Fondo, an off-road ultra with more climbing than you have ever done or a multi day race, the very thought of it can be daunting. A ride well beyond our current comfort zone, but a challenge which our inner athlete and adventurer gets excited about. Here’s an in-depth – yet not exhaustive – guide into how to tackle that big adventure, whether on-road or off.
Overcoming the fear of the unknown
Stepping into the unknown is exciting as well as scary, but being as best prepared as we can be is key. It isn’t just about the physical either, our mental state when the going gets tough can slow us down or drive us through to the finish. We never know just how physically – and mentally – capable we are until we embark on that big pedal. I have discovered over the past 10 years of bikepacking, stage racing and single day ultras, that, with training and a desire to step foot outside of that comfort zone, it is amazing what can be achieved. One of the most common questions Jon Fearne, founder of endurance coaching E3Coach.com, gets asked by riders wanting to race a long distance event is:
How do I know how fast I can ride for that long?” With some targeted and specific training, not just bashing out the miles, the answer is a whole lot faster than you think.
I remember that first stage race, 10 years ago, standing on the start line of the Cape Epic with my race partner, 8 hilly marathon length stages loomed, in the African heat after months of training through the UK winter. I had no expectations of how I would perform, only that I would make the cut offs each day. I learned a lot about just how far and fast the legs could actually pedal off the back of months of training. It was an amazing experience, racing across incredible landscapes and meeting like-minded folk from across the globe. It was super tough, the weather, the distances, the height gains, but you work through it, riding each day as it comes. I didn’t know back then what I know now about being prepared and how to train, but that just comes from experience. I still feel nervous on the start line of every ultra, but at least I know that I am as prepared as I can be, given all the other demands in life, especially for the unexpected.
A commitment is certainly required to prepare for a long distance event, to make sure that you don’t suffer (too much!) and as Evans Cycles Content Editor Magdalena is finding out as part of her TransPyr preparation, having a coach for direction can make it infinitely easier to train when time crunched.
Yet to find the right challenge for you?
If you are still looking for an event to tackle, a good starting point is word of mouth or specific websites such as Cyclosport, Stageraces or No Fuss Events for inspiration. Life’s commitments of family, finances and work will influence where and when we can go of course. This really helps when the legs start to wobble, focusing on just where you are in the world is a great distraction from the discomfort! Make sure that you are able to plan in as much training as you can, being in the best possible physical shape on that start line is a real confidence booster, and you’ll enjoy it more!
Want a single day ultra or a multiple day adventure? The choice seems to grow year on year. The UK has numerous challenging road sportives, such as Prudential Ride London-Surrey or the Evans Cycles RIDE IT King of the Downs and then there’s single-day ultras such as A Cycling’s Monster (200km or 300km route options) or the 3 day Tour of Wessex. The US import of ‘Gravel’ racing has given rise to the 200km Dirty Reiver or the 100mile Dorset Dash.
Dreaming of riding across big landscapes further afield? There’s plenty to choose from 1 to 8 day races. For roadies l’Etape du Tour, la Marmotte or any of the Gran Fondos such as the Maratona de les Dolomites or the iconic Paris-Roubaix challenge are most popular. If you hanker after big climbs, check out any of the Haute Route events.
If the cold and snow are your thing, there are winter events such as the Rovaniemi Arctic race or the 3 day Tortour Swiss CX race. MTB-wise, the choice is huge.
For more exotic destinations, there is the 7 day la Leyenda in Columbia or the 6 day Mongolian bike challenge. For single day off road ultras, how about the Isle of Man’s Manx 100mile, the MB race, the Grand Raid de La Meije or the Grand Raid BCVS (formerly Cristalp).
For the ultimate challenge, the Great Divide Route is a 2768mile bikepacking mtb route from Banff in Canada to the Mexican border at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Do it as part of the official yearly race – the Tour Divide – or as a self-guided bikepacking trip. Mike Hall set a new Tour Divide record last summer – an incredible 13 days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes!
Whether the plan is just to complete the event, achieve a certain time or push it for a top 10 position, getting in quality training for the time you have available is key to making the event more enjoyable. As with a number of other riders, I came from a background of bicycle touring so I was able to ride the distance, but at a no pressure, got all day, pace, making time for the obligatory cake stops or photo opportunities. Events have cut off times, for rider safety, making them quite a different ride experience, the pressure of having to ride at a certain speed. Missing the cut off means not getting an official time or being unable to complete the event. Sometimes it is a mechanical which can be the difference between finishing or not (a moment my race partner and I faced in the 2016 Cape Epic), so looking after the bike is as important as looking after yourself.
The value of structured training
Finish aspirations can determine how you train – not necessarily the quantity but the quality. It isn’t just about the miles ridden, but about the kind of training you do. Targeted and specific sessions on the bike aren’t everyone’s idea of a fun time out pedalling, but it will make your engine faster and more efficient! Getting a coach for guidance takes the guesswork out of how to achieve your goal, they explain how the training will work (including the easy, the I-don’t-feel-like-I’m-doing-anything-sessions) and makes sure that you arrive at the event feeling fresh and ready, not tired and over trained, avoiding those last minute panic training rides.
Personally, since having a coach, I ride faster, yet ride less miles. A good coach works in sessions around a busy life, even turning the bike commutes into training sessions, makes sure that training isn’t dull, keeping up motivation and adds in rides which are just about having fun on a bike (sans any monitors), which is of course why we ride in the first place. Yes, a coach is yet another investment after the bike, the kit, the Garmin, the events and any training camps you may have booked, but it is a way to ensure all that investment is used to its fullest and you get the most that you can out of yourself.
Set some personal goals too. Creating a couple of loops, a longer and a shorter one, to time yourself on is a good way to physically track your progress and can boost your confidence as fitness and speed improves. Arriving at the event feeling mentally ready is as important, if not more so, as feeling physically ready.
Enter an event or two into the lead up to the big one to test the legs and experience a competitive environment where you’ll most likely get swept along in a group faster than you are used to! This is a good chance to figure out pacing, riding in groups and just how the training is going. If the budget/time allows a training camp or a DIY version of a few days away somewhere in the sun can really help to boost your underlying fitness. There are a huge number of companies offering camps or the use of their facilities as a comfortable base. Girona Cycling offer just such a great base with superb food.
Fuelling your ride
Training is also about trying out foods which your stomach is able to manage for the distance, such as powder, gels and bars. You don’t want a stomach refusing anymore food 5 hours in! If you require electrolytes in hot weather, a number of brand’s gels have electrolytes added so it’s not always necessary to carry tablets. Carrying all the nutrition you need for the day isn’t convenient, so entering events in the lead up is a chance to test how your stomach copes with unusual foods picked up from feed stations. For anyone with allergies or coeliacs, do contact the organisers (especially if an evening meal is included in the race package). You may have to/choose to bring your own nutrition. Changing brands just for the event isn’t advisable.
Gels are a great source of energy, but check that your stomach is continually able to deal with them. Personally, I feel those from Torq digest well due to their natural and minimal ingredients. I’ll always carry foods I know digest well (as well as picking from feed stations) and for anything over 4 hours I’ll carry something savoury, such as a bag of salted nuts, for a change from the constant barrage of sugar.
Some events offer a bottle service (often for an additional charge) where they’ll drop your pre-filled bottles off at certain feed stations on the day’s stage. This can be well worth the cost if you don’t want to carry powder or can’t stomach the energy drinks on offer.
Think about how to carry fluid on your bike (or body). You may be on a full suspension bike for your challenge, which has room for a single bottle only, or your entire triangle space may be taken up by a frame bag – consider alternative ways such as a seat post bottle cage clamp, handlebar mount. MTB/Adventure Bike manufacturers now often account for this by fitting cage mounting options to forks and/or the underside of the downtube on specific models. Using a hydration pack such Camelbak or Osprey can also be an option and offers hands-free drinking. However, keep the weight on your back to a minimum as this may impact negatively on your bike comfort after hours and hours in the saddle. The Camelbak Palos is waist-fitted design worth considering.
Essential clothing considerations
For most events, we hope to be riding in shorts and jersey everyday, all day, basking in glorious sunshine, admiring the developing tan lines, but expect the unexpected. Despite reports of how good the weather may have been in the previous years, especially if heading for the mountains, take wet/cold weather kit. I have experienced freezing temperatures, torrential rain and even snow on some mountainous stages when warm weather was expected! Going up is OK, it’s the ever increasing effects of wind chill on the descents which bite. Losing the feeling in your fingers isn’t a pleasant experience and braking becomes problematic. A gilet or a waterproof or warmer gloves may seem like just extra faff to carry if the weather forecast is iffy, but well worth it if bad weather comes bearing down.
On this note, don’t avoid training in wet weather! Use the ‘opportunity’ to test wet weather gear, identify what it is you need to remain comfortable and how you mentally and physically cope with riding in the wet. This is also a good chance to test how your tyres and brakes cope in wet conditions. New road bikes often come supplied with tyres which are OK if the weather is bone dry, but lack any kind of grip in the wet. Late afternoon summer alpine storms come in super quick and can catch you out.
Do check the day’s forecast and better to be carrying that jacket or gilet for the sake of a few grams than suffer badly! The event is, after all, meant to be an enjoyable experience.
There is nothing worse than having a mechanical halt your progress on route! If you are weak on the maintenance side of things, it is well worth learning some basics , at the very least, such as fixing a puncture (tube or tubeless set up), dealing with a slit in the tyre sidewall or fixing a snapped chain. In MTB events, you may have to deal with replacing the rear derailleur hanger, single speeding the chain due to a damaged rear derailleur (done that one!), putting a tube into a tubeless setup (a messy job and even worse in muddy conditions) or plugging a hole in a tubeless tyre using products such as Samurai. You may not get the misfortune/opportunity to deal with any of the above prior to the event, or in wet/muddy conditions even, but this may well happen during the event. Cold fingers make sorting an issue that bit harder!. Having some good, basic knowledge will mean the difference between becoming flustered if the unfortunate does happen and being in a good mindset to sort the problem out and getting back on the bike rapido. So carry a good mini tool kit.
As for what to carry tool wise, weight is our major concern of course. There are a number of well thought out, lightweight mini tools available, such as the Topeak Mini 20. A chain tool is a must. One is neatly integrated into the mini 20. I’ll carry 2 tubes (even with a tubeless set up), a GOOD mini pump such as Topeak RaceRocket MT, Park tools puncture patches, a sidewall patch, 2 air cannisters and a Samurai tubeless hole plug kit (here’s a YouTube video on it). Most of it fits snuggly into a Topeak small seatpack (a strapped version to cinch it all down) and a Mt Zoom handy strap for the 2nd tube. I see so many riders taping tubes, pumps etc to their bike. This just seems like a huge faff to remove and the tape can’t be reused. Handy strap are precisely that, handy velcro straps and the items don’t move at all.
If you are carrying a 2nd bottle or seatpack on the seatpost and can’t fit a saddle bag, one of these top tube bags is perfect for carrying the mini tool kit. Or for fuel, a bag near up front works super well for ease of access.
If you do snap a spoke near the head, wrap it around another spoke to avoid it moving too much and puncturing the tubeless tape.
Know the route
Familiarise yourself with the route for the day as much as possible – where are the major climbs, how tough are they, where are the feed/water points, especially if the weather is due to be el scorchio. Stick a profile of the route on the top tube or along the top of the bars. Plan when you are going to stop, mark those points on the profile and they’ll acts as your short term goals throughout the day. Tick off the climbs mentally as you crest the peaks, take a moment to enjoy the views, where you are in the world, before pointing the bike back downwards. Carry that emergency stash of food or an extra gel above what you have calculated you’ll need. A just in case thing. Chances are you won’t need it, but when you do, it may just get you home!
Dealing with that dip
It happens to everyone, the inevitable dip when it feels like someone has suddenly attached a huge loaded trailer to the back of your bike. Try to be prepared mentally, find a strategy that works for you to keep the legs turning, to repel any negative thoughts that will be trying to flood your mind. Whether it’s the short-term goal of reaching the next feed station, a strong team mate/friend who can momentarily push or pull you or give some words of encouragement (or banter: telling my team mate at the Cape Epic to ‘suck it up princess, tell me about it at the end’ at the top of a climb worked. I knew him well though!), eating that favourite food saved for such an ‘emergency’ or something to remind you of your supporters back home. I have a little Yoda on the number board, given to me by the kids.
In the few months prior to the event, train on the bike and in the gear (i.e. shoes, gloves, shorts etc.) you will use for the event, to bed it all in and to get used to being on that particular bike for hours at a time. Try different chamois cream products to find one that works well for you and doesn’t cause any irritation, and don’t forget to take it with you! (I did once and had to stop half way through the day’s stage at a first aid station to grab a large scoop of vaseline). Wear and tear on the undercarriage is one of the most common causes of a visit to the onsite medical tent (some events actually have a ‘Bum clinic’) at a multi day event. Sudocreme post ride is also recommended on multi-day events. For single day ultras to really make sure that you get no issues, liberally apply the chamois cream the night before, leave it to soak in, then reapply some more cream in the morning of the event. Happy bottom all day, or all night if tackling a 24hour event.
Definitely avoid any new contact point products for the event, such as shoes, saddle, gloves. They all need to be worn in a little and comfortable to wear for the duration.
Bike Check and Spares
New drive chain parts for the bike are recommended though. Get the bike checked over a week or so before heading out, so that you are confident that everything is working as it should. It is worth having a new chain, cassette and brake blocks fitted, depending on the level of bike maintenance upkeep.
Tip: Make sure that the threaded valve cores on tubeless set ups are well screwed in. Most mini-pumps thread onto the value and the core can unscrew as you remove the pump, losing all the air you have just pumped in!
Spares will be at a premium price at events, so take out what you can. Unless the event is entirely self-supported (and kit/luggage choice thereby heavily influenced by what can be fitted to your bike/body) , for multi day or lapped events (where luggage can be transported between stages), personally, I’d take the following:
- spare chain
- tyre (or two)
- quick chain links
- spoke nipples and spokes
- tyre patch for sidewall tear
- minimum two sets of brake blocks
- two tubes (more if not riding tubeless)
- tube repair kit
- derailleur hanger
- disc rotor bolts
- spare rotor
- cleats bolts
- spare cleats
- couple of M6 bolts (disc calipers)
- M5 bolts (bottle cage etc)
and additionally, for those running tubeless:
- large tyre patch
- tyre slit plugs kit
Bolts can work themselves loose or be lost in transit if you remove parts such as the rotors, so a couple of spares saves any stress at the other end. Most airlines have a weight allowance of up to 32kg for bikes, depending on the weight of the bike/bike box itself, most can be packed in with the bike.
If you are using a soft bag or box you may want to remove the rotors. I strap them to a tyre with using a Velcro strap (such as Mt Zoom’s handy strap). Take a small amount of duct tape and some zip ties. I’ll wrap some tape around the mini pump to take with me.
Travel and race day considerations
Travel wise, if time/finances allows, for the first big event, try to arrive with at least a whole day to spare or longer, especially if there is expected to be a significant change in climate, altitude and terrain or when travel time/jetlag is significant. Arriving and racing in 30+ degree heat is always a shock to the system. High factor sun lotion is a must! Just allow yourself time (if you can) for plenty of bike faff, getting nutrition ready and a brief, easy spin in the locality to get a feel for the roads/terrain. Check the bike is all good to go and spin out the legs after the journey. This all helps to minimise any pre-race nerves/stress so you have the time to eat and rest well during the day(s) beforehand.
When it comes to race day or the first stage of your event, it’d be advisable to have breakfast around three hours before the start. However, in reality, this isn’t always possible/desirable with starts as early as 6 am! Perhaps aim for two hours beforehand and keep it light. Enjoying a full breakfast (hard to resist when there is plentiful good food on offer at some events) will slow up the legs at the start, especially if it heads upwards. Instead just keep the nutrition going in regularly throughout the day.
You can let the start line be an ominous place, wondering whether you have done enough training or it can be the place to start your adventure, meeting and chatting to likeminded folk, all of whom are probably thinking the same, wondering just how capable their body is going to be. Everyone is nervously excited about the ride ahead and the legs will have plenty of zip in them after all that tapering. It’s all too easy to unleash it all early on! There’s nothing quite like zipping along in a group at a speedy pace, but be strict with yourself. If you know that the speed is well above your pace, don’t blow beyond your limits in those first couple of hours or days. Keep it steady and save the legs for the end of the event and you’ll be passing those who burned too many matches early on.
Be strict with keeping the nutrition and fluids going in. Keep it little and regular. Setting a timer on the GPS is a useful audible reminder to eat. Refuel well afterwards on a multi-day event too. You may not feel like it straight away, but start the refuelling process as soon as you get in. You’ll feel a whole lot better the next day.
A post-race massage, if available, on a multi-day event is definitely advisable. It does wonders to help relieve some of aches, but if you can, book this for a few hours after getting in. This will allow the muscles time to settle and massage will be (a little) less painful. Go eat, have a shower, sort the bike first if possible. The same goes for stretching (which won’t do anything for DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness) and keep it fairly gentle due to having worked the muscles hard.
You will be tired, but DO check the bike over after every stage. Check the tightness of ALL bolts and the chain and tyres for any damage.
Everyone is different, but personally I find that stage 3 is the ‘hump’. Once over it, the body and mind seem to settle into this idea of multi day racing. You settle into the stage race bubble of ride, eat, sleep (and a bit of bike and body maintenance). Sharing stories of the day’s riding, the exhilarating moments, the pain and the mishaps around the dinner table with riders from around the worlds is all part of the experience, making the fatigue feel less. Later into a long multi day race, the breakfast hall will gradually become quieter as fatigue sets in! Riders getting a few more minutes’ kip and previously flowing conversation reduced to but a few words.
That first big event is always a massive learning curve and we’ll surprise ourselves by just what we can achieve physically. It’s exhilarating, it’s tiring, there’s always stories to tell, new friends to be made and these adventures do become addictive. Stage race blues is common, missing the simplicity and enjoyment of being on the bike on amazing trails day after day.
You’ll be planning the next one before you know it! So dare to take your cycling ambitions to the next level this year.
Scott Cornish is a physiotherapist and experienced bike fitter. He also writes for a number of sports publications and races some of the toughest off-road endurance events. You can follow him on Twitter @physio_scott or Instagram @physiobikefit.