The Strategy

February 18, 2012

I’ve been meaning to make this post for some time. Therefore, the below graphic is actually a little out of date, but it fills its purpose.

This is a chart of my daily ride distance since dedicating myself to cycling circa 9/1/2011.  You can perceive a gradual increase in average distance, but the 4 circled recent rides stand out dramatically from all others.

These rides aren’t simply longer mileage than the others.  They represent a different strategic and procedural approach to riding the bike, a time-tested method accumulated through millions of hours of long-distance efforts by countless thousands of bicyclists.

I encountered the approach in “the long-distance cyclist’s bible”, the accurately titled “The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling” by Edmund Burke and Ed Pavelka.  This book is a must-own for anyone contemplating regular rides greater than perhaps 25 miles.  The book is chock full of literally hundreds of great pieces of advice about every single aspect of the sport.  But under discussion here is the overall strategy.

Prior to getting this book, I was highly naive and didn’t think there was anything especially “different” about longer bike rides.  I thought they were only a function of physical fitness and practice.  Turns out this isn’t the case at all.  There’s a science and a strategy to long bike rides. In brief, the main concepts are to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm; to stay hydrated; and to keep your energy stores refreshed by consuming carbs periodically during the ride.

Take them in turn:  Steady pedaling rhythm – Another topic I was very wrong about.  Without giving it much conscious thought, I assumed the objective was to achieve as much speed as you could without going crazy.  In a sense, I was right, but for the wrong reasons.  The Burke/Pavelka book opened my eyes with a thorough description of the body’s aerobic versus anerobic system during exercise; how each works and what each needs.  The bottom line is that the objective is to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm, shifting gears as needed to accommodate up- and down-hills or wind, and keeping the body’s exertion rate within a certain happy medium.  Within this happy medium, the cyclist who has conditioned his body with practice and trial & error can go extremely long distances so long as it’s kept hydrated, stretched, and refilled with energy.

This brings us to points 2 and 3. Hydration goes without saying.  Even in the cold weather I’ve been riding in, drinking water during the ride, versus waiting till its conclusion, makes a noticeable difference.  This is greatly magnified as the mercury rises.

The eating aspect is one I literally never knew about prior to this book.  The body has a certain store of usable energy readily available to it for exercise.  An experienced cyclist’s body makes more efficient use of this energy than an untrained person; but even he needs to constantly keep his energy stores topped up, and this is done with a regular supply of carbs supplemented with, especially for much longer rides (couple hours or more) a small protein component which the body can tap for the long term.

I never considered the idea of eating on the bike (or taking breaks to eat). I assumed you got on the bike, headed out, drank water, sure, but other than that, stopped for lunch, resumed, and just ended the ride wherever.  But the reality is that every 15-20 minutes, the longer-distance cyclists will typically take a swig of carb-rich fluids, or less frequently eat a carb-rich snack.

I’ve adapted this strategy imperfectly but effectively.  Pre-departure, I fill up my water bottle; fill up a small double-insulated thermos with my favorite health-food blend which I dub SWUV-8 (powdered spirulina, powdered wheatgrass, and Udo’s Greens powder mixed thoroughly into reduced-sodium V-8); and pack a couple packs of fairly-high-carb multigrain peanut butter crackers.  Then, once on the road, I’ll stop every roughly 40 minutes on average, get off the bike, have a few of the crackers, a portion of the water and SWUV-8, stretch out a little, then resume the ride.

This approach makes all the difference in the world in how I feel and in the distance I can go.  Prior to adopting this approach, I would top out around 15 miles – I’d be pretty empty by then and ready to call it a day.  Now, I’ve done half a dozen 20+ mile rides and am still gradually extending my distance.  This is the approach used by cyclists who ride ultra long distances (century rides and more), and it will be what allows me to traverse the full PST and then the Katy Trail.

My method still isn’t perfect.  I’d prefer to have a carb-rich fluid easily reachable on the bike and just drink from that every 20 minutes or so, as the big boys do.  My goal is to eventually deck my bike out in this manner.  But for now, what I have works quite well, and I’m still learning new things with almost every ride, which are allowing for gradually greater distances.


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