Your First Century

Bassano, Italy

Wow, we get to ride our bikes all day. (Friend, happily, at the start of a century)

However you feel right now, you’ll feel different in five minutes. (Cycling truism)

Doing a century is a rite of passage for a cyclist. Almost all road riders do them at some stage in their riding career. Here’s how to jump into the deep end of that pool.

ChooseA Century or a Gran Fondo?

There are centuries and there are gran fondos. They’re both 100-mile rides, and they’re so similar you can sign up for either and ignore which one the ride is calling itself. But there are differences:

A century has no start time—you start when you want to (some centuries have an earliest allowable start time). A gran fondo has a mass start, which means you’ll start in a crush of other riders—perhaps thousands. It’s dramatic and exciting, and it’s good because it means that the faster riders will ride off and get out of your way early, but it’s bad if you’re slow—you start with the speedsters and so you finish hours and hours after them, and can easily end up finishing alone in the dark, after all the food has been packed up, or being ordered to get in the broom wagon sweeping the course and not being allowed to finish at all.

A century is a “ride,” not a race (though inevitably some riders treat it as one). A gran fondo is a race (typically you’ll have a timing chip and have your time recorded), and, though the bulk of the riders ignore the fact that the clock is running, a general spirit of race and competition is in the air.

A gran fondo is often as much a festival as a ride, with a finish-line fair, a band at the post-ride meal, gourmet food, wine tasting, and so on. Centuries are more low-key. As a result gran fondos tend to be more expensive than centuries.

Traditionally gran fondos have guest riders or sponsors who are pros or retired pros. Centuries don’t. But don’t ride a gran fondo because pro rider So and So is going to be there—typically you won’t get near them. They’ll start at the head of the pack with the other celebrities, and they’ll ride off, be done with the ride, and be gone hours before you come in. If you want to ride with a pro, find a fun ride, which is designed expressly for that purpose. There the pro will roll along at 12 mph and chat with you.

Gran fondos in Europe are often absurdly huge (10,000 riders or more), and American gran fondos like to emulate Europe by being as large as possible. Levi’s Gran Fondo in Santa Rosa tops out at 7,000. Few centuries approach this. This is just one more way gran fondos have a general aura of “big deal” about them.

Get Fit

Obviously you want to be in shape for the ride. But you don’t have to do 100-mile training rides to train for a century. Human physiology being what it is, you can get century fitness doing 1-hr rides and following the principles of the Training chapter. Of course it’s nice to do some longer rides, less for your muscles than for your butt, hands, back, and other things that get sore. But if you can do a moderate-paced 40-mile ride, you can do a century.

Don’t Rest Up Before the Ride

Remember the Training chapter: muscles don’t rest best by being idle. So don’t try to top up your energy by staying off the bike in the days before the century. Of course you don’t want to go out and waste yourself. But lying around does you no good. So spend the 3 days before the big ride doing relaxing, non-lactic-acid rides lasting 1-2 hours. I always ride the day before a century, and feel lousy on the bike during the century if I don’t.

Ride for the Communal Experience

Do the ride for the right reasons. In a sense, riding an organized century is stupid. You can ride the century route any time, for free. At least half the route miles will probably be mediocre. Doing the ride with 2000 other cyclists is crowded, chaotic, and dangerous. The food isn’t that good. So you’re doing it for the social experience, the circus, what the 60’s called the Happening. It’s a celebration. Take it on its own terms.

Pick an Easy Century

Riding 100 miles and navigating the century culture is challenge enough on your first outing. Minimize the difficulty by choosing a ride that’s relatively unthreatening. Centuries are usually good at announcing their difficulty level, especially if they’re hard. If you’re fit you can roll forever on flats and downhills, so difficulty comes down to climbing: How much elevation gain is there? How steep are the pitches? 5,000 ft of vertical gain is a relatively easy century; 10,000 ft is a hard one. The more the vert is gathered in a few steep climbs, the harder it is. One mile of 20% pitch (1000 ft of gain) is more work than 3,000 ft gained on gentle rollers.

Easier than a mile century is a metric century—100 kilometers, or 62 miles. Most centuries have a 100-mile course and a metric course (and may have shorter routes as well), and the metric will let you “experience the experience” of a century without having to ride quite so far.

Know the Course

Before doing the ride, get a clear sense of what lies ahead of you by examining the route. Know where the hard stuff is. Most centuries will print the course and the elevation profile on their website. If not, someone has probably mapped the route on Strava or another route-mapping site.

Sign Up Early

In the old days, you could show up the morning of a century, sign up, and go ride—what is called “day-of registration.” But nowadays any popular century is sold out long before the ride date—often in days or hours—and the super-popular rides like California’s Death Ride have lotteries. So sign up as soon as registration opens on the century website. Luckily for us mortals, rides with lotteries tend to be the murderously difficult ones. There’s no financial risk—if you decide not to ride, you can sell your spot to one of the eager riders who didn’t get in. Many centuries have their own registration exchanges for this purpose.

Sign In

Even though you registered, you need to check in on the morning of the ride. There will be a table with a row of volunteers checking you in, seated by riders’ last names alphabetically. You’ll get a wristband (to get you into the food stops) and a route map, and perhaps a packet of information and swag (freebies, pronounced “shwag”). Popular centuries must guard against “poachers” (riders sneaking into the ride), so be prepared to show your wristband at food stops, though most rides don’t ask for it.

Be Responsible for Your Own Navigation

When you check in, familiarize yourself with the route map and find out how your course is marked. Traditionally century routes are marked with brightly colored plastic arrows on the road surface 50 ft or so before (and often after) turns. Since most centuries have several different routes (the 10-mile kids’ ride, the 20-mile fun ride, the metric century, the mile century, the 130-mile super-century), each with its own color, you need to know which color is yours. And your century may not use arrows (the police in some areas won’t allow them). There should be a poster-size map of the course routes prominently displayed near the registration table so you can sort all this out.

Every novice century rider tells themselves, “I don’t need to navigate—the road will be full of other riders, and I’ll just follow them.” This sounds reasonable, but it doesn’t work. Unlikely as it seems, on a century with thousands of other riders you can be alone on the road for long stretches. And those other riders you’re following make mistakes.

Start Early

Centuries typically have cut-off times, where they force you to get off your bike and into the broom wagon or they stop serving food at the post-ride meal. It’s no fun riding 100 miles worrying about not making the cut. Even if there is no cut, it’s depressing to finish this grand accomplishment and find that everyone else has packed up and gone home. So begin as early as the century will let you. That way you can relax and enjoy the journey. For long and challenging rides like California’s Death Ride, riders start in the pitch dark of very early morning.

Ride at a Moderate Pace

Don’t try to ride fast, because you’ll get tired. Don’t try to ride slow, because you’ll be out there forever. Ride at a pace between strolling and pressing. Use your heart rate monitor to guide you—ride at a pace that raises your heart rate but doesn’t approach training levels. For me, that’s 110-120 on the flats. Pay attention to your level of effort especially on hills, since that’s where the matches get burned—climb steadily and easily, with as little working as possible. On challenging centuries, I try to keep my HR under 130 on all climbs before the 70-mile mark.

This all seems like common sense, but there are at least two times when you’ll be seduced into ignoring it: in the first hour, when you’re feeling fresh, the exhilaration of the century sweeps you up, and the adrenaline is roaring, and later when faster riders are passing you and you feel an urge to stay with them. At those times, you may have to order yourself to back off.

Don’t extrapolate the workload. That means, don’t estimate your tiredness level at the end of the century by gauging how tired you are now and multiplying. If you’re 20 miles in, you’ll be tempted to say, “OK, I’ve got 5 times this much riding to do, so at the end I’ll be 5 times this tired! I’ll never make it!” This is a great way of talking yourself into despair, and it simply isn’t the way bodies work. It’s common to ride until you’re tired, do some recovery riding, and suddenly feel wonderful. Remember our mantra: however you feel now, you’ll feel different in five minutes. So ride for the pleasure of the riding, take in the scenery and the passing parade, engage your cycling neighbors, and don’t look at your instruments until you’re at least 50 miles into the ride.

Expect a Low Average Speed

If you consider 15 mph a moderate pace, don’t expect to average 15 mph on a century. It is, after all, 100 miles. And if you’re doing 15 mph on the flats you’ll be doing 6 mph on the hills. So expect a 11-12 mph overall on a typically hilly 100-mile course. That sounds slow, but trust me on this, and plan your departure time accordingly. Remember to calculate in your food stops.

Dress as Lightly as You Can Stand

Most centuries are in the summer months, when there’s often a huge temperature swing from 6 AM to 3 PM. I once did a century where it was 60 degrees at 6 AM, 70 degrees at 7 AM, 80 degrees at 8 AM, and 105 degrees by noon. If you dress for the 6 AM start, at 3 PM you’ll be riding with three layers tied around your waist. Yet you can’t freeze for the first 3 hours. So strike a compromise, and dress so you’re cold for the first fifteen minutes, a bit chilly for the first hour, comfortable for the next few hours, and stripping off clothing after that. And perfect your clothing storage system—get a large seat pack and curly laces and/or wear a backpack. Some thoughtful centuries have a clothing drop zone after a couple hours of riding, so you can drop off the clothes you don’t need and collect them at the end of the ride—ask if yours has one.

Don’t Depend on the Food Stop Food

All centuries have food stops, spots along the route where you are expected to get off your bike, snack on the century committee’s food, and socialize a bit. Usually there’s one every 25 miles. Unless the food stop food is chosen by experienced riders, expect it to be party snacks. You get M and M’s and Nutella—yummy, and exactly what you don’t need when you’re riding long miles. You need non-sugary carbs, some protein, and a bit of healthy oil. So use the food stops as they are meant to be used, as mid-ride treats, and carry your own real fuel, in the form of gel, energy bars, and carb/protein powder. Since the powder mixes with water and you’ll be refilling your water bottle every hour or two, I carry two bottles, one with powder (that one I nurse) and one with water (that one I refill at each stop), plus a refill of powder in a ziplock bag to deploy at the 50- or 60-mile mark.

Connect with the Other Riders

If you do a century and just ride the hundred miles talking only to your riding buddy or to no one, you just wasted the entry fee. A century is a social mixer. Treat it like speed dating. Ask the riders you’re riding among a) where they’re from b) how they’re doing c) where they got that cool jersey d) if they can believe this weather e) how they like that bike.

Consider Packing a Stimulant

A century is one time you might want to bring along a 5-Hour Energy shot or something similar. You’ll pay for it tomorrow, but it will get you through those last 20 miles when nothing else will. Take it along, as they say in Wind in the Willows, “just on the chance.”

Ride the Next Day

OK, you can rest for a day, but the point is, muscles recover better when they’re lightly used, not when they’re idle, so climb on the bike for a relaxed ride as soon as possible to work out the stiffness.