Longer endurance cycling events, including gravel races, ultraendurance or marathon mountain bike races, and gran fondos are the most popular forms of competitive cycling in the United States. There are still plenty of criteriums, road races, and cross-country mountain bike races out there, but the riders who do those are also jumping into longer endurance events – for fun, training, or competition – as well. This is reflected in the distribution of goal events cited by CTS Athletes, and after many years of preparing athletes for, and supporting athletes at, events like Unbound Gravel, SBT GRVL, the Leadville 100, La Ruta de los Conquistadores, and sportives including the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to keep athletes in the game and get them to the finish line.
Obviously, there are a lot of things you do need to do in order to be successful in long distance cycling events. You have to train effectively, put in the miles and hours, incorporate structure and progression, fuel your training, and allow for adequate recovery. But, assuming you have done all of that and you arrive at the start of your event ready to go, here are some of the things you definitely don’t want to do once the starting gun goes off.
The longer the event, the more remote the location, and or the worse the weather, the more inviting aid stations become. During SBT GRVL and the Leadville 100, coming into an aid station in the last third of the event felt like re-entering civilization. At that point in long events, you’re likely riding alone or in a small group, and it’s been quiet for a while. The solitude can be your friend or your enemy, but either way, it’s shattered when you roll into a loud and raucous aid station. It’s festive, supportive, and comfortable. Too comfortable. Don’t settle in, or you won’t leave.
As CTS Coaches, when we staff aid stations at cycling events we do everything we can to encourage athletes to stay on their bikes. We greet them as they come in, bring food or their drop bag to them, fill bottles, and get them on their way. If an athlete needs more assistance or is struggling, we certainly bring them into the tent and attend to their needs, however long it takes. But that’s the anomaly, and the fact is, the likelihood a competitor will continue diminishes with every extra minute they spend in the aid station.
During a long distance cycling event you will have times when you feel strong and powerful and times when you feel slow and miserable. The important thing to remember is that neither feeling will last very long. That’s why you should enjoy the times when you feel good and keep working through the rough patches when you don’t. Athletes get themselves into a lot of trouble when they think too far ahead instead of focusing on the decisions right in front of them.
As an athlete you are constantly regulating your effort by evaluating how you feel now and predicting how you expect to feel later. During short intervals and even events lasting up to a few hours, experienced athletes are pretty good at making accurate predictions, and as a result they set ambitious but sustainable paces and make good decisions about fueling and hydration. Athletes are not nearly as good at predicting how they’ll feel several hours down the road or trail, because more time on course increases the number of variables that can affect performance.
I’m not recommending that you pay no attention to the fact you have many miles and hours left to go, but rather I recommend paying particular attention to the choices you need to make now, and for the next 30 and 60 minutes, or until the next aid station. You don’t have to know all the answers to all the challenges that are ahead of you, because you don’t know what they’re all going to be. If you spent time in training preparing for adversity and mentally rehearsing your responses to challenges, then handle the problems and decisions of the moment and trust that you’ll have the answers for future challenges when they arrive.
One of the biggest gambles in long distance cycling events is trying to minimize weight by reducing the amount of water you’re carrying from aid station to aid station. In many gravel and endurance mountain bike races, water stops can be 25-50 miles apart, and depending on the terrain, the temperature, and the wind, that 50-mile stretch could take 2 hours or 5 hours. The consequences of carrying an extra bottle or a few more pounds in a hydration pack are far lower than the consequences of running out of water an hour short of the next aid station. The same rule applies for carrying food, but it’s relatively easy to carry more than enough food because it’s small and light. Which lead me to the next thing you shouldn’t do…
You should have an aid station routine that is simple and foolproof and so practiced that you can execute it in any state of exhaustion. It should be automatic, and after you go through the steps of gathering food, filling bottles or a hydration pack, and swapping out gear, the last step before leaving the aid station should be a self-check. Confirm you have water, food, tools, some kind of tire inflation device, and any clothing you anticipate needing for the next leg of the journey. If you have never had the experience of realizing you left an aid station with empty bottles, consider yourself fortunate. If you have had that experience, take comfort in the fact you’re not alone. A quick self-check only takes a few seconds, and can save you hours of misery.
Remember what I said about having periods when you feel great and periods when you feel awful? Well, yours aren’t necessarily going to coincide with your friend’s or rival’s. You have to establish your own process goals for the event; which are the actions you’re going to take that are under your control. Your process goals may include aspects of pacing, like keeping power output and/or perceived exertion under a certain level for the first half of the event. They can include experiential aspects of the event, too, like making a point of thanking volunteers instead of blowing through aid stations without a word. You get to determine what success looks like for you at any given event, and once you define it the only way you can achieve it is to ride your own race.
I need to end this list of Don’ts with some very important Do’s. Have fun. Be grateful for the opportunity to do what you love. Enjoy sharing time with friends and making new ones. Encourage and support the people around you, particularly when you’re in one of those good periods and they’re not. And do your best, because it’s the way you honor all the hard work and sacrifices that brought you to that moment.