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An Amateur's Quick Guide to Long-Distance Cycling

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Two cyclists.

Cycling a stage of the Tour de France (120 miles over the mountains) to raise money for charity is called L'etape. Literally meaning 'a stage' in French, this takes place every year about a week before the professionals do the same stage. About 8000 people undertake it each year; all the roads are closed and it is a very good atmosphere.

Spaces are limited, so if you cannot gain entry into this event try another one in your own country. Their official name is Audax events, which originally comes from the Latin meaning brave, daring or audacious. A more appropriate definition comes from the Italian, meaning 'all day'. In terms of intensity and endurance, comparing cycling and running is about 4:1. So a comparable cycling distance to running a marathon is about 100 miles.

L'etape is much harder than the popular rides over in the UK, for instance the London to Brighton ride. This is because it is significantly longer, generally a lot hotter and hillier, and you have to complete the course in a set time.

There are a number of long-distance cycle ways in the UK, such as the Pennine cycleway, the Trans-Pennine Trail and the Coast to Coast, managed and maintained by Sustrans.

Tips for Successfully Completing an Event

Peripheral Bike Equipment

Equip your bike with a speedometer; when you know the pace you are travelling it is easier to keep it up. In an event such as this it is imperative to be able to maintain a minimum speed.

Pump and puncture repair kit are essential. Take time to practice taking a wheel off and repairing a puncture.

A set of lights are indispensable, preferably dynamos (lights that use the movement of the bike wheels to provide power, rather than batteries) that won't go off when you stop at lights. As well as being necessary at night, a long distance ride may include a long tunnel, where lights are quite useful.

Sunscreen is essential, even in winter, as the back of your neck will be constantly exposed to the sun. And the edge of a helmet scraping across sunburn is not nice.

If you are an absolute beginner at these distances, get a gel saddle. Once you've settled in it can be dispensed with.

One utterly essential item is a set of panniers to carry spare clothes and food. A GPS might also be useful, and there are now a few reasonably priced models designed specifically for bikes.

Heart Rate Monitor

Using a heart rate monitor will allow you to work at your optimum work rate. This also means that you learn not to work out at unsustainable effort levels. At a rough guide, your maximum heart rate is 220 minus age. The sustainable work out you can keep up is about 70% - 80% of this. This range is called aerobic workout. Moving up to 90% heart rate is anaerobic. This is where the body cannot produce as much oxygen to cater for the body's needs. Put simply, if you workout in the anaerobic zone then you will not be able to sustain this for long. Pace yourself!

Clip-in Pedals

Clip-in shoes and pedals are very useful - but practice getting your feet in and out on a very quiet road. Clip-in pedals attach your foot via your shoe to the pedal - this is the next step to toe clips. When using clip-in pedals you are pulling the pedals up, not just pushing down. It is essential you practice taking your feet out - this is done by twisting your feet.

On a non-Audax style ride, the clip-in shoes aren't so essential, and can actually be a bit of a nuisance if riding over rough terrain.

Lose Weight

Lose weight. Each pound you can lose helps you greatly when climbing mountains. Losing pounds will go in hand in hand with training, making sure to eat sensibly. Cut out sugars such as fizzy drinks and sweets. Apart from increasing calorie intake, they cause a peak followed by a dip in energy levels. You want smooth energy levels for endurance events - the exception would be when doing substantial training rides.

One of the motivations I'd have for going out on long rides was because I allowed myself to have sweets and fizzy pop while I was out. Crude but effective.


Don't try to kid yourself that you can easily cope with just water to drink. Get used to drinking sports drinks, as they will help your energy levels so you can sustain a good level of effort. Drinking only water for ten hours when you are burning up at least 8000 calories is dangerous for your body.

If you haven't eaten enough, you could experience bonking1. At best, bonking is deeply unpleasant, causing tunnel vision, a racing pulse and an odd feeling of detachment from your surroundings. At worst it can lead to serious accidents.

I've seen cyclists ride straight into cars or off the road because they were bonking.

The best way to avoid it is to keep a supply of sugary things close to hand and snack as much as possible. Bananas are a good preventative measure too - the potassium will help you avoid cramps as well.

Train with Someone Else

Get a training partner. It makes it much easier to go for rides because you will be more motivated. It is much easier to train with someone than alone; this way, when you do not go out you feel you are letting someone else down. It also provides company when on a longer ride.

Training in the Winter

Buy a turbo trainer - indoor rollers enable you to keep your legs cycling fit even in the cold, dark, wet winter. Indoor rollers are a mechanism which you fasten your back wheel into in order to simulate riding on the roads. Your back has rollers against it - so with a lot of use it will wear your tyre down. If it is icy or raining the last thing you want to do is taking your bike out, but if you can do it in the comfort of your own home then this much better. You can even watch the television while you are doing it.

Miles and More Miles

Keep clocking up miles - indoor, outdoors, with someone or alone, there is no substitute for putting in the miles. To complete an Audax-type ride you should be doing at least 100 miles a week. This can be say 60 miles commuting a week and a 40 - 60 mile ride most weekends.

Cool Down

Cool down. After longer rides make sure you stretch your back and legs for at least five minutes. Sit in a cold bath for five minutes - this sends the signal to your body that you are cold so it then sends more blood around therefore replenishing the aching muscles with more oxygen.

Setting a Goal

Set yourself a goal and do it for charity. Once you have asked people to sponsor you it is much harder to back out. This will make you feel doubly proud at the end - completing the ride and raising money to help others. If you did it just for yourself you might easily find an excuse not to go, but when you have asked lots of people to sponsor you, you will not want to lose face or let down the charity by backing out.

What to Wear

  • Definitely opt for practical attire over looks and fashion - although bright lycra is always in fashion in cycling.

  • A helmet is often compulsory. Do not go for the cheapest; these usually do not protect properly and do not have good ventilation. Your helmet should be replaced if it is involved in an accident. A number of companies (often the more expensive ones) will replace a helmet either for free or for a small fee. Their business plan is that it's easier to sell their other wares to living customers than dead ones.

  • Padded shorts for both men and women give you some protection against getting sore. At the very least wear trousers that allow you to spin your legs freely. If you wear long trousers, remember to wear cycle clips to stop them catching in the chain.

  • Padded gloves protect your hands if you fall off; they also absorb many vibrations, so taking pressure off your back.

  • As for your shirt, wicking material is best as it takes the sweat away from your skin. Cycle tops are made with pockets in the back to store tools or food.

  • Shoes should ideally be the clip-in sort mentioned above. If not, be careful with laces that could get caught in the chain.


For most people, completing an Audax-style event, or one of the long-distance cycle ways, will be the experience of a lifetime.

1A technical cycling term. Not to be confused with boinking.

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