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Riding your first century

By Andrew Nowlan

There is a multitude of reasons that attract us to the bicycle and these are as varied as we, the riders are.  Perhaps two of the most common reasons are the freedom our bicycle grants us to roam the countryside and the camraderie of our fellow cyclists.

I’ve always enjoyed riding my bike, but it is only in the last few years that my addiction to riding my bike has developed.  When I made a concerted effort to get back on my bike, it was to get back into shape.  My primary motivation was to shed a few pounds that seemed to be accumulating around my mid-section.  But as I spent more time on the bike, something changed: my desire to spend even more time on the bike!

This year, I spent on average, 11-12 hours a week on my bike.  Typically, at least a third of this time was spent on just one weekend ride, spinning my way across the beautiful rolling countryside of Southwest Wisconsin.  Long rides, I have found, are great for both my body and mind.  Of course long rides provide tremendous benefit physically as you transform your body into an endurance machine, but also provide a wonderful mental stimulant as well.  A four or five hour ride IS a great achievement.  The boost to your self-confidence as a result of your achievement is as positive as the physical benefits to your body.

As the summer wore on, my long weekend ride was getting longer and longer- 60 miles, 70 miles, 80…  As the distance increased, so did my enjoyment.  Just two years ago, the thought of me doing an 80-mile ride was, well, unthinkable!  But I was learning that I really enjoyed these long rides.  Early this summer, I decided that I should ride a “century,” what cyclists call a ride of at least 100 miles.  Many bicycling clubs will host an “organized century” where for a fee of 25 to 50 dollars, the ride will be “supported.”  Support on an organized century includes vehicles providing mechanical or other assistance and rest stops placed regularly along the route with food, drink, toilet facilities and basic first aid supplies.  Often, for participating there is a t-shirt or some other memento and perhaps a potluck or other gathering for the riders. Organized centuries are great fun to participate in.  Lots of people from all walks of life out on the road, riding together, talking and sharing the day make for a very enjoyable ride.

Door County, a pleasant place to ride! Click for larger image

In early September in Wisconsin, there is an organized century in Door County.  I decided that I would make this event my first organized century.  I chose this event for a few reasons, which included the fact that it was at the end of the summer, located in a beautiful part of the state, and quite flat!  This last factor was fairly important to me, as at the time I had never ridden a century so I didn’t know how my body would function at mile 95!  Also, I knew the group I would be riding with consisted of riders much more experienced, and faster than me!  It was comforting knowing how flat the course was so if my body gave out before the end, I would not be left with a thousand vertical feet still to climb with and empty gas tank!  As a comparison, the Door County Century has only about 2,500 feet of climbing while the Hillier than Hell Hundred in Southwest Wisconsin has over 14,000 feet of climbing which is roughly equivalent to a Tour de France stage.

I didn’t do any specific training for my first century, as my riding program, which saw me riding, on average, 180-190 miles a week, would be more than adequate.  However, if someone who does not ride regularly decides to make riding a century a goal, it would be advisable to develop some sort of “training” plan.  But this should not freak anyone out!  Riding a century is not a bicycle race.  One must not worry about developing “power at threshold” or do stroke-inducing sets of VO2 Max intervals!  Training to ride a century is simply about acclimatizing one’s body to spending lots of time on the bike.  At the minimum, I would recommend a rider be able to comfortably ride 130 miles over the course of a week with at least half of the weekly mileage gained in one ride.  If a rider can comfortably achieve this, riding a century is well within their capabilities.

Participating in the Door County Century was a great experience.  The event is impeccably organized and extremely well run.  We arrived in Door County on Saturday, the day before the event.  Registration is available Saturday afternoon at the local high school where the ride begins and ends.  Registration was in the school’s gymnasium where several regional bike shops had set up booths.  Anything a rider might need for the ride was available.  I browsed around and picked up a cycling cap that had been marked 50% off.  What a deal!

The group I was riding with set plans to meet at 7:00am at the high school the next morning with a departure time set for 7:30am.  One option a participant could choose was a continental breakfast at the school beginning at 6:00 am.  Our group skipped this option knowing that the first rest stop was only about 20 miles into the ride and any food needs could be addressed there!  So for me, breakfast Sunday morning consisted of a couple of breakfast bars.

Sunday morning brought nearly ideal conditions for cycling.  The temperature was 62 degrees with a forecasted high of 75 with an accompanying southeast wind of around 5mph.  So I, along with around 1800 fellow cyclists, hit the roads of Door County for an immensely enjoyable day of riding.

As our group made our way along the course, we saw riders of all ages and skill levels.  The Door County Century has three different length options for riders of various levels.  If you did not want to ride the full century option (which was actually just short of 105 miles) there was also a 70 mile option and a 30 mile option.  For the first couple of hours, the roads were quite crowded with cyclists.  Our group was faster than the average participant so as we rode along, we collected slower riders along the way.  Our group was compared to a magnet sweeping through a pile of iron shavings! 

A fast group in an organized century attracts riders like a bear to honey! Click for larger image

The first rest stop was located about 22 miles into the ride.  The food tables at the Door County Century were well stocked, though with its endless selection of bagels and associated toppings, the first stop was my personal favorite!  Other rest stops swapped the bagels for sandwich materials.  All of the rest stops included a selection of cookies and fresh fruit along with both cold water and Gatorade. 

When undertaking a long ride such as an organized century, a participant should be aware of what type of food their body will tolerate during the effort.  For example, I know to carry one bottle of plain water and one bottle of Gatorade.  Drinking just Gatorade just does not work for me, too much sugar and sweetness.  Having a bottle of plain water works well to dilute the Gatorade when my system needs it.  Also, I tread lightly around the fresh fruit as the high fiber content can upset my stomach.

Rest stops were well-stocked in Door County. Click for larger image

As our group pressed into the 100 mile option loop, the crowds of cyclists on the roads dwindled.  For me, this part of the ride, from roughly the 60 to 80 mile points, was the most difficult.  Fatigue starts to set in at this point but the realization that there is much distance yet to be covered is still in the forefront of the mind.  This is pretty typical among distance riders to experience a bit of a low during this time period.  It helps to be prepared for this mental low, and helps even more to ride with friends!  Especially friends who have experienced this aspect of distance riding and will help you though the difficult times.  At this time, it is important to remember why you are out on the bike.  It is not to dwell on how far you have yet to ride, but to enjoy the simple pleasure of being on your bike, out in the fresh air, taking in the countryside.

Friends, don’t ride a century without them! Click for larger image

I made it through my difficult patch and after the fourth rest stop, I felt as good as I had all day.  The fact that I knew I was nearing the end also quite likely had something to do with that euphoria!  However that euphoria wore off about 10 miles later, but by then, I had nearly completed the ride.  I rolled into the high school parking lot tired and a little behind the rest of my group but happy to have ridden the century with them.  But at the Door County Century, the event does not end upon your return to the high school.  The school opens the showers and locker rooms to allow riders to clean up prior to heading over to the school’s cafeteria for a spaghetti dinner!  I can safely say that it was the single biggest plate of spaghetti I have ever had in my life, and I ate every last bite!

For me, the Door County Century was a great experience on the bike.  I met lots of nice fellow cyclists, saw a beautiful part of the state and I got to spend some high-quality time on the bike!  Riding a century is not beyond the grasp of any cyclist so long as they employ a bit of common sense.  With a moderate amount of preparation, an enjoyable day on the bike and a significant accomplishment can be had. 



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