The first century of the year

It’s April and Spokers’ thoughts turn to…riding centuries. Such as the Tierra Bella next weekend. The week after is the Primavera in Fremont, and then there is the Chico Wildflower, the Wine Country, Grizzly Peak, the Davis Double, and on and on. But if you’re like me you’ve probably had better things to do with your time than train for a one hundred mile ride. In our case it was traveling in Patagonia and being off the bike for three weeks. Yet Roger and I recently completed the Solvang Century on our tandem.

This was Roger’s second century ever, and only the second century I have done in probably ten years. I had been doing tons of centuries in the 80s and 90s and I just burned out on them. The imagined glamour of completing 100 or more miles in a day was replaced by the drudgery of getting up early, the reality of having killed an entire day in the saddle, and then feeling wiped out and catatonic for at least another day afterwards. But after years of being away from doing long rides (or at least, this kind of long ride), we actually had a hell of a good time. And, we did it on no training. How did we do it? Well, boys and girls, let me ‘splain it to you!

(1) Choose Your Ride Carefully

Doing the Death Ride without any training as your first century would be, well, deadly. So, the key is to pick a century that’s benign and as flat as possible. Climbing can really tax your cardiovascular system and drain you quickly, making the remainder of your ride a two-wheeled version of the Stations of the Cross. Take it easy by keeping your heart rate and exertion level in the ‘comfortable range’, so the flatter the better! The Solvang is notoriously flat (well, flat for California). In fact, despite its advertising of Foxen Canyon as being a “hard” climb, it’s a great first century route with mostly flat or rolling terrain. The climbs do come at the end of the Solvang but they pale in comparison to a typical Bay Area hill—they were neither steep nor long. Headwinds and bad weather can be the bane of the Solvang, but the former were mild this year and we had no rain at all because of this unusually dry winter. In the Bay Area, the flattest century we have is the Wine Country in early May, which unfortunately is completely sold out for this year. (The Hekaton, which is no longer run, was even flatter.) Your next best bet is the Delta Century out of Stockton in May and then the Foxy Fall out of Davis in October, both in the Sacramento Valley.

(2) Ride Slow

It’s hard to keep all that excitement under control when you’re surrounded by so many enthusiastic cyclists, most of whom have probably trained avidly and have thousands more miles under their belt than you. You take off like a rocket—after all, you’re feeling fresh, right?—and two rest stops later you’re thinking the sag wagon might not be a bad alternative. Surviving a century on no training means keeping it real: go slow, and I mean really slow. Slow as in ‘I can talk all day’ slow. If you’re huffing and puffing, you’re going too fast. Speeding up means you’ll use up all your carbs (glycogen) and then it’ll be suffering time. Going slow allows your body to rely more on burning fat. When you’re untrained, your body favors using stored sugar (glycogen) but you only have a limited supply. So, spare your stored glycogen and burn stored fat by riding at an easy pace and you’ll get through the day with a smile on your face!

(3) Be Patient

Going slow deliberately takes discipline. At Solvang I kept telling Roger not to follow wheels and not to follow other people’s pace, just go our own pace. One acceleration up a hill—after all, it’s just a short hill, right?—or any going into the red zone and we would regret it later. I wore a heart rate monitor at Solvang so I could monitor things, and my goal was to keep it in zone 1 for the majority of the ride and never, ever go above zone 3. If my heart rate went up, we backed off.

(4) Eat Lots

There’s a reason century rides have rest stops. You’re going to be burning through a lot of calories. But more importantly you’re going to be burning through your glycogen. I literally forced myself to eat at the rest stops, even though I sometimes was not feeling hungry, just to make sure I had enough carbs. A century is not a good time to exercise weight control. Eat lots. Eating sugary foods spares your untrained body’s paltry glycogen stores so that you’ll make it to the end. If you run out of glycogen, you’re bonking and it’s game over.

(5) Suck But Not Too Hard

Unfortunately we weren’t able to do that at Solvang because tandems and singles just don’t mix well and always seem to be going at different speeds. Plus, all the other tandems at Solvang seemed to be racing (read: were faster than we were.) Of course, that didn’t seem to prevent a scad of riders from sucking our wheel, mind you, and it just shows you how smart they were. If you can follow a wheel, that’s some free energy by staying out of the wind. The trick is to follow a wheel that isn’t going too fast. If you’re following a really fast wheel, then you may go into the red zone regardless, and then it’s like too much of a good thing: you’re going to burn out. So, even though the temptation might be to suck the wheel of Speed Racer—it’s going to be free speed, right?—don’t. Find a wheel of someone going your speed and suck their wheel so you can take it really easy. Low effort means you’ll last longer.

So, how did Solvang turn out? Great! Before Solvang our rides were generally no more than 30 to 40 miles in length but we did do one 65-mile ride this spring. Of course, then we had three weeks with no exercise. Nevertheless we were able to keep a steady pace all day without burning any matches and completed the ride in 6 hours and 17 minutes; our average speed was 15.8 miles per hour. We were certainly tired after a long day but we weren’t overly so, and actually we felt rather fresh at the end and weren’t punished by post-ride lethargy or soreness. Not bad for no training!