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Training for Your First Century Ride: Metric or Miles!

By coach Mikael Hanson

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Photo of a Gran Fondo in Butler, NJ.

The landscape of cycling in America has changed dramatically over the past decade. Participation in bike racing has suffered from not only a post-Lance Armstrong hangover but also the rise of other cycling events. Gravel, Gran Fondos, and Cyclosportifs’ have all seen a dramatic increase in popularity over the past few years from both new riders as well as experienced racers looking for something new!

What Is a Gran Fondo or Cyclosportif?

Both terms have foreign origins, with Gran Fondo loosely translating from Italian to “Big Ride” and Cyclosportif being the French translation for the same. These events are large, mass-start rides that have been imported to the U.S. cycling scene from abroad, replacing the much more drab and recreational sounding “century ride.” Think of the Gran Fondo or Cyclosportif as a century ride with a splash of European flair and a distance not locked in at 100mi (most events offer a few different distances to choose from).

They tend to offer a more electric staging area with the feel of a real European bike race—perhaps due to a large expansive expo of vendors and sponsors, the help of both pace cars and neutral support vehicles, a more enticing ‘swag’ bag of goodies for entrants, and of course a slightly steeper entry fee (Gran Fondo New York runs over $400 and attracts thousands of riders globally).

Many of these cycling events appear more like mass-start bike races than casual spins through the countryside. The number of riders with shaved legs generally will outnumber the unshaven. Sleek, lightweight carbon racing bikes are more frequent than bikes with racks saddled by side panniers. Plus, many current Gran Fondo rides offer timed sections, generally spaced around a large climb, where riders of all abilities can compare their performance to the elite riders.

The Gran Fondo is typically an easier, less stressful step for the recreational cyclist who wants to get a taste of some competitive riding, instead of joining the ranks of a category 5 field (where new bike racers must start within USA Cycling) and competing in a hair-raising and potentially crash-marred multi-corner criterium!

Riding the same route as the professionals is nothing new to Europeans as there are several rides that take cyclists over the same course used in the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, and several of the more famous Spring Classics. Perhaps the most well-known ride is the L’Etape du Tour, which takes place in July and boasts a field of over 8,000 riders! Think that is a lot of riders? The Amstel Gold race plays host to over 18,000 amateur riders the day before the pros battle it out in this epic Spring Classic.

Some events to ponder around the New York area include Gran Fondo New York (the granddaddy of them all), Gran Fondo NJ, Highlands Gran Fondo, and the Jersey Devilman Gran Fondo, plus a host of longer charity rides which also offer amazing routes and support. For charity rides, be aware that there may be a fundraising commitment. Some of the charity rides in the area include JDRF’s Ride to Cure (usually six rides in various locations), Bike MS NYC, Columbia University’s Velocity Ride for Cancer, Wall Street Rides Far for Autism Research, and Bike HSS—just to name a few!


Give Yourself Enough Time

Like any endurance event (marathon or Ironman), plan on starting your training early so you can build up the miles in a slow and steady manner—the best course of action to avoid injuries. Regardless of how often you plan to stop, a 100 mile or km ride is a LONG day in the saddle. Your body will need time to adapt to that kind of saddle time! It is not uncommon for an Ironman athlete to dedicate the better part of a year to getting ready for that sort of distance. Depending on your starting fitness level, that might be on the lengthier side for century training, but three to five months of semi-structured training is not out of the question depending on your starting point.

Mix in Both Long and Short-Distance Rides

When training for a marathon, you rarely ever run the full 26.2mi-distance before the race, and the same goes for your first century. There’s no need to do 100 miles beforehand.

How far should you go before your event then? Basically, those doing a full century ride (100mi) should look to get in at least one 70-75 mile ride, and those doing a metric century (62.5mi) should aim for a 50- mile ride prior to their event.

Additionally, just like the marathon runner, build up your mileage slowly, and use the weekends to get in your long ride while completing shorter rides during the week when time is crunched. Maintaining frequency in riding is often better than only one or two longer rides a week, as volume breeds familiarity for the required muscle groups. Aim for four or five workouts each week with the length of the weekend

ride increasing gradually. Marathoners have a 10% rule—don’t increase the length of the long run by more than 10% each week—and the cyclist could probably extend this to no more than 15-20%.

Don’t Forget the Intensity

Going back to my marathon comparison, a more efficient way to get stronger as a cyclist is to keep the pace slow and steady for the weekend’s long endurance workouts (think of duration rather than speed), while the weekday workouts need to be more challenging in nature, like hill repeats or intervals. Just as a marathon runner does not want to do every workout at their goal marathon pace, a cyclist doing his first (or tenth!) century should not always ride at the same speed or intensity. Add in some short hill repeats, some intervals of varying length, and anything that gets you out of your comfort zone for a bit!

Know the Course

This applies to almost every athlete who races! From marathoners or Ironmen to Gran Fondo cyclists, intimate knowledge of the course you will be facing is key to success! Often an Event Promoter’s idea of “gently rolling hills”—a phrase I have seen numerous times describing an event—turns out to be towering climbs that need far different gearing than I have on my bike.

Routes can often be found on Strava or Ride with GPS, giving you greater insight into what is in store. If the course is hilly, then some of the shorter, more intense weekly rides should be dedicated to hill work!

Get Some Help

This can be as simple as finding a friend to train with or joining a cycling club for help on finding longer routes, but don’t try to do this alone! Local cycling clubs often offer weekly training rides with multiple pace groups to join, which will not only expand your network of cyclists but could unveil routes in your area you never knew existed. I am still uncovering routes around NYC even after nearly 3 decades of riding!

Going one step further could be hiring a coach to help with the structured training. Where to find a coach? Ask your local bike club or team for recommendations or look on USA Cycling’s website) where they have a search tool to locate coaches geographically.

Gear Preparation

Tune-up Your Bike

Before starting any structured training, take your bike into your local bike shop (yes, they still exist) and get a full tune-up if you have not done so in the past few years. Tires, cables, seat, bar tape—have it all looked at and take care of anything that is worn out!

Get a Professional Bike Fit

I’ve written on this topic a great deal, but I personally think the single greatest investment a cyclist or triathlete can make in their performance is a professional bicycle fit. I am not just saying this as a coach or even a bike fitter, but as one who has seen far too many athletes spend small fortunes on bicycles that in the end were not properly fitted to them. A bicycle fit is essentially the proper marriage between rider and bicycle, and an ill-fitting bike can be pure misery for a 100-mile bike ride.


Learn How to Fix a Flat (and Other Minor Bike Repairs)

Being prepared to tackle a century ride and all the training that comes with it means some long, lonely miles on your bike. Make sure when you travel far from home to bring a tube, multi-tool, tire levers, ID, and credit card.

Especially when you’re far from home, make sure you know how to properly change a flat tire, or check out the video below. Additionally, many local bike stores often hold after hours clinics on changing a tire, plus other minor repairs like adjusting a derailleur and fixing a broken chain which I would recommend checking out!

Build a Nutrition Plan

This is a huge training tip and applicable to the century rider, Ironman athlete, or marathoner. All the training in the world could be rendered useless without a proper nutrition plan. Practice what you plan to eat and drink before the event. Find the drinks, gels, and foods that agree with you and bring them to the race. Find out what the event will have and practice eating and drinking it.

The Week Prior to the Event

  • Increase fluid intake BUT avoid caffeine, diet sodas, and alcohol.

  • Slight increase in carbohydrate intake.

  • Don’t do anything new food-wise and don’t eat a big meal late the night before.

The Morning of the Race

  • Pre-workout/race meal three hours prior with 75 to 100 grams of carbohydrates.

  • Limit 240-280 carbohydrate calories an hour into the energy cycle!

  • Drink 10-12 fluid ounces each hour up to 30 minutes prior.


Race Fueling and Nutrition

  • Start off well fueled and hydrated.

  • Drink electrolyte replacement fluids during any training session that lasts 60 minutes or longer. A century ride will take longer than that. Plan on drinking one bottle of water per hour of exercise, knowing this could increase under hot and humid conditions.

  • Eat energy gels or bars during any training session that last 90 minutes or longer. A key figure to remember is your body needs 40 to 50 grams of carbs per hour (one gel has roughly 25gm), therefore plan on one gel and one bottle of sports drink per hour during the event.

Dress for Success

If you are just a recreational rider and have never tackled a distance such as this, make sure you are dressed for success! This includes cycling shoes and clipless pedals (doing a century in running shoes is inadvisable), a nice set of cycling shorts with chamois, and a proper fitting jersey with plenty of pockets. Other items not to forget:

  • Helmet and sunglasses

  • Gloves

  • Arm and leg warmers (depending on the time of year and if there’s an early start)

  • Rain jacket (if the weather looks threatening)

  • Sunscreen

What Are We Waiting For?

New Gran Fondo and century rides are popping up every year, so if you are looking to add a little spice to your cycling and want to give yourself a new challenge, give one a try! If you are anything like me, you will be hooked!

12 Week Beginner Gran Fondo Training Program

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