6 Tips for Conquering A Long-Distance Bike Race

Jens Voigt at Dirt Kanza, an endurance race

It’s been a little more than two months since I finished the 206-mile (330-kilometer) endurance race known as Dirty Kanza. The name was fitting: dirty because it was all on gravel roads; Kanza because it took place in the state of Kansas. At nearly 14 hours13 hours and 38 minutes to be exact—it was one of the longest days I’ve ever had on a bike. So how did I prepare for it? That’s a trick question.

The truth is you’ll never be fully prepared for a race like that. Who trains by riding their bike for 12 hours straight? Nobody, right? No matter how hard you train, long-distance bike races will always be challenging—that’s why we do them. Still, properly preparing to the best of your ability can make all the difference. Here’s what I recommend you do for your next endurance race or ride:

Hold A Steady Pace

Let me tell you from my own painful experience: Starting too fast is an absolute killer that will leave you paying a price (pain!) later in the race. During the peak of my career, I once found myself among a group of 25 riders leading at the halfway point of a race. But I had pushed too hard, and before I knew it I hit a wall (not literally, but it felt that way!) that left me going at a snail’s pace for the next 15 miles. People could have walked faster than I was riding. Believe me, you don’t want that. In a long-distance cycling event, it’s all about endurance (and then more endurance) so pick a comfortable pace—and stick with it.

Hydrate and Fuel

You’ve likely heard this before, but I can’t drive home the point enough. Hydration is very important. For Dirty Kanza, I carried three large water bottles. One had a sports drink (for a quick source of carbs and energy), one had mineral salts (to keep my electrolytes balanced), and a third had plain water. I also carried just enough food to make it between rest stops; there’s no reason to carry more.

If you’re short on resources or don’t have the support of a team, contact the race to see if they will be providing rest stops with food options along the route, or if they know of a service that can help you refuel. Ask about bike support as well. Some events have bike mechanics on site to help with things like flat tires and skipping gears.

Invest in Proper Equipment

One thing that helped for my recent race was the handlebar extensions (what triathletes use to make themselves more aerodynamic) I installed on my bike. While the aero element helped, I mostly used it for comfort, to rest my arms and shoulders. In total, I spent around three hours leaning on them, which helped immensely.

Another must-have piece of equipment is a waterproof bag to carry some cash, a credit card, an ID card, and your health insurance card. I also put some toilet paper in there. If you take any medication, be sure you have enough with you. Two other things I always carry with me: an extra battery or energy source for my phone and a bottle of chain lube. A dry, noisy chain can make you feel anxious and kill your motivation.

Pack a Change Of Clothing

Depending on the weather and how long you’ll be riding, it can be nice to have an extra set of clothing to change into at the halfway point. Stash it in a lightweight backpack or small pack that attaches to your bike.

Know When to Rest  

Don’t be shy about stopping. Whether it’s to catch your breath or take a quick photo of the landscape, it’s more than ok. After 10 hours on the bike during this year’s Dirty Kanza, I found this rare space of green grass under a tree and laid down for five minutes. The break was much needed and felt so good on my back, neck, and shoulders. Afterwards, I felt refreshed and ready to forge onward.

Think of the Finish

There are times during a long ride or race when your motivation is going to wane; that’s normal. The key is knowing how to stay invested. I visualize myself crossing the finish and being welcomed by hundreds of people showing their love and respect. I imagine myself swelling with joy and pride. This is what makes putting up with all the pain, suffering, and self-doubt I might experience on the journey worthwhile.

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