Kristof Allegaert, the man-machine who won the Transcontinental Race, recently produced a list of endurance cycling tips; while I agree with everything on his list, there are a couple of things I’d add:
Long over-night rides
In the year building up to a multi-day endurance cycling event, do some long over-night rides. This allows for a degree of acclimatization to the stresses that consecutive days on the bike can place your mind and body — a night or two in a bivy bag / tent will push you out of your comfort zone and give you some basis to work out what sleep strategy will work for you during the race.
This kind of training will also give you a chance to see how much kit you need to take and provide feedback on the gear you already have. I know that when I got back from my first over-night bike trip there were a whole list of things I’d taken but didn’t use — suffice to say I didn’t lug them with me again. This process has continued on every trip I’ve taken since; it’s an ongoing experiment in refinement.
Don’t neglect your core muscles
The number one thing that Kristof highlighted on his list was that to be successful at this kind of riding, you have to love cycling. This probably means that you already ride your bike a lot. In fact, if you love cycling and you’re considering riding something like the Transcontinental or the World Cycle Race, you regularly ride long distances. Most people don’t forget to train on the bike for these kind of events, but a lot of people do forget to do some form of core strengthening.
The muscles in your core do a great job of taking the load off much larger muscles that are in high demand when you’re riding all day. If you have a strong core you’ll find that your lower back and neck are much more comfortable at the end of a long ride. There’s nothing worse than being half way through a 200-mile ride and finding yourself facing a long, slow, uncomfortable century — all because you neglected to do a few sit-ups.
Test, test, test
I worked in a bike shop for a number of years and I was always surprised at the number of people who would buy new equipment or nutritional products on the day of a race / sportive / audax. Training is the time for testing, not during the event you’ve been preparing for. If you’re not comfortable on the bike, you won’t be able to ride far — experiment and find out what works for you long before turning up at the start line. Bike fit is important, but so are your contact points: find a saddle and shorts that are comfortable for 100 or 200 miles, and don’t neglect your hands. Nerve compression is common in cyclists riding 1000s of miles; it presents as numb fingers and a lack of dexterity, and while it’s difficult to prevent all together, using good gloves and gel bar tape can alleviate it.
Eat right — for you
Nutrition is key in endurance cycling. On long distance multi-day rides, mood is often directly related to food. During the Transcontinental there were times when I felt rubbish on the bike, the pace was dropping, and I felt generally awful — these were the signs that I needed something to eat. A pizza or an ice cream later and I’d be flying, feeling great. The trick is to know yourself well enough to recognize the signs, and to know what foods you’re happy with.
I once made the mistake of drinking a coke during a long ride — I never usually drink regular coke, but felt that I could use the sugar boost. Mistake. Something about it really messed up my digestive system and I couldn’t eat for about 4hrs. While some degree of flexibility is needed to be able to eat when there are limited options, it’s important to know what food works for you.
Want it badly
In order to finish an endurance cycling event / route, I think the most important thing is to want it really badly. If it’s a target that you’ve been obsessing about and that you’ve invested months in training for, you’ll be much more likely to finish and to enjoy it while you’re out there. This focus will let you push through the bad times and savor the highs. If you decide to do an event on a whim, and don’t engage fully with it, the chances are you’ll be underprepared and won’t have a reason to stick with it when the going gets tough. This isn’t to say that you need to be ultra experienced / an elite athlete — I’m all for people giving this kind of cycling a bash, regardless of their experience / ability level — you just need to want it badly.