“It’s just like riding a bike,” I repeated to myself. “Actually… it IS riding a bike.”
Geared up with a helmet, sunglasses, cycling gloves, cycling shorts, a new hybrid bike from an actual bicycle shop, and my good old reliable cross-trainers, I began training for a week-long, 250+ mile bicycle trip.
Ten weeks later, I survived the trek. Sort of. And barely.
See, I am not what one would call “in shape.” The second day, I had to be picked up at the 42-mile mark by the SAG wagon (the “Support And Gear” vehicle takes you and your bike to the end of the day’s ride if you cannot continue — I am convinced they made it sound pathetic on purpose). I also technically did some of the distance on foot, since walking my bike over the tops of the steepest hills was faster than the stand-still pace I was setting. But I did it — it counted — and I am pretty sure anyone who can ride a bike could complete a similar bike tour, too.
Just like any fitness endeavor, a long ride becomes much more feasible following some pro tips. Here are some from an amateur.
Have an “I think I can” attitude
In the actual “The Little Engine That Could” story, the little engine says, “I have never been over the mountain. But I think I can.” She thinks she can help the dolls and toys get over the mountain, not because she has succeeded before, but because she just keeps repeating her motivational motto and pushing through the challenge.
Find your motivator to get started and something to get you over the literal or metaphorical mountain when you come to it — whether it’s a prayer, Scripture, or any other inspiring meditation. If all else fails, here’s some wisdom from famed professional cyclist Jens Voigt: “When my legs hurt, I say, ‘Shut up, legs! Do what I tell you to do!’”
Most long-distance rides have a suggested training program. DO. IT. The more preparation you put in, the more you will enjoy the ride. Let’s face it, with very little training, you might be physically capable of making it to the end of each day. But you will literally save yourself some pain in the rear by putting in the work ahead of time.
The key for cycling training is riding multiple days in a row in order to build endurance. Find a program that fits both your starting fitness level and the number of weeks you have between the beginning of your training and the actual ride, typically 8–12 weeks for a week-long bike tour that ranges between 250 and 500 miles. I ended up having to do a lot of training on stationary bikes because of the cold and unpredictability of the early spring weather in Ohio, and it definitely made a difference once the weather cooperated and I could get out on the road.
Seek out support
This step includes removing Negative Nancy and Debbie Downer from the People I Listen To list. Better to seek out accountability either from a person, a local riding club, or an app, and reading/watching/talking to some experts.
I had my husband for both accountability and expertise, but I also found good accountability in the Map My Ride app, and read a whole slew of online articles about cycling. Local bike shops are also great hubs where you can find info on cycling activities and experts.
Get in gear
Cycling is different from running. (NEWSFLASH, EVERYONE!) The most obvious way is that quality gear makes a much bigger difference in raising your ability and improving your experience. In my case, simply going from a cheap mountain bike to a “real” bike that was meant for road cycling instantly doubled my speed and made the whole experience actually enjoyable instead of a constant battle. Riding gloves not only make your hands that much more comfortable, but they are good for wiping sweat off your face instead of letting it drip on your knees. The right seat, cycling shorts, and chamois cream will keep you from walking like a cowboy for a week. Beg, borrow, or buy what you need — it is absolutely worth it.
Years after my first week-long ride, I would love to say that I have stuck with a consistent fitness program (nope), that it has become a lifestyle (I mean, I guess I own several cycling jerseys and watch more cycling on TV), or that I no longer have to walk my bike over the big hills (ha ha ha ha ha), but since I cannot, I measure the return on my investment of time, money, and energy on different scales.
I accomplished something that I never thought was even remotely possible, for one thing. Two hundred and fifty miles feels really impressive. And if I convert it to kilometers in order to impress my runner friends, that’s a whopping 402K!
Running is not physically sustainable for me because of bad joints and exercise-induced asthma, but since riding is actually physically viable, I was able to follow through to the goal that I set. I tend to set more overwhelming and virtually impossible goals, then give up a few steps in. With cycling, though, not only did I have a good training plan and some great accountability, but it felt like the right balance of difficult-yet-possible. I cannot run a marathon, but I can ride 26.2 miles in a couple hours, easily and with a smile on my face.
In fact, one of my favorite parts of bike tours is that it is so different from running, and even from professional cycling: There are no medals, no official timing, no setting PRs, no racing; it’s all about enjoying the ride. And perhaps about eating every 15 or so miles at the rest stops.
In the hours and hours I spent on the road and in preparation, I learned a lot about cycling — but more importantly, I learned a lot about myself. Maybe it is common sense for many people, but I had to learn the hard way that having the right motivation, a plan, accountability, the proper tools, and reasonable goals are all vital to my accomplishing anything good, big, or long-term — anything truly worth the effort.
St. Francis Xavier said, “It is not the actual physical exertion that counts toward a man’s progress, nor the nature of the task, but by the spirit of faith with which it is undertaken.” I undertook the first bike trip with the faith that God would use this experience to make me a better person in the end. I am definitely more peaceful, more self-aware, and better at planning than I used to be. I would call all of that progress, spiritual and otherwise, and it has certainly spilled into all areas of my life. I see it from the way I approach chores to prayers; from short-term “just finish it” tasks to long-term “break it into manageable pieces” projects; and even from keeping my cool in stressful situations to speaking up when I need help.
So, if you can ride 10 miles, push to 20. Then do it a couple days in a row. Once you can do that, you’re ready to start training. A bike tour is a ton of fun and you will almost certainly learn some solid life lessons. Is a week too much for your schedule? Look up some local weekend rides and “century rides” for a similar challenge.
And since it truly is like riding a bike, I am also starting my training next month to ride my third bike tour this summer, after a baby-hiatus has had me riding minimally for the last few years. Let’s ride.