Tour Fitness - Your Questions, Answered
Updated: Nov 10, 2018
How much training is required to bike for months on end? Months on end? A ride here and there? None at all?
This was undoubtedly the most common question I was asked both during and after my trip, as well as the biggest perceived barrier people would incite as why they could never accomplish a similar feat. I’m here to tell you that, contrary to popular belief, the amount of training necessary is not nearly as much as you might think. In fact, far from it. Far more important to a successful trip are necessary planning and preparation.
I suppose before continuing further, I should point out that while generalizations can be made on required fitness levels, everyone is different (that’s genetics for ya), and while certain generalizations can be made, these are at the end of the day my own anecdotal observations of my own pre- and post-trip fitness and those of other cyclists I encountered along the way. In other words, I ain’t no doctor, folks! So take this article with a grain of salt.
That said, odds are that you (yes you, reader) would have no problem hopping on a bike tomorrow and taking it 4,000+ miles across the country with a bit of planning, preparation, and a few considerations. As a reference, before I set out, the longest bike ride I had ever completed was just under 20 miles. 20 miles. If you follow my trip journal at all, you know I was averaging close to 95 miles per day by the end of the trip, with several rides north of triple-digit territory.
How is this possible, you ask? Well, again - with a bit of planning, preparation, and a few considerations.
A Few Considerations
Sort of like disclaimers, if you will. First off, while I had not biked much distance at all, I had been keeping myself in pretty good shape (at least I like to think so). I have been a runner since high school and had been training for a half marathon before this trip. I also try to eat well and do not smoke (...habitually).
Not directly transferable to cross-country bike fitness by any means, but my point is that overall health and fitness is important in anything you might do. While it’s not necessary to go out and ride 70 miles a day for two weeks to prepare for this kind of trip (you might as well just start the actual trip at that point), eating right and a couple of weeks of cardio if you’ve been out of the game awhile will go a long way.
Another consideration is the amount of weight you plan on pedaling. This includes the weight of the bike, all the stuff you’re attaching to it, and, of course, the rider. I went light in all three categories. I used an aluminum road bike that weighed less than 20 lbs, and carried under 20 lbs of gear with me. I’m also a pretty sleight guy, weighing in at around 150. Many folks I’d encountered were hauling considerably heavier setups and were riding shorter distances as a result. There’s no right weight to shoot for; it depends on how much your willing to spend along the way on things like food, shelter, etc., or if you’d rather bring your own.
That said, cutting out unnecessary luxury items can really make a difference if you want to up your daily mileage (I shed my DSLR and GoPro early on when I realized I scantly used them, for example).
Now, the more important stuff.
There are a few limiting factors to plan around before riding these sorts of distances. These include: weather, terrain, timing (as in time of day), and location.
Perhaps the most deterministic factor, as you might expect, is the weather. This is more than just avoiding thunder and lightning (which, admittedly, make riding long distances nearly impossible), but more subtly it means looking at the hourly temperature forecast (is it going to be 90+ degrees at 2 p.m. when you’re in the middle of your ride? Sub-thirty?) and making sure you’ll have adequate water supplies and the appropriate equipment.
You’ll also want to check the wind forecast. Nothing is more demoralizing than planning a long stint and not realizing you’ve got a strong headwind the whole way. Talk about a serious day-ruiner.
Following weather, terrain also plays a large role in how far (and for how long) you can ride. This does take a bit of trial-and-error on your end in assessing your capabilities on hilly terrain, but some general tips include sitting back in the saddle and pacing yourself. It’s really easy to over-expend on early climbs when your legs are fresh, but this only hurts you later on. If you have trouble, think of investing in a heart-monitor or power-meter to provide a more objective indication, and definitely take a good look at the elevation profile when planning a route.
Other important aspects of terrain include the presence (or absence) of tree-cover (bring plenty of sunscreen), and the road surfaces you’ll be encountering. Google Maps threw some scrappy roads at me time and again that were too much for my skinny road tires to handle - don’t make the same mistake! Check beforehand.
Timing is also important to consider when planning a long ride. As in, give yourself enough time to ride 70+ miles (or however far you’re going). Sleeping in is nice, but it’s even nicer to have your 5+ hours of riding finished and a beer in hand before the sun goes down. Safer, too.
Finally, location will play a big part in your route planning process, as it usually has its own unique mix of all the variables talked about above. Make sure you know exactly what’s in store, as a long ride through the Kansas plains will pack a totally different punch than slopey southern Virginia or the high-altitude hills of Colorado. Service and resupply abundance will also vary widely, so do your research.
This is beginning to take the form of a looong read, so I’m going to keep this section simple:
Your body cannot function (well) without enough of these two things: Food and Water.
All other preparation is meaningless if you skimp here. Even if you know you’ll be passing several resupply stops, s**t happens, so play it safe and pack plenty. For advice on what you should be eating/can get away with, check out my article on that topic here.
Beyond food and water, I’ll reinforce what I brought up earlier in making sure you have the adequate gear to tackle the specific route you’re undertaking.Check out my packing list page for more info on that front. Nothing worse than being caught in a rainstorm without a raincoat.
If you’re new to cycling like I was, I’d also recommend getting your bike looked at/serviced by a bike shop. Even if everything seems to be in working order, a professional opinion can pay dividends.
That’s pretty much it. I hope you feel inspired and equipped to begin planning your own trip!
If you feel worse or more conflicted, I can’t say I blame you - I just smacked you with a ton of information. In all seriousness though, it’s much simpler than the length of this article suggests. I want to share with you all the important things I didn’t know before I set out to take this trip, but don’t sweat the details. You really can do this!
If you have any questions about anything mentioned or not mentioned, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if it’s just what color bike you should get, I’d love to weigh in!