Cycling Solo: How to Design Your Own Century

Tips for creating your perfect ride

One of the first major tests for any amateur cyclist who wants to get serious about riding is to pedal a century, or 100 miles. Like a marathon is to running, a century is considered a true endurance event, one that requires a certain amount of physical preparation and mental fortitude. And while some may opt for an organized event, complete with aid stations, cheering spectators and many fellow riders, others will prefer a more independent journey. If you choose to design your own route, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Gas Stations = Aid Stations
The amount of water and calories you need to complete a century can make lugging supplies “a little ridiculous,” says Nolan Peterson, a graduate student in journalism at Northwestern University who completed several solo centuries in 2011. Peterson used gas stations as rest areas where he could stock up on food and cold water.

As you choose a route, it’s a good idea to note these stops, said Craig Harbick, who cycles regularly around his home in Palo Alto, CA. “Organized century rides usually have aid stations every 10-20 miles [for] refreshments, socializing opportunities and physical [and] mental breaks,” he says. It’s nice to have this option on an independent ride, as well.

Google Maps Is Your Friend
When it comes to planning a route, technology can lend a hand, says Amber Ritter, an avid Chicago cyclist. Ritter uses the USA Track and Field website, originally created for runners, to design her 100-mile trips. The website uses a Google Maps overlay so that you can see the condition and location of roads and bike paths. MapQuest also has a similar feature, Peterson says. He used the website to look for bicycle-friendly routes in Florida. “It’s really important to find roads with shoulders on them, because after five hours on a bike, you might lose your concentration and drift,” he says. 

Pack Intelligently
Peterson and Ritter each carry several essential items on their trips. They recommend Vaseline to prevent chafing, CO2 tire inflators for fixing flats, a few bottles of water, a bike lock for rest stops, snacks, a layer for unexpected chilly weather and a cell phone for emergencies.  Adam Baus, who rides centuries around his home in Milwaukee, stresses the importance of these supplies. “The last century I did, we got three flats,” he says. “You’ve got to be ready to take care of yourself.”  Because centuries are so physically challenging and conditions can be unpredictable, thorough preparation is absolutely essential, Peterson said.  “You really have to think about the worst-case scenario,” he said. You could be injured in an accident, get caught out by thunderstorms or face other bumps while on the road. 

Take a friend
Not only can the buddy system help with motivation and companionship, it's also an energy saver when you and your friends draft off of each other. And, adds Baus, it's an important safety precaution. “People don’t run marathons by themselves,” he said. “And people always say that riding a century is the equivalent of running a marathon.” Ritter, for her part, learned firsthand that you cannot predict what might happen on the road. “I got attacked by a dog once, and I had to go to the hospital for stiches." That was the end of her ride that day. 

Build Up Slowly
The best way to be prepared for your century is to work up to it slowly. “On the shorter rides," Ritter says, "you will learn about chafing and clothes. You’ll find out quickly what’s comfortable.” Peterson also emphasizes that a solo or small-group century should only be done by experienced cyclists.  “If the century will be a big jump in distance, you should do it with a group so you don’t have to be out there on your own when you realize you didn’t bring enough water or that you rubbed your thighs to the bone and didn’t bring any Vaseline,” he said.