“What do you mean I can’t wear underwear?”, my friend, Leslie, was shocked that in the 100-mile race she would be entering in September, underwear was a definite no-no. “Really? Thousands of people in one place and no one is wearing underwear? Sounds like a sport for Britney Spears.”
“Welcome to the world of road riding.” I told her.
Road riding and its partner, road racing, are fast becoming the sporting choice for people looking to stay active without having to run, jump or burpee their way to fitness. In road riding, a bicycle is your passport to ride with a group of like-minded individuals, free your inner spirit and escape the confines of your tighty-whities.
Each year, over three thousand people arrive in the Town of The Blue Mountains to test their mettle against a 25-, 50- or 100-mile racecourse called the Centurion. Founder Graham Fraser describes it as, “an event that combines the mass-participation buzz of a big-city marathon with the epic feel of riding in a stage of the Tour de France.” As he puts it, “If you want to race, you can race. If you’d rather ride, you can ride.”
Since 2010, cycling pros clad in bedazzled jerseys with matching seven-panel, chamois-lined, aerodynamic cycling shorts have participated in the same race as “newbie riders” who unwittingly sported butt-chaffing, why-didn’t-anyone-tell-me underwear.
One hundred miles is a daunting number. When I asked my friend Tina if she would like to train with me for the race, she said, “Ride my bike a hundred miles in one day? Are you crazy? I don’t even drive my car that far.”
So what’s the draw? Why has road riding become one of the fastest-growing sports? Ask 73-year-old Jack Marley, a five-time Centurion finisher, and he’ll tell you: “I like riding. It’s just fun.” Road riding has been described as a soul-lifting, body-transforming and, for some, almost religious experience. Most people will agree that riding your bike as a kid equalled two things: fun and freedom. Jack would say, not much has changed since then.
Tempted to try a Centurion? Here are four things to consider before rolling up to the start line:
A spin class isn’t enough
Guidance by an instructor through a 45-minute, heart-pounding spin class on a bike that can’t fall over is a good start, but you’re going to need more than that if your goal is 50 miles on the hardtop.
Guru Noelle Wansbrough, owner of Pedal Pushers Cycling, is a five-time top-ten Centurion finisher. She offers this advice on getting started:
“The absolute best thing you can do is sign up for a riding clinic or course. Not only do you need to know how to ride by yourself, you have to learn how to ride in a group. The more comfortable you can get, the more confident you’ll feel. That’s what we teach in our clinics. Developing good habits right away will make your training much more effective for the rest of the summer.”
Having your bike properly fitted to your body, learning the rules of the road and understanding group drafting, passing and signals will go a long way toward making your first race experience more pleasurable.
Only lightning can stop the show
You may not be aware that only lightning and “acts of God” can cancel or delay a race start. This means rain, sleet, heat and pesky kamikaze chipmunks can and will do serious damage to your race-day ride plan. If you’ve never experienced a ride in anything worse than a sunny, temperate day, you’ll want to find out how you and your bike respond to conditions that are less than ideal.
Two-time 50-mile finisher and mother of two Bonnie Campbell offers this advice: “Familiarize yourself with the course — ride it, drive it — and make sure you know how long that damn hill is!” Her empathy is rooted in experience. She says, “When I meet people during the race that don’t know where they are on the course, I can feel the stress in their voices when they ask, ‘Do you know how much further it is to the finish line?’”
Knowing the route and training in all types of conditions will increase your confidence and your skill level. Train in the rain, the heat or any condition you feel might trip you up on race day.
There’s no magic GU bar
Blogs, essays and books of biblical proportions have been written on the subject of what to eat when you are training for a road race. There is an unlimited panel of “experts” willing to tell you about their strictly timed banana, gel, e load, GU, salt-tab race-day formula. Forget about it. The only advice that everyone seems to agree on is don’t try anything new on race day.
Elite cyclist and last year’s 100-mile second-place finisher, PJ Kings, says, “Go in with a nutrition plan. When you’re riding in a long race it can be easy to get caught up in the racing aspect but it’s vital to stick to your food and hydration plan.” No one wants to bonk in a 100-mile race. Jack Marley learned the hard way. “When I started, I didn’t appreciate proper hydration. Now, I use a CamelBak,” he says. “I know it’s not cool, but I have trouble reaching for my water bottle, holding my line and changing gears on long ascents, and this translates into dehydration for me. Use what you’re comfortable with until you can move up.” Sage advice from a guy who’s been around the block a few times.
Know why you ride
Let’s face it: pencil-thin tires and a seat the size of pizza slice is not for everyone. Road riding can be a love at first ride or a slow-growing affection as you master the cues from your bike and your body. For many people, riding is therapy. The concentration required to ride at high speeds strips your mind of all the to-do lists and daily thoughts. There’s no other option than acute focus and awareness. The long miles and open road can give a rider time to reflect. Sarah Andrew, who rides in memory of her brother Simon, tells me, “Riding has allowed me time to heal. I use the solitude of going for a ride as a chance to grieve and be thankful. This race was an incredible goal for me. I recommend it for anyone because – you know – life can be short.”
Why ride the Centurion? Because you love a challenge, you like to ride your bike, and you enjoy the camaraderie and the solitude that this event offers. Perhaps it’s the stories you’ll tell over a post-race beverage with friends that get you in the saddle, or maybe, just maybe, you like the idea of not wearing your underwear.