Training for Your First Fixed-Gear Century

I wrote this a while ago for an audience that has less long riding experience than many people here, so parts of it might seem too basic.  The fixed-gear aspects, though, lend a new perspective to the topic.  See you riding the cog on your next brevet!

You can find lots of advice on the internet and in cycling magazines about training for and riding your first century. Most of it isn’t very good (more on that later). And almost none of it addresses issues unique to tackling your first century on a fixed-gear bike. This article attempts to fill that gap.

My record-keeping isn’t perfect, but I’ve done at least 182 centuries since 2004. 37 of them (including Paris-Brest-Paris and two other 1200Ks) have been on fixed-gear bikes, so I know a few things about riding 100 miles — most of it learned the hard way. Here are some tips and strategies for making your first fixed century as fun and smooth as possible:

First, most of the tips that apply to “riding your first century” that you can find elsewhere apply to fixed riders, too. Search out some of those articles and read them.
Ok, now that you’ve done that, here’s my thoughts on what you just read.
I think most “first century” training plans are crap. Here’s the Word:

If you are in reasonable shape and riding a bike that fits you and is in good order, then you will most likely complete your first century, and have fun doing it, if in the two months before your century you have a total ride volume of 400 miles and successfully complete a “long ride” of 65 miles over similar terrain in the same weather that you’ll be riding your first century in.

That’s it. That’s all. Thousands of pages of cycling advice can be distilled down into that one statement. And that statement is true whether you’re riding those miles on a geared bike or a fixed-gear. It doesn’t matter what the bike is, as long as you check all the boxes in the statement above riding that same bike.

Most of that statement is uncontroversial, but there are two aspects of it that depart from what you probably read elsewhere. First, you don’t need huge training volume. There are training programs out there that call for laying down 1000 miles in building up to your first century. On one level, it’s true that the more volume you have, the better conditioned and experienced you’ll be and therefore the more likely you’ll successfully complete the ride.

Big volume has drawbacks, though. You run the risk of an over-use injury. You run the risk of burning out. And getting wrapped up in some big-mileage training program builds anxiety about your century ride. You absolutely want to avoid the guilt of, “Oh, snap! I needed to ride today and I didn’t so now I’m behind on my miles….” That mental stuff can be a real impediment to successfully completing a long ride. So, ride big miles because you want to (if you want to), not because they’re part of some training program. I’ve seen a 60-year-old fat guy on a cheap hybrid bike complete his first century using my program. The smile on his face at the end of it was awesome. If he can do it, you can, too. (That guy is now 63, no longer fat, rides a sweet full-carbon bike, and has done many more centuries!)

The second departure I make from traditional wisdom is on the “long ride.” I’ve seen a program that would have you build mileage up to a 90-mile ride before your first century. That’s too much. Of course you can ride 100 miles if you successfully ride 90. Duh! I’m a big fan of the “50% Rule”: You can always ride 50% farther than your longest ride ever. So as long as you have the 400 miles, and so long as your 65-mile ride fairly represents the same conditions you expect on your century, then you’ll be fine.

Ok. With all that out of the way, here’s the goods on riding fixed:

Things are going to hurt, and they’re going to hurt more on a fixed-gear than if you were riding something with a freewheel. You cannot rest easily on a fixed-gear bike. So, things that contact the bike — hands, feet, butt — need to be managed more carefully to ensure you stay comfortable. Forget about how tough you are and how you can “ride through the pain.” That’s b.s. I’ll guarantee you plenty of pain. You’ll be sore and tired. This stuff I’m talking about here is ride-ending. And if you mess around, you can even do permanent damage to your body. Here’s what you need to get sorted out:

Hands. Many fixed-gear riders prefer handlebars setups that don’t give you a lot of hand positions. And this isn’t just about your hands. Where your hands are placed is going to affect where you are on the saddle, your hip angle, how you’re using those leg muscles, the angle you’re holding your head at — everything. Road-style bars with hoods and aerobars give you optimal different hand positions. Now that’s not necessary. And many of you fixed-gear riders could never stomach the aesthetic of that setup. But, do whatever you can to give yourself as many hand positions as possible. And use them. Use them long before your hands (or anything else) start to hurt. Preemptively switch your position every few minutes from the start of the ride and you’ll be happy and comfortable.

Butt. There are contrarians out there, but you’ll be happiest in the saddle if you get some cycling shorts with a chamois in them. If it dings your image, wear something over them. Never, ever, wear anything under cycling shorts. Ladies, you too. They don’t function as intended unless you’re going commando. Cycling shorts wick moisture away from your body, they protect sensitive areas from getting banged up, and they prevent chafing. Worth. Their. Weight. In. Gold.

Hipsters should adjust the nose on their bike saddle. A Brooks is supposed to be comfortable, so don’t point the nose of it at the sky. Your saddle should support you on your sit-bones. Adjust it until it does.

Even with proper gear and setup, the butt is where riding distance fixed kills you, especially in flat terrain. If it’s flat, then you’re going to be stuck in the same narrow band of cadences for the whole ride. All that sameness equals soreness. Like with your hands, it’s all about prevention. Stand up and stretch out every few miles, and start doing this well before you’re sore. Feather one of your brakes to create resistance (mimicking shifting into a higher gear when you’re standing up to stretch on a geared bike), which will help you stretch your butt, back, and leg muscles. Use those different hand positions to put you on different parts of your butt. Nothing is worse than riding along forever on the tops or hoods — your butt will be killing you. Spend some quality time in the drops (which puts you on the nose of your saddle) to give your butt a break.

Feet. If you get the hot foot, things are tougher riding fixed. You really can’t pull a foot out and shake it about or stretch while continuing to ride. Dangerous. Dumb. Keep in mind that on a long ride, especially when it’s hot out, your feet are going to swell. If your shoes are snug at the start, you might be in for some real foot pain before your ride’s over. Your best bet, especially when you get deep into the ride, is to stop for a minute and stretch out. Take your shoes off and give your feet a breather. Your body will thank you. And even 60 seconds off the bike makes a huge difference in your comfort (which makes a huge difference in your mindset!).

Knees. Knee pain is usually indicative of one of two things when riding long distance on a fixed-gear bike. Either you’re pushing too big a gear (see below), or you’re not fit properly. Get the fit figured out when you’re riding your 400 miles. You should have NO knee pain when riding distance fixed. Knee pain not part of the deal.

Achilles tendon pain. Your saddle is too high. Lower it. It doesn’t take much. Even dropping it 1cm can make this problem go away. The tendon gets inflamed because it’s getting stretched out too much, 80 or 100 times a minute. You might not notice this one until you’re far into your ride. Drop the saddle down as soon as you notice the problem. The pain should disappear pretty much instantly.

The other usual suspects are your neck and back. Prevent a lot of neck pain by moving your head around a lot when you ride. Don’t just stare off down the road. Do that for 8 hours and — duh! — your neck will be sore. Back pain is either poor posture on the bike or a lack of proper fitting (or an issue that has nothing to do with cycling). Get both resolved before your century. Remember to do some core-strengthening exercises as part of your general fitness routine and your back and neck and upper body will thank you.

Carrying stuff. Lots of fixed gears aren’t drilled for bottle cages. And if you’re not wearing a cycling-specific jersey, you’re going to have issues with where you put all your stuff (at a bare minimum: ID, money, tools and materials for fixing a flat). Courier bags or Camelbaks work fine for some. I don’t find them comfortable for long distances. Whatever your solutions for schlepping your stuff, get it dialed in during your 400 miles.

. Better too low than too high. “Too high” means roughing up your knees, trashing your quads, cramping, and potentially not finishing your ride. Worst-case scenario with “too low” is you finish but you could have finished faster than you did. That ain’t no big deal. You just rode 100 miles on a fixed gear. Off to the bar with ye for proper celebration!

When selecting a gear, take into consideration both the terrain and the weather. Wind can be a bigger deal than hills. And wind/hills that appear at mile 10 are different than wind/hills at mile 90. Experiment to find what works best for you. Most people I know who have done fixed centuries (and much longer rides) ride something between 65 and 75 gear inches. I did a century in 49×14 once, but I wouldn’t recommend that. A good gear for cruising casually around town is usually a good gear for riding 100 miles.

Pacing and goal-setting. Most people who fail to finish centuries have training and preparation that is fine. They just mess up the ride by going way too fast or by not getting enough calories or water on board.

For your first century, you have only one goal, and that’s to finish it. Forget about how fast you’re going, what your average is, how fast your friend did her first century… that’s all b.s. Ask yourself, can I put out this effort all day? If the answer is “No,” then slow down. Stop before you need to to hydrate, eat, and stretch out. Forget about how long it takes. Just finish the ride. You just rode a century on a fixed-gear bike, which is something that the vast majority of cyclists will never, ever do. They’ll tell you it’s impossible. They’ll tell you you’re a stud. Not a one of them is going to care whether you did it in 6 hours or 10. Would you rather ride it in 10 and finish, or try to ride it in 6 and not finish? Take the finish. Start the party. After you get the first one under your belt then you can set about figuring out how to do later ones faster. But just finish the first one.

Chose your terrain/route wisely. On a fixed-gear, dead-flat routes are tougher than routes with some rolling terrain on them. Really. Like, flat is a lot tougher. A lot. A route that gets you a variety of terrain will get you a variety of cadences and some opportunities to get up out of the saddle. You don’t need anything wacky-wacky, but just don’t think you’re doing yourself a favor by intentionally selecting a flat route. It’s tougher on every part of your body.

So how hard is it, really, to ride a century fixed? Tougher than a geared bike, for sure. But not as tough as most people think. It’s one of those rare things in life that looks and sounds way more hardcore than it really is. So, get out there, get training and see you on the road!

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