Learning how to bicycle farther and faster

Ultra-Distance Cycling: An Expert Guide to Endurance Cycling, by Simon Jobson and Dominic Irvine (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017)

I became aware of this book when I saw it on display at the public library near my downtown apartment. It is slightly oversize (7.5 by 9 inches) with high-gloss paper and magnificent photos. Although the text is double-columned with small type, the format is reader-friendly.

On the back cover, the publisher states that “this definitive guide provides riders with everything they need to ride longer and faster, and to excel at ultra-distance cycling events.” The book is premised on the fact that “what once was elite is now common place, and today thousands of dedicated riders cycle up to and over 100 miles on ultra-distance rides every week.”

Until picking up this book, I had always associated ultra-distance cycling with events like El Tour de France and Race Across America. The closest I’ve come to that kind of cycling was in 1987 when I rode BAM (Bicycle Across Missouri), 540 miles from St. Louis to Kansas City and back, in 58 hours, sleeping about two hours on each of the two nights. Much easier was RAIN (Ride Across Indiana), a 160-mile ride from Terre Haute on Indiana’s western border to Richmond on the eastern border, which I rode during daylight hours on a Saturday in 1994.

The authors of Ultra-Distance Cycling, however, set the entry line much lower. They include cyclists determined to ride “a very long way, fast,” and able to do at least 160 kilometres (all measurements in the book are given in metric measure), which converts to 100 miles, over a 24-hour period. Across the nation, thousands of ordinary cyclists are able to ride that way, which is demonstrated by the large number of festive century rides that take place every weekend during the cycling season.

Although this book is pitched for cyclists who can ride the much longer, usually competitive events, six of the nine chapters discuss topics that are important even to  the 100-miles per day ultra-riders: (1) Riding Technique; (2) In Balance: Life, Work and Cycling; (3) Diet and Hydration; (4) Equipment; (5) Fitness; and (6) Approach: Developing an Ultra-distance mindset. Three chapters are for the long-distance, competitive cyclists: (7) Sponsorship and PR; (8) Teamwork; and (9) Putting it All Together.

“It is anticipated,” the authors write, “that the reader will dip in and out of the book, trying out the ideas and suggestions made, and then coming back to experiment a bit more.” That’s the way I’m reading it, and at this point have given primary attention to the chapters on riding technique, fitness, and diet and hydration. Much of what the authors say is similar to principles I have worked with across the years. The authors, however, update the information and discuss topics that are becoming the new orthodoxy, such as the conclusion that wider tires with lower pressure are faster than the narrow, very high pressure tires that used to be standard for most “serious” cyclists.

Simon Jobson, the primary writer, is a professor in sport and exercise physiology at the University of Winchester, in the United Kingdom. Dominic Irvine is a competitive cyclist who trained with Jobson and with a partner set a new tandem record for the UK’s “End-to-End” race, 1,365km (848 miles) from Land’s End to John of Groats, riding it in 45 hours, 11 minutes.

One of the most satisfying aspects of this book is that it is written in clear, straight-forward language, with none of the clever, sometimes off-putting descriptions of cyclists other than those to whom the book is addressed. Sometimes, the authors use playful common sense language to state their case.

The chapter on diet and hydration, for example, “combines diet and hydration information…from academic research with advice from the authors’ experiences of ultra-distance cycling. There is, however, no substitute for trying it all out yourself, during training and non-priority cycling.” Later in the paragraph they note that “palatability is as important as the scientific complexities of the event’s nutritional demands. Sports foods are all well and good when the sun is shining and you’ve been on the road for two hours. However, when riding over a mountain top in freezing mist at 4 a. m. after 24 hours of pedalling, all you really want may be a bowl of hot porridge.”

I’ll continue using the library copy of Ultra-Distance Cycling for a few more days, but then I’ll buy a copy for my home collection to refer to in the future and share with others who want to ride farther and faster. Most important, this book will help me as I learn how to become a senior ultra-distance cyclist.

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