Training for a Bike Tour
By Guy Kiddey
Some people are lifelong cyclists. Many others, however, take time to rediscover the joys of the saddle. After the excitement of independent transport as a child, they tired of self-propulsion when they learned to drive. Perhaps they enjoyed high-intensity or high-adrenaline sports before professional and family life relegated sport to an occasional luxury.
Whether you’re an ex-racer turned regular day-tripper, eco-commuter, or someone who never really fancied golf, it makes sense to train for a bike tour. A week in the saddle is physically demanding, and you will be infinitely more confident and comfortable if you prepare for the experience.
First off, if you have not ridden in a while, give yourself time to learn again how a bike behaves uphill, downhill, in a turn, and on a variety of surfaces. Practice braking hard, and do a ride or two in the rain. Wet roads change every handling and performance characteristic.
Another good tip for staying alert in the saddle is to ride new routes. It’s good to become used to reading directions and/or a map while riding unfamiliar roads, which is exactly what you will be doing when you set out on your tour.
A good daily touring total is around 50 miles. You need muscle tone in the right muscle groups and general fitness to sustain that kind of distance comfortably over a week or more.
The three main “pain points” are the knees, the butt, and the shoulders and/or wrists.
The rotation of the knees around a fixed axis can cause inflammation of the connective tissues if you do not build up to that target total gradually.
Butt pain is less about the pressure of the saddle than the strength of all the muscles that keep your pelvis level. With strong buttocks and hip flexors, only the hardest saddle will bother you.
The amount of weight supported by shoulders and arms depends on the type of handlebar you use, and the angle at which it is set. Even the most upright posture leaves you supporting some of your upper body with your arms, so a bit of bicep tone and strength in the lats is worth developing. The lats are the main muscles in the back, responsible for much shoulder movement.
The good news is that it is only a matter of a couple of months’ regular riding, and general exercise such as running, swimming or perhaps spinning, to get into shape. No personal trainers, gym routines or pull-ups from the door frames at home necessary!
During this training time, make sure the clothing you have chosen for the tour is comfortable. Some synthetic materials can, for example, cause skin irritation, particularly when damp with sweat. Though it is not advisable to wear anything under cycling shorts, a cotton vest or T-shirt under a cycling jersey or jacket is usually a good idea.
Also, learn to listen to your body. When it comes to nutrition and technique, the way you feel is the best guide to getting it right.
All good cyclists take food with them on the road. Nuts and dried fruits are the best combination to sustain the right levels of sugars and salts in the blood. They are not, however, a substitute for decent nutrition before you swing your leg over the saddle.
Slow-release carbohydrates should be your priority before a long ride. Whole grains in bread and pasta, fresh fruit (rather than juice), beans and lentils are all excellent sources of what you need to fuel those miles.
Learn how much you need to keep you going until the next natural mealtime. If you feel tired and/or hungry by mid-morning, you are not eating enough breakfast.
When it comes to technique, think about the sports you are/were good at. If you play/played fast and furious games, chances are that you will prefer riding at a higher cadence (the number of pedal revolutions per minute). If you are an endurance person, you are likely to prefer a lower cadence. Just remember that higher gears mean lower cadence.
Practice changing gears to maintain a steady cadence. Just like a car uses more fuel if you constantly speed up and slow down, the body is the same. It is much more efficient to get into the right “spin” rhythm, and let the gear ratios change rotation speeds, rather than your legs!
Lastly, stay flexible. Stretching out before and after a ride will help prevent cramping.