As far as I can tell, the only thing better than exploring 100 miles from the back of a bike is sharing the physical feat with new-found cycling friends.
I met more than a dozen Lycra-loving ladies (and a few fine gentlemen) when I signed up for the New York Cycling Club in March. At that point, biking (with traffic!) 35 miles from Manhattan to New Jersey scared the Gu out of me. Three months later, I signed up -- along with six gals from my riding group -- for my first Century through the beautiful, beachy back-roads that wind from Babylon to Montauk, Long Island. Together, we pedaled hard (in matching jerseys, of course) and laughed even harder, straight to the finish.
Here's what we learned about going the distance:
1. WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT ... Nutrition
It's okay to drink and ride: The best time to reach for your water bottle is on straight-aways. Avoid going for a gulp during a climb or downhill, where it's too easy to lose control, focus and speed. See a hill coming? Drink in advance. And aim to take a swig every 15 minutes (set a sports watch to remind you if need be).
Sip on this: Always carry two bottles on the bike -- one with water, the other with a sports drink. I usually go for Gatorade's low cal G2 series (20 calories per 8-ounce serving), but what if the rest stop is out of the good stuff? That's why I carry Nuun -- electrolyte-infused tablets -- in my jersey pocket. One tab has seven calories per 16 ounces, along with calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Choose from 10 flavors ($6.50 for 12 servings, nuun.com ).
Fail to plan, plan to fail: Staying fueled on a long ride is key to avoiding bonking. Always stash convenient, high-energy snacks, like Larabars , Hammer's Cashew Coconut Chocolate Chip, or Clif Shot Bloks in your jersey pocket or bike pouch. Plan to nosh on something every 30 to 45 minutes. No one gets this more than Christine Rivera, 33, of Diamond Bar, Calif. "Twenty miles from the finish, I started to feel woozy, so I popped a few Shot Bloks, and felt instantly better and was able to book it to the end," said Rivera. Have a meal plan and stick to it, so you can finish strong and enjoy the cold hard-earned brews at the post-ride party.
WISH WE KNEW ...
How to keep my cool: Special liners inside your bottle can keep your H2O cold. Camelbak's insulated bottles range from $12 to $20 (camelbak.com). But just because your water stays cooler longer doesn't mean you have all day to drink it. Aim to finish one bottle per hour, said Scott Holz, a bike guru, former racer and senior SBCU fit professor at Specialized headquarters in Morgan Hill, Calif.
To pass on the PB&J for b-fast: Most, if not all, rest stops are guaranteed to feature the classic sandwich. It's affordable, easy to prepare, and full of the complex carbs, proteins and sugars you need to keep going. A better morning meal: jelly and a slice Monterey Jack cheese on whole wheat bread, Holz said. Apparently, Tour de France guys swear by it. "The jelly crystallizes with the cheese, so it's really not that messy and it tastes good," he says. Cut it into quarters and stash it in a ziplock bag in your jersey. Have a quarter-sandwich every half hour and it'll get you to lunch.
2. WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT ... Bike mechanics
Be prepared for DIY roadside assistance: Should I need to fix a flat, which I haven't done since 2007, I had the tools. Well, most of them. My bike pouch housed one spare inner tube (should have had two for both wheels), a patch repair kit and a CO2 cartridge for super-fast tire inflation.
Check the brakes: Sometimes brakes will shift. Anything can cause it, such as transporting your bike in a car. To make sure you're not riding the brakes the whole time, pick up one end of the bike and spin the wheel with your hand. If it moves smoothly and quickly, and you don't hear a faint rubbing sound, you're good to go. If you have an issue, stand over that wheel, and manually move the brake (you can open up the brake by pulling the quick-release lever, usually right above it) so that the wheel is dead center.
WISH WE KNEW ...
How to fix a flat: Three miles from the 100-mile finish, my back tire blew out at the top of the biggest hill (a 1200-foot climb) on the course. In a hurry to get back on track, I started frantically changing the tire, but I quickly realized I didn't know how to remove the wheel off the chain. Good thing my cycling friends were there to help. Forty-five minutes and two inner tubes later, six of us shooed the waiting SAG wagon away and mounted our bikes to pedal to the finish together. That day, I vowed to sign up for a bike maintenance 101 workshop. A week later, I asked my bike shop to host a class and promised to fill it up with my friends.
That derailers can derail you: This little device called a derailer, which delivers the down-shift or up-shift message from your handlebars to your gears, is a sensitive thing. If it gets bumped or is loosened somehow, it can cause your gears to jump, even when unprompted. In this case, it's best to find a local bike shop en route, or stop at the next rest stop, where you might find a handsome on-call bike mechanic.
To adjust handlebars early: "The smallest changes in your handlebars and seat can make a big difference," said An Nguyen, 25 of Potomac, Md. "After riding for 50 miles with excruciating back pain, I finally realized this, and fixed my handlebars, which made a huge difference." Good reason to keep an Allen wrench in your bike pouch, too.
3. WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT ... Gear
Bike shorts are your bestie: Your sit bones will hurt even if you have the cushiest bike shorts on the planet. But certain shorts do soften the blow more than others. Pactimo makes breathable shorts that feature a flat, seamless stitch that won't squeeze you to a nauseating degree or give you a rash (pactimo.com). Bonus tip: Go commando under your shorts and slather butt butter onto the short's internal padding, as well as on your girlie parts, to avoid icky rashes and chafing. We like Hoo Ha Ride and Glide cream ($21.95 for eight ounces, reflectsports.com).
Flashy jerseys are obnoxious but efficient: For quick, easy access to snacks, sunblock, sunglasses, bike gloves, a rolled-up rain jacket, lip balm with SPF, your phone or your print out of the bike route, you'll want to wear a jersey with at least three back pockets. We designed and ordered our own eye-catching matching jerseys at V-Gear.com for as little as $44 each.
WISH WE KNEW ...
To say "no" to helmet head: When your noggin protector leaves little red indents or bruises on your forehead after a ride, it's a good sign that your helmet is too tight or small. "A helmet should always feel like it's coming in contact with your head, but it should never feel snug; you're gonna get a headache," said Holz. Time for a new helmet! I'm now the proud owner of the super lightweight, tough-as-they-come Specialized S-Works Prevail helmet, which fits perfectly ($230, specialized.com).