One of the questions I'm often asked is "How do you test your fitness level?" People often assume I partake in criteriums, which are one-day bicycle races on a circuit road course, or I might crank my legs off doing individual time trial races.
While I've done neither of those types of events, over the last couple of years I've "kind of" competed in hill climbs and even gravel grinds. For me, however, my top choice for measuring myself performance-wise is by participating in century rides. As you might have guessed, that means pedaling 100 miles in a single outing.
I didn't do my first century until I was 49 years old; I don't honestly know why I waited so long. It was called the Fall Frolic, going from Gorham to Fryeburg, Maine and back, that I enjoyed sharing with my good friends Vern and Ralph. We covered the distance, which was actually 103 miles, in five hours and 50 minutes.
Along with my initial baptism into the world of long-distance cycling, I've now done 22 of the darn things, even managing two in the same cycling season on a few occasions. Most of these "my butt is really sore" rides have taken place in Maine — for example, doing the Bicycle Coalition of Maine's popular Lobster Ride six times — but century participation also has found me cruising on roads in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Texas. I would love to get involved in one someday in my native state of Michigan.
My favorite ones include the Maine Lighthouse Ride (three times), which pretty much follows the coastline the entire way, and Pedal the Penobscot, which is extremely flat and easy on the body. I rode in that event for the first time last year and plan on going again this year. While the scenery is breathtaking, the Cadillac Challenge in and around Maine's Acadia National Park is by far the hardest one I have ever done. You endure well over 7,000 feet of elevation and go up the big mountain near the 85-mile mark of your journey.
I remember reading once that completing a century within a 10-hour time limit kind of gives it the "official" stamp of approval. I could be wrong with that particular designation, but this is my story and I'm sticking to it. The fastest one I have ever done was five hours and 39 minutes back in 2006, while my slowest was seven hours and eight minutes in 2017. So all 22 of mine count ... officially.
Centuries come in all shapes and sizes. Good roads, not so good roads. Flat or hilly, but most of the time both, especially in Maine. Sometimes just a few participants show up, other times way too many people turn up. The two years I did the Ride for the Roses in Austin, Texas, there were 7,000 cyclists at each one.
For me, riding 100 miles is more of a mental test than a physical one. Because I ride so much, my lungs and body parts encounter very little stress, but the mind isn't always ready to cooperate. It's especially true when you are driving to an event in the pouring rain, which we have done many times, and you are thinking to yourself "I must be crazy wanting to do this ride." There is a point in almost every century I've done where I think I'm not going to finish it. It could happen at mile 20, at mile 80, or at any mile, but I've always convinced myself to push on.
Another big element of pedaling 100 miles is the eating of food and keeping hydrated. And by trial and error, after doing a few, you learn what works and what to avoid. The killer for me is taking in too much protein; my stomach rebels big time. I just consume plenty of plain old water and make sure I have a load of fig and Clif bars stuffed in my jersey pockets. At any provided rest stops, I will usually grab fruit and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, just removing the crust because it takes more energy to digest it. In the later stages of a century ride, I tend to gravitate toward more sweet items, thus giving me an instant boost to help cross the finish line.
So there you have it. Yes, a little discomfort is often unavoidable, but century rides are fun and you meet a lot of friendly cyclists. And it's always more enjoyable if you can get a group of your friends to go. As I said earlier, the Pedal the Penobscot in the Bangor-Brewer area is on my calendar for this year, and I would highly recommend it for any first-time 100-mile pedal pushers. Don't be put off by what seems like a very long way from start to finish. At age 67, I'm looking forward to doing many more ... so give it a try.