Training for and Riding a Double Century

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Bicycling Magazine, April 1989

For the 2004 version, click here

So, the century's getting too easy? Churning out 100 miles in six hours or so is just not enough of a challenge anymore? Well, never fear, the world of cycling has just the E ticket event for you... the double century. That's right, conquer anything Mother Nature and your local event coordinators can dish out to you while you and your trusty machine cover 200 miles of pavement. Sound interesting? Read on and I'll tell you how, when, and why to face this new challenge.

A double century is not just two centuries back to back. It's a whole different ball game, with a different strategy and a much bigger list of considerations to take into account. For example, fatigue is greater, nutrition is more vitally important, terrain and climate can vary much more dramatically, and you are more likely to ride in the dark. You'll also discover a new pain threshold, battle desires to quit, force down some twenty bottles of drink, and consume several days' worth of calories. But, you'll also extend the limits of your mind and body, become a better cyclist, and defeat another self-imposed obstacle, while joining a select group of cyclists who have met the challenge of the double century.

My own experience with the double century goes back five years. After riding probably eight centuries in the two years previous to that and getting my average time down to about 5:45, I needed a new challenge. I reasoned that I could probably double anything I had previously done and therefore looked to the double century as my ultimate challenge. I set my sights on the LA Wheelmen's Grand Tour which was to be held shortly after my sixteenth birthday.

I trained harder than ever and logged as many miles per week as possible. I would often get up before dawn and cover the fifty miles up and back to Mt. Baldy before heading to school for my studies as a high school sophomore. I rode in a couple more centuries and also competed in various USCF events, all with the focus of the double century kept firmly in mind. That last week before the Grand Tour I made sure to train well, sleep well, and eat well. I consumed an entire pizza or a whole box of mac and cheese every evening while watching videos of Breaking Away, The Tour, and RAAM to get myself psyched up. The night before my double I carefully cleaned and checked over my beloved steed and then slept on a foam "egg crate" mattress in our ultra-quiet garage.

I pulled into the starting line parking lot at exactly five a.m. and was amazed to see a crowd of several hundred cyclists roll out en masse with bike lights ablaze. I hadn't realized that so many riders would do such an event, nor that they would all start together. I hurriedly parked and made my way to the registration table, only to be told that since I had no lights I wouldn't be allowed to start until sunrise. Someone offered to sell me one of those hideous Wonder Lites, though, so I took it and hit the road ASAP. I tried to pace myself, but I really felt left out by missing the mass start, so I pushed big gears and started chasing down the field. Eventually I settled into a more moderate pace and joined some pacelines for company and a wind break. This proved to be quite enjoyable and the miles flew by quickly as my new companions and I headed north through Malibu, Oxnard, and Santa Barbara. Eventually I made it to the turnaround point at Refugio Beach and stopped for my first real break to pig out and clean up a bit. Some thirty minutes later I remounted and headed back south and discovered that my muscles had quite painfully tightened up, but the southern coastal tailwind helped me loosened up and I soon hooked up with another group of riders. But as the day passed I got pretty sunburned, and as the miles began to take their toll I began to feel fatigued, causing me to fall off the back of a paceline while heading through Oxnard. The sun was getting low in the horizon and I was anxious to finish, so I stopped just long enough at the last check points to stuff bananas into the pockets of my Covina Cycle Club jersey. My sunburn made me quite cold after dark and my not too wonderful light wasn't too useful for seeing street signs or my route sheet as I shivered my way through the last miles. My knees began to ripple with pain, too, as I soon discovered the mistake of pushing too hard earlier in the day. I was definitely under-lit, under-dressed, and under-fed, but I kept cranking until the start/finish line came into view. Crossing that line, more than fourteen and a half hours after first crossing it, was the most exciting moment in my sixteen years. I'll never forget it.

Since that day, I've rolled across the finish line of countless more double centuries, as well as triple centuries and quadruple centuries (that's right: 300 and 400 miles in one day!). My passion for distance has also seen me cross the finish line of numerous successful ultra-distance record attempts, the Iditabike, two Race Across America qualifiers (700 and 550 miles in length, respectively), and the 1987 Race Across America. In the '87 RAAM I covered the 3,129 miles in 10 days, 23 hours, and 58 minutes, and, at age twenty, went down in the record books as the youngest ever finisher of the transcontinental race. To this day, though, I still use my double century time as the benchmark by which I gauge my fitness level. My very best effort back in 1983 at that Grand Tour was fourteen and a half hours. About five years later, on June 5, 1988, fellow RAAMer Jim DeGraffenreid and I covered the first 200 miles of our smashingly successful 400 mile two-man drafting San Francisco to Los Angeles record in a mere nine hours and seventeen minutes. It took years of trial and error, years of training and racing, and a whole lot of determination and perseverance to bring me to the point where I could cover 200 miles so quickly and efficiently. Here's how to do it for yourself:

Training for a double century is much like training for a single century, but a few key points must be kept in mind. First of all, keep in mind that you are training for a double century, which is twice the distance that you've ever previously covered. It is mental focus and determination which will see you through your training and which will see you cross that finish line. Also, since riding a double will necessitate long hours on the saddle, work on getting comfortable on your bike. Be sure that it and your cleats are perfectly adjusted and fitted. I'd even suggest paying your local pro shop to "Fit Kit" you to ensure that your positioning is correct. Also, work to improve your form and spin by riding in a higher cadence and paying close attention to how you pedal. You might have another experienced rider watch and critique your spin and style or you might even have someone videotape you riding so you can do it yourself. Check that you pedal in smooth circles and that your knees move up and down along a straight line. Rollers are also an excellent way to improve your form. Through it all, keep your goal in mind and visualize yourself achieving it. For me, cycling is no less than thirty percent form and fifty percent mindset.

Specifically, your training should be regular, at least five days per week, and should gradually increase in intensity and number of miles. Be sure to keep a training log in which you note your daily ride's distance, average speed, time, and notes about terrain, how you feel, what you're eating, your weight, and your resting heart rate. My resting heart rate is an excellent indicator of my overall condition; when I'm in my lowest fitness level it zooms along at about 55 and when I'm at my peak it dips to 38 and lower.

Your weekly regimen should vary in terrain and distance. Since over 200 miles you're bound to climb some hills, be sure to include at least one or two days of hill climbing in your weekly schedule. Also, ride with a moderately fast paced club at least once a week. This will increase your speed and also improve your group riding skills and etiquette, as well as provide some variety to your workout. Even more variety can be found in mountain biking or roller riding. This is important, because if training gets boring, it most likely gets less intense and possibly less frequent. So don't be afraid to try something new, even if that means competing in a USCF event or even a triathlon. Cross-training is also a bonus for distance cycling because overall body fitness is the key to fighting fatigue in long events. My weekly schedule includes running, hiking, weight lifting, Tae Kwon Do, racquetball, and ultimate frisbee and I am convinced this is an asset to me on the bike.

Whole body fitness is important, as is adequate rest, a well balanced diet, and stretching exercises. Staying limber helps fight fatigue and keeps those nasty cramps away, too. Lastly, an athlete's body needs rest, so pick one day a week on which you do nothing strenuous and stick to it. A very basic weekly schedule could be as follows: Wednesday through Friday, increase mileage and intensity, 30 to 60 miles per day; Saturday and Sunday, big miles and high intensity, 60 to 80 miles per day; Monday, easy spin, 15 to 25 miles; Tuesday, rest day. There is no magic formula for becoming a better cyclist, it just takes good old-fashioned work and dedication. And don't forget that mental focus!

As you get nearer your double century, you might consider a little test of your fitness level. This could be to comfortably complete a 200k (124 miler) or possibly even to ride two centuries on the same weekend. Do this two weeks before your DC Day and use it to assess your level so you can have a realistic goal for the actual double. Realistically, your goal should be to comfortably, intelligently, and safely complete a 200 miler, but a finishing time goal can also be helpful. Just don't get caught up in trying to burn up those 200 miles; you first have to finish in order to finish fast.

In that last week before the double, continue with your normal regimen, but bring your mental picture closer into focus and think about how you are actually going to ride your event. Train hard, but don't overdo anything; you're not likely to be able to improve much more in these last few days. Also, pay attention to your bike and make sure everything works right. Not finishing an event because of a mechanical problem is a real bummer, so don't hesitate to have your local shop check over your bike and repair or replace any possibly tired parts. Your nutrition is also vitally important during this last week. Load up on carbos, but do not underestimate the value of protein for your endurance and recovery. Also, try to consume an inordinate amount of water during these last five to seven days. I drink about a gallon of water per day during these crucial days, no joke! Finally, be certain to sleep well, especially two nights before the double, which is your best pre-event rest night.

On DC Day, be sure to allow plenty of time to travel to the start and for registration. Preregistration is a good idea, as is staying in a local hotel if the event is more than an hour or so from your home. You shouldn't be rushed, nor faced with any unnecessary stress, so play it smart and cool. Before the actual start, stretch and loosen up your whole body. Don't ride around beforehand, if only to avoid colliding with anyone else who might be out spinning their legs. Besides, you can warm up during the first few miles of the 200 ahead of you. Lastly, check over your equipment and be sure you're fully prepared. The enclosed check list should help with this. And by the way, eat only a small, simple breakfast, and nothing at all within twenty or thirty minutes of the start because it's bound to upset your stomach soon after roll-out.

If there is a mass start, don't bother getting up towards the front of the line-up. It's too congested up there and too dangerous. At the roll-out, be extra, extra careful; this is no time to become road pizza! During the first ten miles or so, push an easy gear to loosen up. I make a point of staying off my 53 ring or my 12 tooth. Don't even think about the finish line or your current average speed. Just get down the road safely, smoothly, and intelligently. Remember, this is a thinking person's sport.

After you've warmed up, try joining a paceline of smooth and safe riders who look like they're traveling at a comfortable speed. This will help you pick up your momentum and make things more interesting and efficient. Make sure that you don't overlap wheels with any of the other riders and steer clear of riders who seem unsure, unsteady, or generally unsafe. Eventually you'll undoubtedly find a paceline to your liking where you will all mesh together like a well-tuned SIS derailleur system. As the hours pass, the important things to keep in mind are nutrition, hydration, comfort, and your pace.

Nutrition-wise, try to consume about 300 calories per hour, depending on your weight. For most DC riders, this is usually a combination of the standard fruits, cookies, muffins, and granola bars. As you can imagine, consuming 300 calories per hour requires a lot of eating. Also, since most of these standard foods are sugar-based, you will probably find your energy level varying considerably as your body's metabolism goes up and down this sugar roller-coaster. To avoid this effect, my on-the-bike diet is of the liquid variety which breaks down quickly, efficiently, and smoothly. For me this means drinking bottle after bottle of Carboplex and DynaCarb. This is the single most important weapon in my success record. If you choose the liquid diet alternative, it is imperative that you have significant experience with the particular brand and usage well prior to the actual event to avoid possible digestion or nausea problems. Keep this rule in mind: drink before you're thirsty and eat before you're hungry!

Hydration is an equally vital component in maintaining constant energy and fighting fatigue. I always drink one bottle of plain water per hour, plus my liquid food. I know this is an awful lot of drinking, but it's a must. Plain water is needed to break down all food, to flush the kidneys, and maintain hydration levels. I might add that so-called fluid replacement drinks are basically useless since they offer no significant calories, vitamins, or minerals and they absolutely can not substitute for plain water.

Staying comfortable during a double involves many factors. Start out in a low gear and maintain a good spin to save your knees. Frequently get out of the saddle to stretch your back out and when you do so shift up one or two gears in order to more effectively use your gearing. Spenco-style, gel-impregnated gloves are really helpful in fighting hand numbness, as is frequently changing hand positions. Velcro-type shoes are great so you can change the pressure on your feet while riding. Insoles or orthotics also help greatly for avoiding hot foot and general foot discomfort. As for your butt, make sure your shorts fit perfectly and are well-padded and also consider a gel-impregnated saddle like the Avocet Gelflex. Staying comfortable will do wonders for your peace of mind, enjoyment, and efficiency.

Pacing is a skill that takes many miles to develop. Ideally, a double should not consist of one five hour and one seven hour century, but two six hour centuries, for this will be infinitely more enjoyable and comfortable. Try to keep the following rules in mind. Don't ride with a paceline which is faster than your ability. Optimize your rest stop time. Pay attention to your current and average speed. Don't dwell too heavily on the finish line or your estimated finishing time. And use your head!

So there you have it! 200 miles of sweaty bliss in a nutshell. I hope you find some useful info in this article and I wish you the best of luck! Of course, if the DC gets too easy for you, there's always the triple century, quad century, Bicycle Across Missouri, Paris-Brest-Paris, or the RAAM...


(Read this! There may be some surprises!)

  • tools
    • allens
    • 6" crescent wrench
    • tyre levers
    • small screwdriver
    • chain breaker
    • presta valve adaptor
    • spoke wrench
    • chain lube
  • two spare tubes, patch kit, and spare folding tyre
  • two or three large water bottles
  • emergency "bonking" food such as Powerbar or Fin Halsa bar
  • bike computer and watch
  • sun block, lip coat, aspirin, Pepto, and allergy medicine
  • identification, contact phone numbers, cash, credit card, proof of medical insurance, blood type and pertinent medical info, and an extra route sheet
  • clothing: helmet, arm and leg warmers, helmet cover, wind breaker, long fingered gloves, eyewear, including clear lens
  • good lights, such as Cycle Ops, and reflective products