Long distance cycling is a great way to keep fit and explore the countryside. You hear about people riding in excess of 50 miles or even a century with varying degrees of success. But most likely they did it with gears—what about single speed bikes? Can it be done?
Maybe you’re thinking about buying a fixed gear or single speed bicycle but worried that such lengthy rides will become out of reach or at least more difficult. This was certainly one thought that crossed my mind when I threw down my precious student-sized budget on a fixie.
Any cyclist strong enough to ride long distance on a geared bike will most likely be equally capable with a fixed-gear or single speed. However, extremely hilly routes might pose more of a challenge. Whatever bike you choose, make sure you’re familiar with riding it before taking it very far.
While the long distance riding advice for single speed is mostly the same as for geared, there are some important differences to consider. Much of it applies for both competitive events and leisure rides, though more focus has been placed on leisure rides.
Being prepared is the best thing you can do to make long distance rides achievable and all the more enjoyable. Let’s look at some of the things you can put into practice before the big day.
Fitness and nutrition
Obviously if you’re thinking about trying long distance riding, whether it be competitive or casual, you need to make sure your body is ready. Thankfully, long distance cycling is surprisingly accessible to anyone with a good level of fitness and cycling experience. That’s not to say it will be easy, but with the right pacing and preperation, and a little motivation, you’ll be fine.
As with any athletic discipline, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough calories and eating the right foods. Second only to serious injury, nothing can sabotage your endurance like a poorly planned diet.
Diet and nutrition is a huge topic that I could not hope to cover here in any detail, but the long and short of it is to eat predominantly whole plant foods including plenty of whole grains, beans, fruits and veggies, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. Avoid alcohol, meat, dairy, eggs, excessive sugar and salt.
While the evidence favoring this way of eating is mountainous, I have to say that I am not a qualified nutritionist or health practitioner. It would be wise to consult your doctor or a trained dietitian before making any big changes to your diet.
In the weeks before embarking on a long distance ride, you’ll want to be exercising regularly including some rides that are significantly longer than you’d usually do.
As a rule of thumb for practice rides, make sure you can comfortably cover at least two-thirds of the distance you intend to for the long distance ride. That way, you know you’ll have enough energy for the final third on the big day.
Choose your gear ratio wisely
With geared bikes you have an array of gears to choose from, and switching gear is as simple as pushing a button or pulling a lever. If you’re not happy with the gear you’re in while riding, you can just switch to another.
Single speed riders, however, have to be more forward thinking. Changing gears takes half an hour, a lockring tool or trip to the bike shop, and possibly $20 or more for a new sprocket or chain ring. So it’s crucial that you install the right gear for the route you plan to take.
A nice easy gear ratio for casual riding is 44:16 (44 teeth chain ring and 16 teeth sprocket) but typically for long distance you would probably want something a bit faster like 44:15 or more commonly 46:16. These higher gear ratios will make it easier to sustain a good speed on flat terrain for long periods of time, but will lead to a slower cadence on the climbs.
For more mountainous routes, then, that smaller 44:16 ratio might be tempting as it will make the hill climbing that much easier. However, a smaller gear ratio will make riding along on flat roads more tiresome, not to mention descents will be super spinney. So it’s important to find a balance.
Plan your route
Route planning can make or break a long ride, so it’s important to do it right. In decades past, this meant breaking out the huge paper maps and really having to familiarise yourself with the route before leaving.
Fortunately our GPS capable smartphones have made this process so much easier, rending specialist devices largely redundant. There exist many websites and apps that you can use to plan your route, or you can choose from routes others have shared. Here are some suggestions:
With that said, there’s nothing quite as convenient as looking down at a proper GPS bike computer mounted securely to your handlebars. And bike computers are more affordable now than ever before.
When planning a route for a single speed or fixed gear bike, it may be wise to avoid, where possible, the super long and steep climbs for which a geared bike is more appropriate. That’s not to say they’re insurmountable, but they will cost you more energy—energy that you need to get you through the many miles ahead.
The great thing about long distance rides is that you can take your time. Which means you can take it easy on the climbs, freewheel the descents, and of course enjoy plenty of coffee breaks along the way.
For single-speed bikes, stopping for breaks where necessary on long climbs is even more important. Unlike with a geared bike, you can’t shift down to an easy gear and pace yourself properly, so sometimes you have to make do with incremental progress.
As long as you have chosen the appropriate distance for your level of endurance, and you set out nice and early in the morning, you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of daylight. This is especially true in the summer months where you have so much more daylight available.
It’s important not to burn out in the early stages. Interestingly, we tend to be more highly motivated and excited when starting out which biases us to ride harder and faster early on, putting you into fatigue later in the ride. This can even happen without you noticing.
To mitigate this effect, you can try using an app such as Strava to monitor your average speed or power output as you go. If this is higher than it would normally be on a typical ride, then you know you need to slow down a little.
So you’ve conquered the roads and made it home in one piece. Congratulations! Don’t forget to get warm and do your post-ride stretches if you want to avoid muscle cramps and aches the next day.
Other than that, now is the time to relax …
Oh and, of course, to share those epic photos you took of you and your fixie on social media.