I’m going on a bike tour soon and I really need to ride a century to get prepared for it, and I mean a real American Century, not some wussie metric, a real 100 mile ride. The 100 mile ride is a benchmark for cycling. The century ride is a staple of American cycling often considered a major goal for anyone wishing to call themselves a cyclist, but why?
No one really knows, but people have been riding Centuries for as long as there have been bikes. Thomas Stevens rode his Penny Farthing across the United States in 1884 and then continued to be the first man to ride his bike around the world in 1885 and 86. Perhaps the most important historical figure in the history of the Century Ride is Dora Rinehart, a woman of Denver Colorado who in the 1890s rode over 100 Century rides, once riding 20 centuries in a row. She was a early proponent of functional dress for women, pioneering the “divided skirt.” It’s important to note that her bike was fixed gear, had no brakes, and weighed around 40 pounds.
Thinking about riding a century soon got me thinking about my first century ride back in 1994, or maybe 1993, I was 14, maybe 15, hard to say because Strava hadn’t been invented yet and I’ve never been good at keeping records. I had been meeting up to ride with Snakeman on most Saturday mornings after meeting him on our town’s weekly group ride. Snake was in his late 40s at the time and had jumped into the world of cycling both feet first. On Saturday mornings we would ride 30-50 miles and often times it would be like a random pick up group of kids and adults.
Snake is a major type A person, he can be completely obsessed with goals and personal accomplishments. When he discovered that the Century ride was a major goal for cyclists he began training up to ride one seriously. By the time I’d met him he’d already ridden a century and went on to ride ride 150 miles in a day. He greatly encouraged me to ride a century with him, and after finishing a a couple longer 50-60 mile rides I felt like I was ready. As a special incentive Snake was going to give me a La Vie Claire cycling cap if I finished the ride. I was really stoked about cycling caps at the time, and I guess I still am.
Many of Snakes centuries involved bigger groups of novice or veteran riders, but on my Century it was just me and him. The plan was to leave town at 5AM. Snake said leaving super early was like free miles, he explained that we would be halfway done by breakfast time and it would be as if we hadn’t even noticed we’d rode 50 miles.
Our route was far from easy. We rode 47 miles South on route 145 which passes through the Shawnee National Forest and really only contained one sustained flat stretch, other than that it was constant rolling hills, and a couple long tough climbs. We would take a breakfast break at Metropolis IL. and then take Route 45 back which would make the return trip 57 miles, for a total of 104.
Out first half hour of riding would be before sunrise, but Snake liked to plan these super early rides on full moons so that we could see, and he provided me with a bright red flashing light for my saddle bag. I remember how awesome it felt to ride out of town with the stoplights all flashing red and not a soul on the road at 5AM on a Saturday, like we owned the road. The sky wasn’t really dark, and I found that Snake was right, my eyes quickly adapted to the moonlight and I found that I could see the road surface almost as well as in the day. Our flashing red lights could be seen from a mile away in the dark and I felt more secure on the road then in broad daylight.
On this ride I would get a complete course in the Snake school of long distance bicycle riding. Snake had been absorbing all the knowledge he could from other riders, books and magazines and was eager to pass it on, so all morning he expounded on his theories. First, every downhill is an opportunity to rest, stay off your saddle, and coast.
Every climb is an opportunity to stretch, go up two gears stand and pedal easy with your body weight.
Change your hand position freequently, avoid gripping the bars tightly.
Every 15 miles stop, get off your bike, stretch, and make sure to eat and drink.
Our first appointed 15 mile break occurred at the small town of Eddyville where we pulled up to an old gas station that as long since been demolished. Snake looked through the glass window and said, “When I was younger I might have thrown a brick through this window just to go in there and get a candybar.” Apparently there was a time when Snake had been a bit wild. He was a motorcycle rider, but had mellowed out over the years and traded in his Harley for a Goldwing, and traded in his somewhat wild past for a life completely devoted to Jesus.
The sunrise soon followed and it was glorious, seemingly before I knew it we were at Metropolis and eating breakfast at Hardees. Snake had been completely right, the last 3.5 hours of riding had gone by and I felt great. Snake too was feeling good and we both left Metropolis in high spirits. I had heard that the real pain of a century starts to hit around mile 70 and I remember that intently because I wanted nothing more than to quit riding when we hit mile 70.
We stopped in for a unplanned rest stop at a closed business with a payphone out front. Snake tested the phone, “It works, you can call home, I bet someone will come get you,” he said. I was seriously thinking about it. “Of course if you do you won’t get the hat,” he said. After 5 minutes I was back on the bike.
After stopping at Vienna for some much needed caloires and drinks we continued on up a long, gradual climb, I struggled but Snake was more then patient with me. Eventually route 45 passes through some roller coaster hills and a sweet long downhill after New Burnside, this is where something strange happened. I started to feel good. I started actually leading and soon found that Snake was the one suffering. I pulled most of the rest of the way to Harrisburg and Snake directed me to detour to his parents house. When Snake had difficulty dismounting I realized just how bonked he was.
We sat in the air conditioned living room and drank glass after glass of ice cold water. It took snake 20 minutes before he felt like getting back out. He was very impressed with the recovery I’d made, and disappointed with the way he’d finished the ride, despite the fact that he had pulled the entire time and spent the whole day encouraging me to finish.
I rode a few more centuries with Snake in the next few years and many, many shorter rides. Right when college and work started taking up all my riding time Snake got into a double century craze which I always believed was dumb and eventually burnt him out on riding.
Thinking back on it I’m sure that riding that century gave me a great deal of confidence, when you tell people you’ve ridden your bike 100 miles in a day they generally don’t believe you, or automatically assume you’re riding a motorbike. The truth is that riding a century isn’t that hard, as Snake always said, it’s a simple case of mind over matter, anyone can do it.