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Back Roads Century Page Navigation

Here is where you can learn exactly what a Century cycling event is, and understand some of its terminology. Below are questions and answers that are of a general nature, and would pertain to most any Century ride. For specific information about the Back Roads Century, please visit our Event Details page.

What is a Century? 

A Century is a 100 mile bike ride.

Is a Century a race? 

It’s not a race. People ride at a pace that’s comfortable for them. Some go fast and some go slow. 

Who organizes Century rides?  

Century rides are usually organized by bicycling clubs, as a way to invite the public on a ride, and spread the word about their club. The Back Roads Century is sponsored by the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club of Washington, DC.  

What's the best time of year to ride a Century?

Fall is an ideal time for a Century ride. The weather turns cooler, making a full day of riding more enjoyable. Centuries which are held in the sweltering summer heat can be difficult. Also, cyclists do most of their riding during the summer months, and are in top physical condition in the fall. So it’s the combination of fall weather and peak fitness that makes this the best time of year. 

Why do people ride 100 miles? 

Quite simply, for the challenge. Centuries will often be compared to long distance runners completing a Marathon. Being able to ride 100 miles is considered a badge of honor to cyclists. Also, they're fun. Centuries have lots of companionship, great food and a big party after the ride.  

Do I have to ride 100 miles or are there other options? 

Oftentimes, Centuries will have alternate ride distances. Usually they'll have a metric Century of around 62 miles. The Back Roads Century gives you multiple distance choices of 27, 45, 51, 63, and 100 miles.

Is there an official ride start signaled with a pistol, like I see in marathon races? 

Centuries are not a race and they're not timed. And no, we do not use a starting pistol. Most Centuries will have a "rolling start" meaning that you're free to go within a window of time. For example, at the Back Roads Century you may start between 7:00 am to 9:30 am, however we do have recommended starting times based upon the distance you plan on riding.

How fast do people ride? 

Casual riders can go as slow as 10-12mph, while experienced cyclists will average 20mph or more. The vast majority of riders will average around 14-16mph. For comparison, professional cyclists average 25+ mph on 100 mile rides.  

How long will the ride take?

A slower rider going 12mph would take 8+ hours to complete 100 miles. An average rider going 14mph would take 7+ hours. An above average rider going 16mph would take 6+ hours. And an advanced rider going 20mph (very fast) would take only 5 hours. That’s why you should start early if you plan on riding the entire 100 mile course. Also, you need to factor in rest stops and meals, which will add 30-60 minutes to your ride.  

Do people ride in more than one Century per year?

Casual cyclists will typically train for, and participate in one Century per year. Cyclists who regularly ride 100+ miles per week, will participate in multiple Centuries per season. They’re in such good shape, that they can do more than one ride; plus they’re fun.  

Are Centuries classified by degree of difficulty? 

There isn't an official grading system to classify Centuries in degree of difficulty. You'll only see that in professional cycling races, where they'll grade a climb as Category 1, Category 2, etc. However, you could classify Centuries in a general way such as Flat, Hilly or Mountainous.  

Are flat Centuries easier than hilly Centuries?

Actually, flat Centuries are NOT easier than hilly Centuries. On a flat Century you'll be seated in a static position for the entire ride, and performing the same pedal motion for countless hours. This puts repetitive strain on leg muscles; your wrists get sore; your back stiffens; and your bottom will hurt from sitting the whole time. You're also subject to crosswinds because flat areas tend to have more wind.  

What's a hilly Century like? 

While you do have to perform extra work going uphill, a hilly Century gives you the opportunity to use multiple riding positions and different muscle groups. For example, you can be standing while climbing; seated or crouched while cruising downhill; relaxed or stretching while rolling on the flats. In addition, you'll be able to slide around on your saddle; forward, center or back. Having a variety in riding positions is the most important factor in finishing a Century, without becoming sore. The Back Roads Century would be considered a moderately hilly Century - rolling hills, but not too tough.

What is a mountainous Century like?

Mountainous Centuries will have what's called mountain climbs. They can be anywhere from a mile to several miles of continuous uphill climbing at 7-10% grade (quite steep). And on the downhill, you'll experience high-speed descents and possibly hair-pin turns. Therefore, mountainous Centuries are best left to experienced cyclists. You need to be in really good shape to complete one of these. 

I’ve never ridden in a Century. How do I train for a 100 mile ride?

First of all, you don't need to ride the entire 100 miles. Most Century rides offer shorter distances so that you can enjoy the experience without riding the full distance.

If you do plan on riding 100 miles, you should should set up a training program, so that you can complete the 100 miles and finish strong. Generally, you should train for around 12 weeks leading up to a 100 mile ride. 

How do I know if I’m ready to ride a Century? 

You should be building up a base mileage each week of 100+ miles, and be able to complete rides of 50, 60 and even 70 miles without duress. If you’re not able to do this much riding, then consider a shorter ride such as Half Century (50 miles) or Metric Century (65 miles). 

Can I get ready for a Century without riding 100 miles per week?  

If you're only able to do long rides on weekends, then you'll have to make up for the lack of mileage in other ways. For example, get a stationary trainer for your bike and put in several hours of indoor riding each week. Get out once or twice a week, and do hill climbing or speed work during these shorter workouts. Save your longer rides for the weekend when you have more time. 

Do I need a Road bike or can I use my Hybrid? 

While you can complete a Century on a Hybrid bike, most people use Road bikes. That's because they have a much lower "rolling resistance" when you pedal. The thinner, higher-pressure tires on Road bikes, are more efficient than the thicker, soft tires on Hybrids. Also, Road bikes put the cyclist in a lower body position that has less wind resistance, and delivers a more powerful, efficient pedaling stroke. Hybrid bikes keep the rider in a seated upright position that works well for shorter distances, yet it's inefficient for longer rides. 

But don't let this dissuade you if you intend on using a Hybrid. It's just a little harder to do. We've seen people complete Centuries on every imaginable type of bike on the planet, including unicycles (really). 

What's a cue sheet and why do I need one?  

The cue sheet lists your course with distances between each turn, and which direction to turn at intersections. You must have a bike odometer that displays distance, so that you know where to turn.  

How do I read my cue sheet while I’m riding?

Most riders use binder clips to hold the cue sheet to the brake cables on their handlebars. That way they can glance down at the cue sheet and odometer at the same time. If you don’t want to use binder clips, there are a variety of cue sheet holders available at bike shops and on-line.

What if I get lost?

People usually don’t get lost on Century rides because there are so many riders participating. If you’re unsure of a turn, simply wait for another rider to come by. Chances are that you’ll find someone you can follow. If you’re really lost and don’t see any other riders, go to the nearest intersection with street signs; preferably roads and not small side streets. Then call the emergency number on your cue sheet, and someone will try to get you back on course.

Should I communicate with other riders while I'm on the course? 

Experienced cyclists, who regularly participate in group rides, have a standard language for communicating with each other. You will hear them calling out “Car back” if a car is approaching from behind. This is to alert you to stay single file so that the car can pass. When a car is approaching towards you, riders will say “Car up”. When you’re at an intersection, you would call out “Car left” for cars approaching on your left; “Car right” for cars approaching on your right; or “Clear” if no vehicles are in sight. It’s good practice to alert fellow cyclists so that everyone is aware of their surroundings. This makes it safer and more enjoyable for everyone.  

Why are cyclists riding fast together in straight lines? 

Riding fast together in lines is called a “paceline” or pacelining. Usually only higher level riders (18-20+mph) will paceline because it cuts wind resistance at higher speeds. When you see a group pacelining, you’ll notice that the leader will drop off to the back, and another cyclist will take their place. That’s because the lead rider is absorbing most of the wind resistance, and is doing the majority of the work. As the leader becomes tired, they'll pull off of the front and let someone else lead. Watch any professional cycling event and you’ll see them pacelining throughout the race.

How do I practice pacelining?  

A Century is not the time or place to learn how to paceline. You should join a cycling club such as Potomac Pedalers, and practice pacelining on weekend group rides. Rides that include pacelining will usually be higher class BB, A and AA rides. See the rider classification table for more information.

Can I join a paceline?  

Pacelining is for experienced cyclists only, so don’t join a paceline unless you’ve practiced before on group rides. Pacelining is for cyclists who are: 1) experienced; 2) able to keep up with the paceline; and 3) able to take a turn in the front. The proper etiquette for joining a paceline is to approach the last rider and shout “On your wheel” so that they know you’re there. Then you’ll gradually move up as the front riders drop off behind you. Once you’re in the lead, pedal hard so you can return the favor to everyone else that led before you.

I'm a bit overwhelmed because this will be my first Century. What should I do? 

Don't worry. If you prepare yourself with adequate training, you'll do fine. Remember it's not a race. Your goal is to go at your own pace and finish. Just be sure to choose a distance that's within your ability level. If you haven't trained enough, then do a shorter ride. If you've put in the mileage, then go for the gold! You'll be able to brag about your accomplishment for years to come.