by John Hughes

John Hughes is the former director of the WUCA, has been certified by the NSCA as a personal trainer and by USA Cycling as a coach. Learn about Hughes’ coaching at


In 1986 Pete won Race Across AMerica from Huntington Beach, CA to Atlantic City, NJ, averaging 15.40 mph for the 3,107 Miles — and Pete’s RAAM average speed record remains unbroken. The next year Pete and Lon Haldeman set the men’s tandem transcontinental record of 15.97 mph.

I first met Pete and Lon on PAC Tour 1988 and in 2006 I had the pleasure of rooming with Pete while we were coaching at the PAC Tour Midwest camp. In one of the evening seminars Pete made the point that during the 1986 RAAM nothing hurt. Jaws dropped. Pete said that if anything had hurt, it would have distracted him from going fast. Lon agreed that during his best races nothing hurt.

Pete and Lon are both analytical and excellent at devising solutions. In his first ultra races Pete had problems with hot foot, so in the 1986 RAAM he wore soft, flexible Avocet touring shoes. Lon also had problems with hot foot, so he drilled new holes in his shoes and mounted the cleats farther back to relieve the pressure on the balls of his feet.

I. What are Show-stoppers?

Lon and Pete are both good at solving problems, and that’s really the key to successful long rides: solving the inevitable problems. And it’s obviously better to solve the problem(s) before the event rather than improvising by the side of the road. Show-stoppers are the problems that you can’t solve, difficulties that force you to stop before the end.

II. Overall Plan of Attack: Keys

To eliminate as many show-stoppers before an event, you need a plan of attack, a way to methodically eliminate the one-by-one. Here are the keys:

  • Before the training ride: have objectives for each ride.
  • During the training ride: listen carefully to your body and how it responds.
  • After the training ride: write down what your learned and make any necessary changes.

III. Five Foundations of Success

Some years ago Muffy Ritz gave me one of her favorite books: Don’t Look Back. No, it wasn’t Bob Dylan. It was about a cross-country ski coach who had decided he wanted to quit coaching and train exclusively to compete as a biathlete, the sport in the Winter Olympics that combines cross-country ski racing with target shooting. John Morton, the author, talked about the five elements of every sport, elements that must be mastered to achieve excellence.

  • Training: this one’s pretty obvious, right? If you are going to become better as an ultracyclist you need to ride more. As you ride, do you think about your physical limiters and how you could train to improve your weaknesses?
  • Equipment: I have a friend who had chafing problems on every long training ride before RAAM — no saddle sores, just irritation. So he used the same saddle, shorts and butt cream on RAAM . . . and got saddle sores. Duh!?
  • Technique: Road racers work on their sprints; time trialists practice the turnaround — but ultra doesn’t really involve technique, does it? How about learning to descend quickly and safely? Practicing group riding before you get to Paris-Brest-Paris?
  • Nutrition: Anyone who has done many rides of about 300 km or longer has had his or her stomach go sour. Have you experimented to find out why it’s going sour and what to do about it? I know a RAAM rookie who lived only on liquid nutrition A while working and training. Then for a week only on B, etc. to see what he could tolerate.
  • Mental: In PBP ’99 I met an American art a contrôle on the way back. He’d dropped out. Why? Well, he had a saddle sore, his stomach was a little upset and he’d broken several spokes. None of those alone were show-stoppers. But he didn’t have the mental skills to relax, focus, solve each problem and get on down the road.

IV. Century Rider

Assume that you are a century rider who is trying to improve. You have with a half-dozen weekend training rides before the a key century. You would apply the keys to each ride:

  • Before the training ride: have objectives for each ride.
  • During the training ride: listen carefully to your body and how it responds
  • After the training ride: write down what your learned and make any necessary changes.

Ride #1 — Nutrition: in my experience almost anyone can complete a moderately difficult century (with no training) if the rider eats regularly. So on your first training ride you might practice consuming 300 calories every hour and 24 oz of fluid / hour. And test different foods ranging from sports products to real food.

Ride #2 — Points of contact: okay, if you eat enough you can finish a moderately difficult century. However, your hands, feet and/or buttocks might be tender or even sore. Pay attention to each of these points of contact, analyze the issue as precisely as you can and then seek remedies, which might involve a good bike fit or changing a piece of equipment.

Ride #3 — Pacing: part of the fun of organized events is that you get to ride with other people — old friends and new acquaintances. However, some will inevitably be stronger than you and your century may become a hammer-fest if you aren’t careful. Learn to ride at a sustainable pace by using a heart-rate monitor or perceived exertion.

Ride #4 — Group Riding: over the course of 100 miles riding in groups can significantly reduce the amount you have to work. Use this ride as an opportunity to judge which groups are riding carefully and efficiently — ride with those! — and which are an accident waiting to happen.

Ride #5 — Efficiency: a century ride can either be about the journey or about the destination. If it’s about the journey, then take time to stop at each rest stop, sample the food, chat with other riders and volunteers. If it’s about the destination — how quickly you can get through the ride — then minimize the stops. Either approach is good — just be clear in your own mind which approach you want to use.

Ride #6 — Focus: unless you can ride like Haldeman or Penseyres there’s a reasonable probability that during you upcoming century there will be some bad moments: hot, cold, windy, mentally down, a third flat tire, etc. During this final training ride practice riding at a steady pace even during the bad moments.

V. Summary

This approach can be extended to brevets, double centuries, randonnées, RAAM qualifiers and even RAAM. There’s nothing magical about six training rides. Plan enough to test and refine each of the variables:

  • Training
  • Equipment
  • Technique
  • Nutrition
  • Mental

For each variable remember the keys:

  • Plan
  • Test
  • Evaluate and refine

And remember: HFDF — Have Fun, Don’t Fall!