How to train for a season of 12 and 24 hour bicycle races

by Merry Vander Linden

Merry Vander Linden is one of the most experienced ultra time trial racers in the country. In 2000 she took second in her age division at the WUCA 24 Hour race and she finished P-B-P in 1999.

See also part 1


Welcome back first year long distance racers. By now you have nearly completed the first two phases of our four part training plan for a three race season. The first or base phase employed a weekly formula of two moderately paced cycling or winter sport workouts of increasing length to build endurance, two shorter cycling workouts that emphasized technique and form, and a minimum of three strength and flexibility workouts.

Our second phase was something of a hybrid between intensity and peaking, since for many riders the season’s first long distance race is in early May. You did two short interval workouts weekly- one on the hills and one on the flats for speed, a fast tempo ride, and a slower endurance ride which became longer by 10% each week.


Our season’s training plan dictated a week’s rest after the first race, a 12 hour event, and we now pick up the thread with the peaking phase. During this phase, short distance speed and long distance endurance developed in the previous two phases are combined to produce long distance speed. The weekly formula is made of three key rides – a short speed interval workout, a middle distance tempo ride, and a long endurance ride. You might follow a Saturday endurance workout with a short, easy recovery ride on Sunday, but save the other three days of the week for stretching, recuperation, and non-cycling recreation with family and friends.

There is a wonderful article by Pete Penseyres on Intensity Training. It explains both the how and the why of this facet of your program. Intervals produce speed – Pete’s spectacular list of cycling accomplishments bear testament to that fact. These highly structured exercises are tough, and if you do not possess discipline in Penseyrean measure, if you find yourself making excuses or quitting early on interval day, you may have to rework the formula to get your high heart rate stuff done. Play hare and hound games with the racer-types on the local club’s weeknight ride, modify your Spinervals’ “Mental Toughness” video session, or collaborate with your Spinning instructor to develop an interval workout you can not only bear, but enjoy. Be creative.

Tempo rides are fast, middle distance workouts. Try to do them during the week, so you’ll be well-rested for the weekend endurance ride. Since you are now peaking for a 24 hour race, tempo rides should be 50 to 100 miles in length, and the pace should be about one mph faster than race pace.

The endurance rides in the Peaking phase are used to increase endurance slightly, but primarily to sustain staying power while adding speed. You are trying to simulate race conditions in this workout, so ride at race pace and on terrain similar to what will be encountered in the next event. Thanks to data collected on long rides during Intensity phase, you now have a pretty good idea what your highest sustainable heart rate is over distance and are using a heart rate monitor in addition to your cyclometer to determine race pace.

When peaking for a 24 hour race, endurance rides are quite long – 150 to 250 miles – but they are done only once in two weeks, substituting a fast century on the weekends between. Consider doing these long workouts as part of an organized event. The California Triple Crown double centuries, the and the Big Dog rides and the brevet calendar are opportunities to ride with like-minded individuals while supporting the ultra community.

Alternatively, try this race simulation endurance ride: Lay out a course on race-like terrain in the shape of a figure eight or cloverleaf. The length of the loops should approximate the distance between checkpoints in your upcoming event. Fill a couple coolers with ice, water, drink mixes, and race food, put the coolers in your car, park the car in the center of your training course, and start riding. This exercise will help you determine just how much food and fluid to carry between checkpoints, as well as your tolerance for minimal down time. During this simulation workout, practice making stops quick but effective. Last year Val Van Greithuysen won the women’s division of Calvin’s Challenge and tied the course record essentially unsupported. Her stops were a study in efficiency, her routine, without a superfluous movement, yet without haste. She later told me that she carefully rehearses each stop in her mind as she approaches the checkpoint – a drill you can perfect on these rides.


Since you need to rest and store energy for the race, your last long endurance workout should be done two weeks before the event. During the following week, do a short interval workout, a 40 to 50 mile tempo ride, and a brisk century on the weekend. Then, in the final week before the race, do two very easy 1 1/2 to 2 hour rides and nothing more. This easiest of weeks in your training program may prove to be your hardest. You know little training benefit is gained from workouts done in the week before a race, and you know you need to rest, build glycogen stores, put on a bit of fat, and hydrate.

Yet you’re starting to feel rather frisky after last week’s reduced training volume, and there’s this little voice that keeps insisting you go out and ride. That little voice may be the pleasure circuits of your brain. The months of intense cycling have kept them awash in happy-making substances like endorphins and dopamine. Now that you’ve cut back, they are in withdrawal. Be careful! This portion of the brain is very slick. It may convince you to go for a nice club ride, desperately hoping a race will break out. Or, if you refuse to ride your bike, it might suggest a walk. The next thing you know, you’ve done a 15 mile hike through downtown Paris the day before PBP, and are standing on the starting line the following morning with two wooden legs.

Understand what’s going on, busy yourself with race preparations, but if your gray matter is still clamoring for a fix, go for one last easy ride and do a visualization exercise. Slowly ride a flat course while seeing the race in your mind: the start, the heat of the afternoon, the wind dying down at sunset, the circle of light and life at the checkpoint in the middle of the night, the silence and peace beyond, the song of a robin long before the faintest blush of light tinges the eastern horizon, sunrise, the jubilant exhaustion of the finish.

Before The Race

Since you’re training less during the two-week taper and have some free time at your disposal, attend to all preliminaries well in advance of race day. Tune up your bike, clean it, and put on new tires. Also tidy up your spare bike and set it up to be as nearly identical to your race bike as possible – it’s coming along as backup.

If you haven’t done any night riding yet, take one of your last easy rides after sundown to become accustomed to riding in the dark and also to assess the adequacy and stability of your lighting system. Do a test run on the battery packs to be certain how long they’ll last.

Next, pack your clothing: two of everything you know you’ll need and one of everything you think you might need. Remember, it can get chilly in the middle of the night, even in summer, so bring some warm layers, and if precipitation is predicted, bring a rain jacket and lots of extra socks and gloves. Clear plastic storage boxes with covers are great for carrying race gear. Get one for clothing, one for non-perishable race food, and a third for tools and pharmaceuticals. If you have crew, pack some blankets and a couple lawn chairs to keep them warm and comfy through the night. You probably read the rules when you registered, but read them once again to be sure you’re clear on regulations regarding drafting, lighting, and where your crew may meet you.

Use this time to set goals. Consider making your number one aspiration to ride the entire race, be it 12 or 24 hours. Accomplish this and so many other good things – from respectable mileage to a chance at a medal – will automatically follow. In addition, you might set loftier goals, all the way up to winning the race, but set some that are a bit more humble as well, goals that will help break the race into smaller, more manageable pieces. For example, resolve to ingest your pre-planned allotment of food and fluid between each checkpoint, to come off the day loop fresh and well-hydrated, to hold your race pace at least through midnight.

If you’re fortunate enough to have crew, write down your race plan in the form of a rider log. Make a chart with columns for loop number or checkpoint, time in, time out, lap mileage, total mileage, and notes. In the “notes” column, record what you’ll need and when – things like fuel, sunscreen, battery changes, etc. Your crew will fill the lap numbers and times during the race. Not only does this lessen the chances of forgetting something vital, but it also can provide invaluable feedback for your next event. Finally, it may be the only tool at your disposal should you need to appeal in the rare event that race officials miss one of your laps.

A certain amount of pre-race anxiety and apprehension is almost inevitable, and will only be aggravated by a lot of last minute rushing about. Try to arrive at your event with plenty of time and nothing to do. Greet old friends, make new ones, soak up the excitement.

During The Race

  1. Stick to your pace: In 1996, on the eve of my second 24 hour race, I read Ron Dossenbach’s article “12’s and 24’s” in UltraCycling Vol. 5, No. 2. In it he says, “The important thing is to determine the highest intensity that can be endured for the duration. Stick to this, even at the start, even when this level will seem too easy.” This is the alpha and the omega of race strategy. In mass starts, consider taking a position toward the back of the pack to avoid the temptation of giving chase to sprinters early on. You’ve worked really hard to determine your best pace – refuse to be taken out of your game.
  2. Follow the arrows, not the people: The course will be well marked, yet a contingent of the directionally- challenged always seems to show up for these events. Don’t let them lead you astray.
  3. Stay on your bike: Any time off the bike will cut into your total distance.
  4. Take time for important things: Allowing a few seconds to apply sunscreen or chamois lube, or to check a tire for glass when fixing a flat can save you hours of pain, misery, and further delays.
  5. Don’t believe everything you hear in the middle of the night.
  6. Don’t stop on round numbers: Many riders set goals of 200 miles, 300 miles, etc., so doing an extra lap or two may allow you to nose out the competition.
  7. Unless you’re injured, finish the race: Anticipate what might go wrong ahead of time, decide how you’ll deal with it, and discuss this with your crew. If you get sick, sip Coke and slow down, but keep riding. If you get sleepy, find someone to talk with, put brighter lights on your bike, sip Coke, and keep riding. If your brain starts telling you this is all stupid, latch onto someone who’s feeling good, listen to their happy chatter until the mood passes, and keep riding. Even if all the goals you set seem unattainable, don’t deprive yourself of the learning experience and the satisfaction derived from fighting over the top. Don’t quit.

A Little Race Etiquette

  1. Always say please and thank-you when jumping on someone’s wheel and always offer to take a turn on the front, even when drafting a tandem.
  2. No matter how tired you feel, always be courteous to race staff and volunteers.
  3. No matter how badly your race is going, never yell at your crew.

After the Race

  1. Warmly and sincerely thank the race organizers and your crew.
  2. Seek out your friends, your acquaintances, your competition. Inquire about their races, congratulate them on their accomplishments.
  3. Stay for the awards ceremony – the entire awards ceremony, not just the prize raffle.
  4. Once the excitement of the awards ceremony has passed, an unimaginable weariness may engulf you. For your safety and for the safety of others, consider napping a bit before carefully driving home.

A Few Final Words

Don’t worry: Things can get a little weird during the wee hours of a 24 hour event. When this happens, don’t panic – consider it a bonus. Others might have to commit a criminal act or spend years in an ashram to experience some of the sensations you’re going to enjoy in the middle of the night. Laugh, store it in your memory bank, and keep riding.

Ultracycling is your hobby – it is not your job, it is not your punishment. You’ve prepared for months to get to this race and now that you’ve arrived, there’s nowhere in the world you’d rather be. So put a smile on your face, put a song in your heart, and enjoy every minute of it.

Thanks to riding buddies Wendy, John, and Gary for their first-time racer input. Good luck at Calvin’s, guys!