10 Helpful Tips To Improve Long Bike Rides

Going out for a long-distance bike ride is a little different than going on a casual ride. Preparation is key to not ending up miserable in the middle of your tour. Regardless if you are out on a big enduro mountain bike ride or a multi-day bike tour, the overall principles are the same. So now we’re talking about how to bike faster and further on long days of riding.

Not all the factors you have complete control over, like the weather. But even for those, there are you can take to mitigate negative effects either through prevention planning beforehand or mitigation on the fly.

Let’s get started. This is how to ride further and faster on long-distance bike tours:

Gradient: Uphills and Downhills

Obviously, riding uphill is a chore and there’s nothing you can do about it – or can you?

There are a couple of other factors (we’ll discuss in detail later) like aerodynamics, bike fit, tire pressure, and weight distribution that have a major influence, that you can directly control yourself should you encounter an uphill section. But by far the easiest and simultaneously most effective way to make uphills effortless is simply avoiding them when possible. This is done best at the route planning phase.

Riding for long distances is about average pace and energy conservation. It’s not a sprint. So if I can trade a slightly longer detour to avoid a steep uphill that costs me a ton of energy, I’ll happily do that. Even if my ego takes a little hit.

mountain biker looking into the distance
Me on my mountain bike enjoying the view on top of a hill.

What I’ll say about downhills is also true for uphills. Racing down a steep section after a grueling uphill sure is fun and an exciting reward, but not the most economical. In a vacuum, it would make no difference, but the faster you go, the more wind resistance you generate. And the more potential energy is wasted on displacing air. The energy you built up by pedaling up against gravity. You get the most bang for your buck on steady declines, that assist you pedaling for a longer duration. The same is true for uphills. I rather have a small increase in resistance for a longer duration than be redlining for a shorter duration.

(I understand that trail riding on a mountain bike is the exception here when you ride the uphills so that you can bomb down steep downhills. Maximum distance is not the goal here. Mileage may vary.)

Headwind or Tailwind (Route Direction)

So, what can you do about headwinds other than aerodynamics? (which we’ll talk about later on)

Again, this one goes back to planning out your route. In most areas, there is a wind direction that is most likely. There’s obviously no guarantee to be like that on any one given day, but your best bet.

Close to me, there is a very long, beautiful stretch of bike path without any inclines right along a big river. You can go for hundreds of kilometers on there and have the grandest time ever. Unless you forgot to account for the wind direction that’s always from west to east. You can either go fast and far or have a miserable time on that same path – it’s only a matter of the direction you’re traveling.

Use the wind to your advantage. It’s free, constant power over long distances if you do it right. Expose yourself to tailwinds, and do the opposite for headwinds by riding between trees or buildings so you’re not more exposed to it than necessary.

Aerodynamics of Bike and Rider

I teased you long enough, now let’s get to the effects of aerodynamics for long bike tours. This is obviously more relevant the faster you go since velocity contributes exponentially to total air drag. This is why high-speed time trial road bikes look so different from regular road bikes.

Low aero drag helps you go faster and further. You can achieve a lower drag coefficient by your body position and by making your bike more “aero”. You do that by lowering your upper body (i.e. lower center of gravity) to minimize the surface exposed to wind, and by tucking away any luggage in the frame or behind your seat post. On the actual bike geometry, you can’t change much. Road bikes just are more aerodynamic by design than mountain bikes, because they have to be for those higher speeds.

On a travel bike loaded with equipment, you are at a disadvantage here. The bike has a profile like a garage door with all those bags, but you still have control by using drop bars to get your head out of the wind. In a fierce headwind (from bad weather or your travel speed), tucking in makes a huge difference.

time trial bike
Rider and bike streamlined from thumbs to rear wheel for minimal air drag. // Photo by Jacek Dylag

Road or Trail Surface Conditions

This one’s not thought about often enough. But the road surface makes a huge difference. Even really rough pavement can slow you down by 30% while loose gravel can cut your speed to 25% of what it would be on smooth pavement. Tire pressures play a huge part here when road conditions get a little bumpy. So does the durability of your bike and tires. If road surfaces are known before starting a ride, this is a factor that should go into your route planning.

While riding asphalt on a mountain bike is not that fun or interesting, but saves a lot of energy by not having loose ground, grass, roots, or gravel add resistance. That being said, riding offroad per definition includes these surfaces. If you are riding any of these, line choice is a big thing even going uphill. Choose the patches of the trail, that are the least loose, the least wet and mucky, not grassy or rooty to avoid the biggest resistances. Smart riding and conserving energy can make the difference between one extra lap or not.

Optimize Route Planning

This one is under your total control if you spend the time. The longer the ride, the more you will benefit from investing in your route planning.

You might think: What’s the big deal with hills – if you go up you get to coast down the other side. And that would be true if this were an ideal biker’s world without an atmosphere. As I mentioned before, air drag ruins the effectiveness for downhills for us. We don’t get to turn our stored kinetic energy from uphill efforts 1:1 into coasting distance.

Which is why taking a longer route around a mountain can often net you much better average speed than taking the short route straight over the same mountain.

Same goes for bad or even loose road conditions, which can kill up to 75% of your speed output with maintaining the same power input.

If you find yourself in adverse conditions you don’t want to be in, you probably made a couple of mistakes up until this point already by not factoring these into your planning process. But even the best plans has to face reality at some point. Surprises can and will happen, but with a good plan in lower numbers. With the right (offline) navigation setup for bike touring, you can even alternate your route on the fly if contingencies arise.

Plan diligently, but don’t get married to your plan.

It goes without saying, but if you have the luxury of choice, bring the bike best suitable for the job at hand.

Cardiovascular Conditioning

One factor you don’t have control over on any individual day is your endurance. You can build up your cardiovascular conditioning over years of regular riding or exercise off the bike, but when you start out this morning on your ride, there are only so many watthours of power you can put out that day. And your individual power output is going to determine how fast and how far you can go.

A healthy mix of lower intensity (Zone 2), higher duration, and high intensity (Zone 4), lower duration rides is a good recipe for good cardio. If you are motivated, I recommend trying out some interval training protocols to push your limits with minimal time investment. Or just go out for a ride in the hills for a natural protocol to boost your heart and lungs.

But even with some powerful legs under you, other factors need to be in place so that the power is ultimately used effectively. The lower the air drag you have to work against and the more efficient your bike and the better your bike fit, the more power is transferred to the ground.

Bike fitting to put the power to the ground

A bicycle is a machine that transfers power to forward movement, and you as the operator double as the power source. For this mechanical device to perform most efficiently it needs to be set up properly to accommodate the power unit in a way it can deploy its power optimally.

This topic is more extensive than I can cover here and includes everything from saddle height, saddle position, saddle tilt, handlebars, handlebar roll, handlebar width, stem length, crank length, pedals and don’t even get me started on the find details of frame geometry.

Assuming you start out with the correct frame size, I suggest you start with the bike parts you are actually touching, especially the saddle, where most of the weight rests, as it dictates your overall position on the bike. Height is most important, followed by sliding it towards the front or back and the actual tilt (horizontal in most cases).

Apart from the purely technical aspects, there is a well-being factor here too. And that has to do with the saddle you’ll be spending hours on end on. I hate it when I need a break or the ride has to come to a close because I’m out of ideas on how my butt can touch the seat because every angle hurts.

The folks at Worldwide Cyclery put out a stellar video on what to look for in a saddle. It helped me tremendously, even so far that I could order the perfect one online without testing it first. So I don’t want to withhold that gem from you:

Tire Pressure for free performance

Now let’s talk about one of the most important (but totally free) performance boosts that you have control over, and that is tire pressure. It’s actually a really complex subject, that’s why I dedicated an entire article to it. Most people don’t think of it at all or just put as much air in their tires as possible. Spoiler: Both of those are not exactly optimal.

Schwalbe tire pressure gauge
Simple, yet invaluable: my tire pressure gauge.

Few people actually use a tire pressure gauge but it’s really important to know the actual tire pressure you are running. I got a digital one from Schwalbe, but there are better ones available for the same price, like this one from TopPeak. Now, there is not one best pressure for everybody in every condition, but optimal pressure windows are based on weight, tire volume, and type of riding. Usually, the rear wheel requires more pressure as it bears more weight by you sitting right over it.

Here’s the cost-benefit consideration in a nutshell: High pressures result in lower rolling resistance, but you start going up and down like a pogo stick and diminish all kinds of energy with any little unevenness. Low pressures allow the tire to absorb small bumps, but also mean more surface area and more drag on the road.

Either extreme is kind of taking a chance, with the optimum likely found somewhere in between.

Weight Distribution for Handling and Ergonomics

Weight for cycling is a big deal, but not for the reason you might think.Bicycles are designed to be very efficient in their power transfer so overall weight is the lesser evil here. What you really need to think about is how all that weight you bring is distributed.

If anything, a lower center of gravity helps your overall stability, and by that relax your muscles and arms. So, if you can, put the weight off your back and into waist bags, frame mounts, and bike bags. I got a pair of roll-up bags that can mount to the rack above the rear tire, which is infinitely better than a backpack. Carrying one on a bike is just misery and my back hates me every time.

Even better is a mount on the forks for better weight distribution towards the front. The bulk of the wieght is on the rear tire anyway as it is. Even more is a real detriment on handling in my experience. If nothing else, the bike gets really unstable when parking it. And you notice this while riding as the front wheel gets twitchy because it’s not loaded. Front rack panniers is a valid solution.

fold bike adventure travel
The more stuff you carry with you, the more important economical distribution becomes.

That being said, pulling exess weight over long and steep inclines is going to kill your potential distance and rob your energy. So pick your route wisely and spend more time route planning when you plan on taking a lot of stuff with you.

Actual bike wight tends to have relatively little impact in the great scheme of things. With poor bike fit, fragile wheels and inefficient gearing the lightest bike will be of no benefit to you.

Fuel your body

The last piece of the puzzle is the motor of the entire two-wheeled machine. Without the proper fuel, it is going nowhere – at least not far. If you go out on a long, grueling ride, then pack a lunch – literally and figuratively.

This is not the time to be thinking about weight loss benefits. You need to eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirtsy. Thirst or hunger are symptoms of energy deficiencies, that are going to drastically reduce your efficiency. Start off on the right foot by fueling your body before you even start on an endurance ride.

Include energy-dense foods and beverages to pack as much punch in as little weight as you can. That means good fats and carbohydrates primarily. Electrolytes are a quick and easy way to provide the quickly accessible fuel your body needs under stress. Proteins tend to require more liquid, so either consume them before or after but not during the ride when you sweat a lot anyways.

Not only what but also when to fuel is important on long rides. When you feel thirsty or even start to have a dry mouth, you are on the back foot already. Same with feeling hungry.

Running extra low on energy is called bonking, to be avoided at all costs and hard to recover from while moving.

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