SBT - Leadville - mistakes

5 Mistakes Cyclists Make During Long Races and Events


By Chris Carmichael,
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer

Obviously, there are a lot of things you do need to do in order to be successful in long distance cycling events. You have to train effectively, put in the miles and hours, incorporate structure and progression, fuel your training, and allow for adequate recovery. But, assuming you have done all of that and you arrive at the start of SBT GRVL or the Leadville 100 ready to go, here are some of the mistakes you definitely want avoid once the starting gun goes off.

Longer endurance cycling events, including gravel races, ultraendurance or marathon mountain bike races, and gran fondos are the most popular forms of competitive cycling in the United States. There are still plenty of criteriums, road races, and cross-country mountain bike races out there, but the riders who do those are also jumping into longer endurance events – for fun, training, or competition – as well. This is reflected in the distribution of goal events cited by CTS Athletes. After many years of preparing athletes for, and supporting athletes at, events like Unbound Gravel, SBT GRVL, and the Leadville 100, as well as sportives including the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to keep athletes in the game and get them to the finish line. Key among them are avoiding the following mistakes.

Mistake: Sitting Down in Aid Stations

The longer the event, the more remote the location, and or the worse the weather, the more inviting aid stations become. During SBT GRVL and the Leadville 100, coming into an aid station in the last third of the event feels like re-entering civilization. At that point in long events, you’re likely riding alone or in a small group, and it’s been quiet for a while. The solitude can be your friend or your enemy, but either way, it’s shattered when you roll into a loud and raucous aid station. It’s festive, supportive, and comfortable. Too comfortable. Don’t settle in, or you won’t leave.

As CTS Coaches, when we staff aid stations at cycling events we do everything we can to encourage athletes to stay on their bikes. We greet them as they come in, bring food or their drop bag to them, fill bottles, and get them on their way. If an athlete needs more assistance or is struggling, we certainly bring them into the tent and attend to their needs, however long it takes. But that’s the anomaly, and the fact is, the likelihood a competitor will continue diminishes with every extra minute they spend in the aid station.

Mistake: Thinking too far ahead

During a long distance cycling event you will have times when you feel strong and powerful and times when you feel slow and miserable. The important thing to remember is that neither feeling will last very long. That’s why you should enjoy the times when you feel good and keep working through the rough patches when you don’t. Athletes get themselves into a lot of trouble when they think too far ahead instead of focusing on the decisions right in front of them.

As an athlete you are constantly regulating your effort by evaluating how you feel now and predicting how you expect to feel later. During short intervals and even events lasting up to a few hours, experienced athletes are pretty good at making accurate predictions, and as a result they set ambitious but sustainable paces and make good decisions about fueling and hydration. Athletes are not nearly as good at predicting how they’ll feel several hours down the road or trail, because more time on course increases the number of variables that can affect performance.

I’m not recommending that you pay no attention to the fact you have many miles and hours left to go, but rather I recommend paying particular attention to the choices you need to make now, and for the next 30 and 60 minutes, or until the next aid station.

You don’t have to know all the answers to all the challenges that are ahead of you, because you don’t know what they’re all going to be. If you spent time in training preparing for adversity and mentally rehearsing your responses to challenges, then handle the problems and decisions of the moment and trust that you’ll have the answers for future challenges when they arrive.

Mistake: Sacrificing water for the sake of weight

One of the biggest gambles in long distance cycling events is trying to minimize weight by reducing the amount of water you’re carrying from aid station to aid station. In many gravel and endurance mountain bike races, water stops can be 25-50 miles apart, and depending on the terrain, the temperature, and the wind, that 50-mile stretch could take 2 hours or 5 hours.

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The consequences of carrying an extra bottle or a few more pounds in a hydration pack are far lower than the consequences of running out of water an hour short of the next aid station. The same rule applies for carrying food, but it’s relatively easy to carry more than enough food because it’s small and light. Which lead me to the next mistake to avoid…

Mistake: Leaving aid stations without doing a self-check

You should have an aid station routine that is simple and foolproof and so practiced that you can execute it in any state of exhaustion. It should be automatic, and after you go through the steps of gathering food, filling bottles or a hydration pack, and swapping out gear, the last step before leaving the aid station should be a self-check.

Confirm you have water, food, tools, some kind of tire inflation device, and any clothing you anticipate needing for the next leg of the journey. If you have never had the experience of realizing you left an aid station with empty bottles, consider yourself fortunate. If you have had that experience, take comfort in the fact you’re not alone. A quick self-check only takes a few seconds, and can save you hours of misery.

Mistake: Riding someone else’s race

Remember what I said about having periods when you feel great and periods when you feel awful? Well, yours aren’t necessarily going to coincide with your friend’s or rival’s. You have to establish your own process goals for the event, which are the actions you’re going to take that are under your control.

Your process goals may include aspects of pacing, like keeping power output and/or perceived exertion under a certain level for the first half of the event. They can include experiential aspects of the event, too, like making a point of thanking volunteers instead of blowing through aid stations without a word. You get to determine what success looks like for you at any given event, and once you define it the only way you can achieve it is to ride your own race.

I need to end this list of mistakes with some very important things you should do. Have fun. Be grateful for the opportunity to do what you love. Enjoy sharing time with friends and making new ones. Encourage and support the people around you, particularly when you’re in one of those good periods and they’re not. And do your best, because it’s the way you honor all the hard work and sacrifices that brought you to that moment.


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Comments 23

  1. AMEN! I wrote this after the Italy, Texas rally — June 18, 2016

    Tour d’Italia on my list,
    A favorite ride I seldom miss.
    Carbo-loading, stretching joints,
    Work for B&B Team points.

    Pinstripes worn to represent.
    Fifty miles, and now I’m spent.
    Planned to do the hundred K,
    Many setbacks in the way.

    Couldn’t find my lineup spot,
    Sun’s ferocious. Getting hot.
    Water bottles left behind!
    Back to fetch them—what a grind.

    Heart rate climbs, it seems too high,
    Rest stops beckon, “Don’t pass by.”
    Fifty miles in broiling sun.
    Stick a fork in me—
    I’m done.

  2. Sixty years ago, when I was a high school cross-country runner, my Dad’s advice before every event was always the same: “Run your own race.” Decades later, as a ultra-distance road racer, I wrote it across the inside of my helmet visor as a constant reminder. Best advice an endurance athlete can get. All my successes — and failures — pivot on that one point.

  3. I filled up my water bottles and left them and did not realize I had left them until I was ten miles down the road on a sweltering day. I know exactly what you are talking about. Good article.

  4. Thank you Chris !! Great great article . And my favorite line
    “grateful for the opportunity to do what you love” that’s what makes us gooooo no matter what ever comes along the way,
    Maria Hockersmith.

    1. Excellent article Chris of more consideration on a topic that is probably undervalued, and great reply Maria, well said!!

  5. Chris –

    Kick-ass article…all stuff I wish I’d have known back on my Y2K trip across the country and not have to learn the hard way.

    The basic tenets of have fun, learn something (like staying within yourself/the moment) and being a good, safe and considerate rider are always in the forefront of my thinking on any ride I head out on.


    Jeff Sipos
    Strongsville, Ohio
    John 16:33

  6. Great article!
    At Leadville 100 mtb (103 miles actually),I was 9:15 at the 9 hour cutoff due to most all of the errors noted above.
    Wasting time at the aid stations bs’ing with the staff, missed my daughter at the twin lakes who had my second backpack with my water and food, not having enough skills for the rough terrain, etc.
    One thing I did focus on was preparing for the altitude at 9-12,000ft by acclimating gradually via Boulder and Steamboat Springs on the way up from Denver. I saw quite a few cyclists sprawled on the ground with altitude sickness and unable to continue. Also having a spare derailleur hanger as there are plenty of rocks reaching out to break it.

  7. Well said, especially for an 80 + rider. I met Alison 2 years ago at Peets at her event in Danville CA.
    Her commitment to riding, encouragement, and tales about her grandfather is one of the reasons I continue to ride at the max of my capacity (such as it is). Please give her my regards.

  8. Really great column Chris. In particular, I appreciate your comments in the last couple paragraphs, including “You determine what success looks like for you at any given event” and “Be grateful for the opportunity to do what you love”. Perfect advice and reminders for so many of us!

  9. Thanks Chris! This is a really good short list of Don’ts (and some very appropriate Dos). The conscious self-check is super important. We often get in a hurry to get in and out (I aim for three minutes). As a result, I’ve twice left aid stations and had to circle back to retrieve my CamelBak! Taking 5 seconds for a self-check can save minutes (or more) on your total elapsed time.

  10. Most important, don’t have too many Kcals per hour, your body can burn calories faster than it can metabolise so stay to a max of 400 per hour or you’ll be running for the toilet. Also aim for a mix of complex and simple carbs. Oat Flapjacks are good.

  11. Thanks Chris!

    Also as older cyclists and a necessity of life, hitting the restroom (porta potty) at an Aid Station or if needed on-course can be time consuming! What can you do…

  12. And I was just thinking about maybe taking one less bottle on a leg of UB this coming weekend, and you talked me off the ledge – thanks!

  13. They’re not rest stations!!! They’re aid stations, I keep sayin’. On many long organized rides you can easily skip half of them. Take care of business as expeditiously as possible and keep riding.

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