How do you train for a long bike trip?

As I discovered from people I met whilst cycling across Canada, there are many different ways to prepare for an extended cycling adventure. Everyone is different, and no-one can honestly say that their own way is best – only that they’ve found it to be the best method for themselves.

For reassurance that you’re going to be okay, some like to put in a tremendous number of miles, similar to the demands of the trip itself. This approach is great but requires that you have a fair bit of time at your disposal. If, like me, you don’t always have those sort of hours available, then you can try a slightly different tack: shorter and more intensive rides, often with loaded panniers (I use books) to simulate the effort that awaits you. This provides good aerobic preparation and builds up general core strength, as does frequent gym visits. Rowing machines and elliptical trainers seem to be best for me, mainly because as a violinist I’m a bit paranoid about developing possible shoulder issues from the daily grind of knocking out those miles.

Anyway, for this trip I’ve done plenty of the above, and will be doing a whole lot more of the same in the weeks to come, plus a three or four-day shakedown ride again to make sure all of my camping gear for the trip is still fit-for-purpose (a full report of that will appear here, naturally). A slightly less conventional preparation this time was a two hour ‘Taster Session’ of riding on a velodrome track, courtesy of my good friend and colleague Steve Morris. He got a bunch of twelve musician friends together this Sunday afternoon (which was no mean feat in itself with all of our busy schedules and I’m delighted to say included the long-standing friend-of-the-blog John Mills) for a trip to the outdoor Herne Hill Velodrome in South London, where Phil Wright aka ‘The Hero of Herne Hill, was our brilliant instructor for the day.

Steve is an experienced track rider but most of us had done little or none. I did once negotiate two eventful laps of this very same velodrome a few years ago, as part of the two-day ‘London Revolution’ event. I came through the famous narrow entrance gates (it feels as though you’re driving into someone’s front garden) riding with a random bunch of over-excited young lads that I happened to have ended up in a group with, and it was a pretty hair-raising experience. It didn’t take long on the track for me to realise that NONE of us had ridden on one before. If you’d seen it from above, it would have probably reminded you of a WWII aerial dogfight from a Battle of Britain film. Before this Taster Session, that was my entire track experience right there, so I definitely had a lot to learn, not to mention one or two misgivings about riding a bike with no brakes or gears as well.

But what an afternoon we had.

Adjusting saddles and attaching pedals: Phil Wright is in the black t-shirt, John Mills in the blue and yellow, conductor Pete Harrison in the green
Being hunted down by Jeremy Isaac of the Tippett Quartet. Not a sentence I’ve used before. (photo credit to Phil Wright, and for all track shots!)

The whole afternoon kept reminding me of something blog-related, but it wasn’t until the drive home that I realised what it was – the day of cod-fishing tuition off the coast of Prince Edward Island in Canada, which similarly involved listening to a seasoned expert pass on a few of the basics before letting us loose to do our best not to look like a bunch of total idiots. What struck me on Sunday, and a few of the rest of us, was just how good musicians tend to be at listening to instruction and then doing what you’ve been told. I think it must be from the decades of lessons that it takes before you can earn a crust from playing an instrument.

The session was a series of exercises to get used to the unfamiliar behaviour and feel of the bikes, and to work out how to cycle safely around each other on a sloping track with only your own legs to use for brakes. One exercise to maintain a steady distance from the rider in front involved all twelve of us riding in a line whilst Phil shouted out the names of ever-smaller-sized unlikely animals for the gaps as we passed him on the home straight, from ‘elephant!’ to ‘otter!’ to ‘mouse!’. By the end we were all breathing hard and wishing the pared-down bikes had water bottle cages. It really is very odd to be sitting on such a superb but very basic machine, unable to even have a glug of water. By contrast, this summer in the US my bike will be carrying a minimum of two litres of water at all times, and will hopefully also have front and rear brakes and a few gears.

At the end of the 2-hour session Phil was confident enough that we weren’t going to become road-pizza to let us finish the day with an ‘Australian Pursuit’, where you set off one by one and go full out for about ten minutes of laps following the white ‘racing line’ you can see above, trying not to be overtaken by anyone. If you are, you’re out. (No photos of the race bit sadly, probably because Phil was overcome with excitement). As he said, he wouldn’t have dared let us attempt any ‘proper’ racing yet, but this was a fun and safe alternative. Very like the progressive stages for cod-fishing, where we learned to handle the rod, catch the bait, hook the bait and control the depth of the line before we were finally left to try and hook a cod fish for ourselves, without ever knowing how to fillet the catch or handle the boat itself. Or to catch cod.

As a reward for our efforts, Phil arranged to open the excellent Herne Hill Velodrome cafe specially for our group of twelve (thirteen including Sam, young son of our organiser Steve, who, apart from his dad, has more track hours than the rest of us put together). They served excellent coffee as well as cans of ice-cold beer, bags of crisps, and Tunnock’s Tea Cakes. I think I’ve added a new-favourite training exercise to my itinerary for trip planning. Many thanks to everyone involved, and for all the laughs.

A commendable 50% turn-out for The Tippett Quartet
Steve and young Sam
Chatting by the cafe whilst watching the group after us (the Boy Scouts) fly round like demons. They mostly stayed on their bikes, but those that didn’t deserve Scouting badges for bravery. They were patched up and then got straight back in the saddle, to a round of applause from us.
Practising riding in a group of six. After half a lap, the front rider has to peel off, ride up the bank and drift to the back to start again. As Steve said, ‘Only 199 laps to go…’

11 thoughts on “How do you train for a long bike trip?

  1. Great post as always! Phil was fantastic wasn’t he? Great afternoon out with a brilliant bunch of guys. I think you really caught mine and Pete’s best angles in the saddle adjusting photo…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Short Ride: 103 miles’ – just had a look and it looks like a great ride David. Thanks for the invite, I’ll see what I can do! It’s a non-circular route, so how do you get home at the end? btw there was some climbing on Sunday’s track day – 230ft of heading up the sloping track!


      1. There’s a bus back to Wolverhampton from Aberdovery – which is not so far away from where we are in Bloxwich. Why not come and stay with us in the Black Country!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There’s talk of doing the long route – although it’s probably not distance so much as the amount of uphill that’s the real challenge!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Ben have a great journey. Enjoy the scenery, people, and different places. Great seeing you and your family over Passover. Keep us in touch.


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