There's something about tomato slices on white bread, devoured under a shady oak two-thirds of the way through a 100-mile bike trek that gives a tired cyclist the will to finish.
No, tomato sandwiches aren't on Lance Armstrong's list of power foods. But for the 500 or so cyclists expected to saddle up Sept. 18 for the Potomac Pedalers' Historic Back Roads Century in Berryville, Va., the treat is a tradition. Made up fresh by volunteers and consumed in the company of other avid cyclists, these juicy snacks -- onion and mayo optional -- are a delicious motivator. Then again, just about any food tastes great to someone who has just spent five hours on a bike and has another three to go.
With summer's swelter generally over and many cyclists in the best shape they'll be in all year, many mid-Atlantic bike clubs host 100-mile odysseys called centuries. Besides the Potomac Pedalers' tour -- an undulating route through the northern Shenandoah Valley -- many of these rides that test people's pedal mettle are set for the next month. You might see cyclists out for this weekend's Civil War Century or the Indian Head 100 in Maryland.
Having trouble visualizing what 100 miles looks like? It's roughly the distance between Washington and Richmond. Or a round trip between Washington and Baltimore. Or four marathons. It takes most riders six to nine hours to go the distance on roads that are often shared with the occasional car.
Most centuries attract a diverse range of cyclists: There's a large contingent of leisurely non-competitive riders who take their time and savor the experience. There are also new riders, recently hooked on the sport after completing an AIDS ride or another fundraiser. And, of course, there are some riders in such good shape that they can't help but go fast.
Still, no century is a walk in the park. To be safe, any rider should have built up a fitness base over time and logged at least several hundred miles in the weeks leading up to the event. Even then, it's smart to take some precautions to prevent injuries and enhance the experience. Some tips from the pros:
BEFORE: Have a bike pro check your bike fit, advises Terri Spanogle, 40, a Virginia-based fitness trainer who has ridden several local centuries and also races. Minor aches and pains you barely notice during shorter rides may stem from a poorly positioned seat or handlebars, and making adjustments beforehand may prevent an excruciating injury.
While you're at the bike store, consider adding stiff-soled, cleated bike shoes to your cycling ensemble. Sneakers may be adequate for shorter rides, but cleats will make your pedal stroke more efficient, which helps fight fatigue over the long haul. The stiff soles also reduce pressure on the feet, which means your dogs will be less achy when you finally need them again for walking.
DURING: "Don't get caught up in the adrenaline," warns D.C. spinning instructor Beth Antell, 39, who rode the Potomac Pedalers' century last year, along with several 100-milers along the Tour de France's mountainous course. "Stick to your training pace; stick to what's comfortable for you."
At rest stops, which tend to offer a dizzying array of snacks, pick familiar fuel. "The last thing you want on a long ride is any kind of [gastrointestinal] distress," she says. Her favorite snack: peanut butter on a Fig Newton. "You got your protein, your potassium and your carbohydrate. It's awesome," she says. Try to drink 24 ounces of water or sports drink an hour, though you may need more if it's particularly hot or if you sweat profusely.
Rick Reyes, 55, a part-time fitness instructor who teaches long-distance cycling techniques, urges cyclists to buddy up on a long-ride, even if it means riding with strangers. "Don't insist on getting out there in the front. Look for people who will encourage and motivate you. If you go out and look for support, that will be what gets you through the distance." Partners also can take turns "drafting," a technique in which one rider follows closely behind the other's back wheel to conserve energy.
AFTER: Take advantage of the finish-line feast because your body will continue to burn more calories after such an intensive ride. And, for the first few hours, resist the two things your body probably will crave -- a hot shower and a nap, says Glenn McLoughlin, 51, a marathon runner and endurance cyclist who also heads up a science and technology branch at the Congressional Research Service. Hot water can slow healing by reducing blood flow to sore spots, and muscles can tighten up if you don't walk around a bit.
"You don't want to just sack out on the couch and watch TV," McLoughlin says. "You don't want to lock up."
McLoughlin's pick for best after-ride activity: massage. "It's great for relaxing tired muscles," he says.
Some of the area's best centuries are less than a few hours away. Unless otherwise noted, rides begin and end at the same point and go rain or shine. Registration fees usually include snacks, route sheets, road support and, in some instances, a T-shirt.
Sept. 17: Heart of Virginia Century and Bike Festival, Ashland, Va. Rolling terrain through Hanover County. With a 62-mile option and additional rides on Sept. 18 as part of the two-day bike festival. $30 for century ride. Sponsored by Richmond Area Bicycling Association. www.raba.org.
Sept. 17-18: Rehoboth Twin Centuries, Newark, Del. Back-to-back centuries. Ride to Rehoboth the first day and return the next. $35, includes luggage transport. Sponsored by the White Clay Bicycle Club. www.whiteclaybicycleclub.org.
Sept. 18: Potomac Pedalers Historic Back Roads Century, Berryville, Va. The gently rolling terrain through scenic West Virginia and Virginia is a great bet for first-timers. With 25-, 50- and 63-mile options and a figure-eight route that lets riders with second thoughts have a chance to bail early. $40, $20 for children younger than 16. Sponsored by the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club. www.bikepptc.org.
Sept. 18: Three Creeks Century, Carlisle, Pa. A tour of rural Cumberland County with 25-, 50-and 75-mile options. $20, $7.50 for children younger than 16. Sponsored by the Harrisburg Bicycle Club. www.harrisburgbicycleclub.org.
Oct. 8: Seagull Century, Salisbury, Md. A flat ride on the Eastern Shore. The Seagull is by far the most popular local century, usually attracting several thousand riders. With 42-, 44- and 63-mile options. $75, advance registration required. Sponsored by the Salisbury University. www.seagullcentury.org.
Oct. 15: Savage Century, Newark, Del. A difficult ride through Pennsylvania's Chester and Lancaster counties with flatter 40- and 60-mile options and a hilly 75-mile alternative. $15 before Oct. 9, $20 day of the ride. Sponsored by the White Clay Bicycle Club. www.whiteclaybicycleclub.org.