Take These 3 Steps to Achieve Your Long Distance Cycling Goals

Let’s get one thing clear up front. This isn’t going to be about training advice for achieving your long distance cycling goals. It’s about three steps you can take to reduce friction. Yes, friction. And here’s why…

No matter your level of fitness, unwanted friction–between you and your contact points with the bike, between you and your clothing, and between you and, well, you–can derail your goals to ride longer and farther. These are the three steps you can take to reduce friction and achieve your long distance cycling goals.

Bike Fit

Yes, go get a bike fit. A poor bike fit can be the cause of everything from neck, should and back pain to wrist, knee and foot pain. But a bike fit is about more than ergonomics. A good fit will put you in a position that minimizes the amount of friction at your contact points.

Let’s start with your handlebars. The height and angle of your bars, not to mention the position of the hoods, can put strain on your hands that can result in soreness or, even worse, numbness. Too much upper body lean puts unnecessary pressure on your hands. And that soreness and numbness you feel will, generally speaking, not magically go away the deeper you get into a long ride.

Your saddle is no different. Minor irritations you might start feeling on short rides will only worsen on long rides. Getting the height and angle of your saddle correct means you won’t be sliding forward or backward, both of which generate unwanted friction in unwanted places. A good bike fitter might also be able to make some recommendations on style of saddle.

Show up at a randonneuring event–I wrote about randonneuring in How Epic Rides Are Made From Small Details if you need some background–and you’ll likely see at least half of these long distance riders on leather saddles. Why? Because these endurance riders know that a suspended leather saddle absorbs much of the noise and chatter that gets transferred from the road straight up through your saddle to your bum. All that bouncing around on your saddle, even if it’s so subtle you don’t notice it on a 3-hour ride, means more unwanted friction.

The final contact point is between your feet and pedals. Here, ergonomics are crucial especially if you ride clipless pedals. Saddle height and setback, crank length, Q-factor (the distance between the outside of one crank arm and the other), and your cleat position can all affect your knees and hips. But they can also affect the way your feet move around inside your shoes while pedaling. Blisters, hot spots and numbness, like all those other niggles previously discussed, almost always tend to worsen the longer you’re on your bike.

No matter your fitness level, unwanted friction can derail your goals to ride longer and farther.

Kit Fit

I use “kit” simply to refer to whatever you wear on your rides. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be skin tight. But it has to be comfortable, which is to say it has to produce minimal friction. Like with saddles, variations in anatomy mean everyone has to find what works for them. But here are two known facts that everyone should consider: heat and moisture tend to increase friction.

Sure, high tech cycling-specific garments might have special cooling and moisture wicking capabilities. Polartec Alpha Direct seems to be the textile du jour. It has “an incredibly high rate of moisture vapor transfer due to its highly open structure and lack of backer fabric,” yet is also very insulating and light weight. I happen to have a couple of items made with Polartec Alpha Direct and the claims hold up. But it turns out merino wool has the same properties.

Oh, and if you’re thinking in terms of moisture wicking and cooling properties for hot weather riding, it should come as no surprise that cotton does a pretty good job. The key is ventilation. And when you’re cycling you’re creating your own wind that does a pretty good job of cooling and drying, especially if you are wearing items that can be adjusted to allow wind through.

The point here is not to judge anyone’s apparel choices. It’s simply to encourage you to experiment in order to determine what will be comfortable when you’re 10 hours into a ride and the sun is going down and the temperature is dropping, or you’re 5 hours into a ride and the temperature is rising as you start a climb. Either way, you need items in your kit that can manage heat and moisture in order to minimize the friction that causes chafing and discomfort. And, here’s the mantra, “what begins irritating you at mile 30 is going to be a bigger problem at mile 120.”  


Whoa! This is not a mountain biking article so what do I mean by suspension? Remember the suspended leather saddles I talked about? That’s one type of “suspension” that can absorb the micro (and macro) bumps of the road. And the bumpier your ride is, the more friction is generated.

My two primary suggestions for adding suspension to your road or gravel ride are higher volume tires and a suspension stem. Let’s start with the tires. Sorry if you’ve read this here before. But I’m going to say it again…wider tires that are higher volume can be run at lower pressures and act as your first source of suspension.

A bit unrelated to this article but important nonetheless is the fact that when riding higher volume tires there is actually less mental fatigue on a longer ride because you don’t need laser focus on the road ahead to ensure a crack in the pavement doesn’t suck your wheel in or that an embedded rock in the trail bucks you off your bike.

When riding higher volume tires there is less mental fatigue because you don’t need laser focus on the road ahead

Your wider tires will simply absorb these obstacles for you. And with that peace of mind comes the added advantage of tire deformation. The more volume (and the lower the pressure) the more the tire can deform when it strikes an obstacle. In doing so the tire absorbs the energy instead of your hands or bum.

If you want to add even more suspension, consider a suspension stem and/or seat post. I have been riding the Redshift ShockStop Suspension Stem for a couple years. Redshift says it “smooths out road imperfections, reducing fatigue and strain.” And in my experience, it does what they say. I forget about the imperfections it smooths out until I hop on a bike without it.

I’d have to ask my old riding partner, a former high school physics teacher, to do the calculations for me. But I’m pretty sure if you take the 20mm of travel the suspension stem provides, and calculate the total amount of travel recorded over every flex for a 100-mile ride, you could determine the amount of energy absorbed by the stem that otherwise would have traveled through your hands, arms, shoulders and neck.

Actually, I don’t need to do the math, I know from experience that reducing the strain allows me to go longer before beginning to feel fatigue in my muscles and joints from absorbing road chatter.

Removing the Friction to Achieve Your Long Distance Cycling Goals

OK, so there’s actually a fourth step. Once you’ve taken step 2 (Kit Fit), my advice is to buy multiples of whatever you find works for you. On the Cascade 1400 I wrote about in How Epic Rides Are Made From Small Details, my greatest concern was the possibility of chafing and eventually saddle sores. I’m guessing my Selle Anatomica X Series saddle played a key role in evading this problem. But to be on the safe side, I experimented until I found the most comfortable bib shorts for my anatomy and then bought a second pair to carry with me on the ride.

Salt, as it turns out, also increases friction. So if you’re on a long ride where salt build up from your sweat might begin to make your shorts or shirt chafe, why not carry a backup to change into mid-ride? Your nice clean salt-free garment will not only reduce friction but also give you a psychological boost.

In case it hasn’t become obvious, there’s some implicit “advice” that has been woven throughout these recommendations. Namely, “Don’t fixate on weight.” Yep, higher volume tires and suspension stems are going to weigh more than their road racing-influenced counterparts.

But even if your long distance cycling goals involve some sort of ultra “race,” it doesn’t matter how fast you go if you can’t complete the distance because of hand numbness, saddle sores, or other friction-related maladies. Taking on some additional weight to minimize friction between you and your contact points with the bike, between you and your clothing, and between you and your own body parts, will help you to ride longer and farther and achieve your long distance cycling goals.