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What Are the Best Bike Ride Distances?

December 2015
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What is the ideal length for a bike ride?

Through four years, almost five, of avid cycling, I’ve come to appreciate several different distances varying in length depending the season (as in Spring, Summer and Fall) and days of the week. First though, before I get into this, I ride every day. No days off, unless it rains. I just went three months on two day’s rest, ending on the last day of September.  If I had my way, someone would decide out of the blue to give me $50,000,000 so I could retire early and just have fun riding my bike.  Unfortunately the tooth fairy only exists in Rise of the Guardians.

For the Road

I am and unapologetic roadie so I’m starting with that.  Due to work, I’m limited for time throughout the week so I’ve settled in on two sixteen mile routes that take anywhere between 47 and 59 minutes depending on how slow I need to go on a particular day.  For instance, the day after my club ride I’m definitely going to push the hour mark while the day after that, I’ll push for closer to 50 minutes.
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On Tuesday evenings though, we’ve got our club ride which is 30 miles with another seven or eight thrown on for a warm up…  The 30 miles takes us between 1h:18 and 1h:22 and has become my favorite “give it everything I’ve got” distance.  An hour-twenty is a great time limit for hitting it hard – not too long and definitely not too short.  We average about 22 mph over the entire ride but when you factor in traffic and stop signs, we actually have to ride between 24 and 28 mph to hit the mark.
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So, for me, that covers the normal weekdays and “fit a workout in after work” time, but then I’ve got the weekends and special occasions…  Ah, the glorious weekends.  My favorite distance for a weekend ride is between 60 and 75 miles, or three to four hours (plus fifteen minutes for a stop or two).  I still keep a warm place in my heart for the centuries, the hundred miler’s, but I actually prefer the 100k (62.5 miles) rides most.  60 miles is fantastic because it really kicks in the calorie burn but it’s short enough that you’re not smoked for the rest of the day while the 100 miler’s always hurt just a little bit by the time I’m done.  My friend Matt puts it best:  With 60-75 miles you really felt like you did something but it doesn’t suck up half of the day.
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Playing in the Dirt

Dirt road rides, while often messy, are a great way to cut down on messing with traffic.  They’re peaceful, enjoyable and because you’d have to have your head examined to ride my road bike on a dirt road, you’re going to be opting for a mountain bike.  These rides are generally quite a bit shorter even if the duration is the same – simply put, mountain bikes are slower.  I like between 25 and 35 miles on the mountain bike.

REALLY Playing in the Dirt

If dirt road rides are slow, trails are really slow.  They’re also a lot of fun.  I figure I’m doing pretty good if I can keep a 13 mph average pace on a single track trail I’m doing pretty good…  Of course, the pros are averaging 20 mph but attempting speed like that would likely result in an unfortunate and painful crash.

In the end, like many other cyclists, I find its more about the time on the bike than the distance covered.  Typically, for a longer ride I’m going for three or four hours.  On the weekdays, when we’re all pressed for time, my cycling is more about getting out for long enough to put a smile on my face.  For that I need a minimum of 45 minutes.  Any less and I’m bummed on the home-stretch that it’s over.  On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on the bike this year.  In four years I’ve never once looked at duration but I know exactly how many miles I’ve ridden this year:

7,533 – and counting…

As a rule, I don’t like the idea of laying down rules for others.  Of course, if we have goals concerning weight loss, say we want to lose 30 pounds in a season and we’re going to attain that by heading out for a 30 minute ride on our leisure bike every night it’s quite clear that the effort isn’t in line with the goal without major dietary changes.  If your effort and goals don’t work together, you end up with disappointment and anxiety – I never miss an opportunity to help with perspective.

The simplest way I know to put it is like this: I started out at 15 minutes, going as fast as I could. Then I added more time and distance and I kept adding until I couldn’t keep wait on and I got to a point where I needed to ride more than I needed a bunch of junk food. For me, that was 150 miles a week (50 minutes a day during the week and 3 each on Saturday and Sunday with a day or two off).

The best distance for a bike ride is whatever you have time for. Just know, nobody ever lost 40 pounds in a season by phoning it in. Big miles burns big weight.

Ride hard my friends.

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12 Comments

  1. bonnev659 says:

    for MTB it all depends on how technical the trails are it seems.

    also if you are climbing a lot of feet for roads I say 20-30 miles be a great workout. If all flat 50-75 miles. I let you know when I move to vermont as there is 3 cat 3 climbs within 2 miles of my work.

    happy riding

  2. bribikes says:

    This post has gotten me all sentimental; long rides, short rides, hard rides, meandering rides-on a bike its all good. For me on the road bike, 35-45 miles keeps me smiling all day; on the mtb it is all about the time factor, 3-5 hours is best, but even a hour getting off road is good fun.

  3. tamsynsmith says:

    For me 100k is the perfect distance. There’s a beautiful 100k route near me that takes in the New Forest National Park as well as a traditional old village (with the most amazing cake shop that also happens to be cyclist-friendly). However, I can’t complain too much about my daily 3 mile commute 🙂

  4. I’m a big fan of the 100k weekend ride. It’s a perfect distance to be able to get it all out on the road, throw in a few climbs, either solo or with mates and of course a cafe stop thrown in too. If I’m on a solo hard training ride then one to two hours is my usual time (distance varying depending on terrain).

  5. What kind of terrain are you riding in on your daily rides? I got a ton of hills that I have to deal with and hard for me to reach speeds that you’re averaging.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Mainly pretty flat. On Tuesday nights were almost perfectly flat for 13 miles before we get into the hills. On flatter ground were around 20-22 mph average. I think we did Mountain Mayhem, which is VERY hilly, at 19. Same with DALMAC… between 19 & 19.5 for the two really hilly centuries.

  6. Manu Stanley says:

    I’m quite a flat rider. I feel humbled by the great numbers that you all plot. Looks like I’m in the company of some great riders here! For me – my units are in kilometers, slightly smaller units than miles. My best so far has been 65 kilometers (approx. 40 miles) in roughly 3 hours on mixed roads (some terrain, some rough roads and some mixing up with running traffic) and at the end of the day makes me happy and very tired. Yet I would return home by noon time with a broad smile in my face even though I can’t climb the stairs to the first floor apartment where I live. I shall keep learning from you and continue improving my performance. Keep inspiring me! 🙂

    • bgddyjim says:

      You’ll get faster… Time and intensity, that’s all speed is. Generally speaking they say it takes three good years to really get your legs. Good luck, and if it ever starts not being fun, slow down and enjoy what you’ve got. Far better to be happy than fast!

  7. heavyman927 says:

    I’d say it’s hard to pick the perfect distance without knowing the climbing. I think 40 miles with 3,000 feet is pretty close to perfect!

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