I've been cycling for most of my life but I'm not an endurance rider - the furthest I've ever cycled in one go is 20 miles. I do a modest amount of riding daily - a couple of miles. Soon I'll be leaving my home for a work placement (I'm a student) and the trains are extremely expensive to come home on every week, so I'm considering cycling instead. The terrain is almost entirely road with occasional dirt tracks, and my bike is a MTB Cycletech mountain bike. The first question I have: is this 50 mile ride feasible for someone of my experience? Secondly: if so, what sort of preparation should I be doing? I'm thinking of bringing several bottles of water, but I'm unsure as to what foods would be sensible to bring, and how much of them I should be consuming. Any other tips on top of this would be extremely useful.
50 miles is feasible but it will be hard work. Think about how tired you felt after cycling 20 miles. Then cycle 20 miles again from that tired start and think about how tired you'll feel then. Then, cycle another ten miles.
The other answers give lots of good advice which I won't repeat. Since you mention trains and coming home every week, I assume that your plan is to cycle home on Saturday and then cycle back to the place where you work on Sunday.
While I think you can do 50 miles in a day, I doubt you can do 50 miles twice in two days. You should seriously consider taking the train one-way, so you're only cycling 50 miles once a week. This also has the advantage that you could travel home on the train on Friday evening and get more time there. The problem is that British one-way train fares are often almost as much as the return (e.g., when I take the train to visit my parents, the return fare is £104 and one-way is £103; no, that's not a typo, seriously, it's only a pound cheaper).
So, I propose this. One week, buy a return train ticket on Friday or Saturday and take your bike home on the train; cycle back to the place where your job is on Sunday. The next week, cycle home on Saturday; take the train back on Sunday. This works because the return half of your ticket is valid for a month. When you feel you can cycle twice in the same weekend, start doing that.
It's doable if you are young and fit and don't mind some pain.
If you have ridden up to 20 miles, but regularly only ride a few miles, you may find 50 miles is a struggle, just because you are not used to it. On the initial attempts plan to take it easy and build in rest stops. From your 20 mile rides you should have a good idea of the pace you can sustain.
- Make sure the bike is in good shape, properly adjusted and lubricated.
- Taking a puncture repair kit you know how to use is a good idea.
- Plan a route where you can stop, rest and get food or water if you need to.
- You don't need to 'carb load' before hand, just eat reasonably and healthily.
- The best food to eat on the ride is easily digestible carbs such as energy bars.
- The first few attempts allow plenty of time because it will take you longer than you think.
- Have a bail out plan in case something goes wrong
I regularly ride quite long distances in the UK (SW England, Wales). For 50 miles one large bottle of water is enough for most people even in hot weather (even me and I get thirsty). However you'll probably be going slower as you're new to the distance.
I suggest you plan a route that allows you to get off the bike and get something to eat/drink at around the halfway point. A supermarket can be a good option, as you can normally lock the bike up and get something quite cheap, rather than carrying it. Buying a drink saves you weight. Some time out of the saddle is worth planning for; it doesn't really slow you down very much as you'll be refershed compared to a much quicker stop. I'd carry cereal bars, and sweets for a quick energy boost. If you don't want to buy food along the way, sandwiches are fine (I prefer wraps as they're pre-squashed), but then carry a second bottle. Basically palatable carbs. Eat as soon as you feel hungry, and try to drink before you get thirsty. The first time I did a solo ride of this length I planned an optinal stop at a petrol station at the 2/3 mark; it didn't feel optional when I was getting close.
To store as much energy as possible, some basic carb-loading might be worthwhile. Something like some toast mid-morning and mid-afternoon the day before, and a starchy meal for dinner, then a decent breakfast of cereal/toast etc. (save the fry-up for afterwards). Remember to drink plenty of water with all this.
Carry some means of dealing with a puncture (I prefer a spare tube and a pump) and other minor mechanical issues, but there's no point carrying tools you don't know how to use. Always carry cash, even if you prefer to use a card for regular expenditure, and know where there's a good place to stop.
You might want to look at https://www.cyclestreets.net/ when planning your route - there's a "quiet" option that can be helpful
Consider clothing as well. I commute a short distance daily and rarely do long rides, so proper shorts are not something I bother with.
When I've done longer rides, I quickly noticed that as the difference. If there's a seam in the wrong place on your pants, 50 miles is going to make it known to you.
If your current max is 20 miles, 50 miles will be painful. Prepare for that, and don't expect to be able to do much directly after your first rides. However, it's totally in the doable range.
For the ride itself, I see three important points:
If you can, invest into puncture resistant tires. They are worth every penny.
Make sure your bike is in good shape when you start. Check tire pressure, chain lubrication, lights, and such.
You may easily bonk on such a distance. Prepare for this. The easiest way is to carry at least a liter of coke (not the diet stuff, the coke with real sugar). Or any other really sweet soft drink. Taste does not matter as long as it's sweet. Other forms of sugar like energy bars may work as well, but I'd wager that coke is actually the most effective when it comes to fighting a bonk: It's pure sugar that's already dissolved in water, ready for the body to take in. Also, it has the added benefit of providing you with some water at the same time.
If you don't like the idea of drinking coke for health reasons, use something else, but make sure you have ample amounts of sugar with you. Because riding without sugar after hitting the wall is not fun at all. You don't even want to need to ride another five kilometers to reach a gas station / shop where you can buy the sweet stuff in this condition.
You could train (your body) for it.
I do 50 km regularly (several times per week, it takes me about 2 hours), so the thought of doing 50 miles doesn't scare me, because I know I can do 50 km before breakfast. The most I've done continuously is only 100 km but that wasn't much more tiring than 50 km, it just took a bit more than twice as long.
I know it ("training" i.e. just practice) changed my endurance, when I started I was commuting 18 km each way (similar to 50 km but with several hours between each half of the trip) and that took some getting used to ... teething problems like pain in one knee, deciding I wanted better tires, finding clothes that were comfortable or uncomfortable, learning routes and traffic and weather.
Later I moved to a hillier area, and a few years after that the hills which I used struggle up I now routinely manage in a higher gear -- i.e. training matters. I guess it's the most important thing.
I suppose it's obvious but I mentioned because no other answer has.
I guess the route matters but I can't advise on that.
As for weather, IMO getting wet matters little -- people typically don't like getting wet because they don't like getting cold-and-wet, but (if you're fit enough to continue to push) it's easy to stay warm on a bike, especially in summer, because you're producing so much heat. Similarly it's easy to stay cool (though wet with sweat) on a bike even on a hot day, because there's always a breeze (as long as you're moving). Consider sunscreen if you'll be in the sun for hours.
I use Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires because I want to be able to ride far (a day's walk), alone, even on gravel cycle path, without getting a puncture. They're a bit heavy, I suppose people wouldn't use them for racing but I don't race -- I think they're called "touring" tires. I find them admirably reliable.
Avoid tires with a heavy tread or knobs: they slow you down, increase effort; may be meant for deep mud or something (I don't know, I don't do "all terrain" biking) -- I stick to roads, driveways, cycle paths. It's amazing how far you can coast (without pedalling) on good tires, proof that they (unlike cheap knobbly tires) are "efficient" (don't lose much energy due to "rolling resistance").
Clipless shoes help make your stroke more efficient (but you need to practice). My bike store told me to practice in winter when I'm wearing a winter coat, and away from traffic, because everyone falls over when they're learning (I usually fell at a stop sign, when travelling at 0 km/hour, after forgetting to unclip in time). My pedals are two-sided, one side with a socket for "SPD" cycle shoes and the other side flat for if ever I'm not wearing cycle shoes.
You might want a pannier, e.g. to carry sweater in case you stop or the weather the changes, or to carry your toothbrush since it's a weekly trip -- or a picnic, whatever you fancy lugging with you (tire repair kit unless can trust your tires). A pannier clips to a rack that's screwed to the frame of the bike: typical of touring or hybrid bikes, not on racing bikes (racers may have "support vehicles") nor mountain bikes. A pannier is more comfortable than a back-pack. A pannier affects your top speed (wind resistance), but a back-pack is sweaty ... and maybe heavy! :-( The weight of a pannier is supported by the bike, leaving you free.
I'll mention gloves perhaps. Cycling gloves (like this) are fingerless (so you can handle gears etc.) and breathable (not hot) on the back: but the heel of the hand is padded, and there's a channel in the padding so that the padding doesn't press on the carpal nerve. If you're cycling for 4 hours then your hands may get tired: supporting your weight on the heels of your hands, plus the shock/vibration of the bike. Gloves (and helmet) also help to save your skin: if you fall then chances are you'll put your hand on the ground to try to break your fall.
One of the benefits of drop handle bars, I'm told, is that they let you change your hand/wrist position (for variety over the hours). Assuming you don't have drop handle bars, if you find that's a problem you might ask at the bike store for alternatives, e.g. "bullhorns" or "bar ends" like this. My handle bars are just flat (on a so-called hybrid bike), becoming less comfortable (stiffening wrists) but not impossible after 80 km.
I hope your bike fits you properly. Your leg should be nearly straight when you're seated on the saddle, your foot is on the pedal, and the pedal is at the bottom ... you can't reach the ground, you need to get off the seat to reach the ground. To do that, perhaps your seat is adjusted high. With a lower seat you can reach the ground more easily but your leg is never straight, your knees are high, not so relaxed. Also if the bike is short (lengthways) I feel like a gorilla with my arms going down vertically from my shoulders to the handle bars. I like the bike frame a bit longer than that, so I reach a bit forward to the handle bars.
You might want a phone and a friend in case of emergency.
Lights and reflective stuff at night, though daylight is long at the moment.
Top up tires and water before leaving.
Presuming you are young and reasonably fit, 50 miles is entirely doable - over moderate terrain and at a moderate pace it should take less than 4 hours (edited). The first couple of times you do it will be a struggle, but your fitness will grow fast.. next up you will be doing RAAM :). A bananas and a muesli bar should be sufficient.. but you won't actually starve with no food. I would suggest two biddons of water.
Also, consider using 'slick' tires to make the going easier (depending of course on how much 'trail' there is).
I just completed a 100 mile ride through the mountains from Banff, AB to my hometown this past weekend. The most important thing to do is to make sure your bike is properly fitted before you take it on any long rides. Simply ensuring things like your saddle being set to the right height is going to make more of a difference on your ride than what you carry along with you.
If you don't know how to fit your bike, there are plenty of blogs and tutorials you can search. Saddle height, angle, and placement are key for maximizing power output. Handlebar adjustment is crucial for distributing your weight on the bike so you don't get sore in your butt, arms, back or wrists.
The next thing you're going to want is proper cycling attire. It kinda looks dorky, but it's so functional that once you start wearing it you don't care how it looks. At the very least get some cycling underpants with a thick chamois, they will become you best friend for long hours in the saddle.
Other things that'll make your life a lot easier on long road rides are going to be narrow slick tires pressured up to their max pressure, and clipless pedals or toe clips. Something else you may want to look into are pannier bags or frame bags so you can carry anything you need to bring with you on the bike instead of on your back, which takes a lot of extra weight off your butt.
I don't think you need anything special for the ride apart from having to eat and drink something. I have ridden 100 km which is bit over 60 miles, and used to do plenty of 50 km (bit over 30 miles) rides. The 50 km rides are manageable even without a water bottle as long as you aren't riding in a very hot environment. However, for 50 mile ride, I would plan to at least drink something and very possibly to eat something. You don't need to carry a water bottle with you (it's just added weight), if there's a possibility to stop at a grocery store to purchase something to drink. However, if there are no grocery stores near your route, do carry a water bottle.
Instead of carrying a water bottle, I recommend using the saved weight to carry a basic toolkit with inner tube patch kit, a spare inner tube, tire levers, Allen keys, a small chain tool and chain pins suitable for your chain. Don't forget a pump (I recommend Quickex Quicker Pro).
None of my rides were with special cycling clothes. I just used some casual sports clothes. With synthetic fibers, of course, as cotton would just become very wet.
All of this assumes you are comfortable with your bike and everything is adjusted properly. If you have been riding for shorter distances, this probably won't be an issue.
You will be exhausted after 50 miles, but trust me, it will feel like a great accomplishment.
If you're planning to do these rides often, consider checking whether your tires are good for the conditions (I recommend 28mm wide slick tires, as they require less pressure than 23mm tires and thus are easier to inflate, and additionally 28mm tires don't require extra-narrow rims like 23mm tires do, and 28mm in wet sand is better than 23mm) and whether you are using a bike with drop bar (recommended for its versatility and possibility to ride with a very low air resistance). Also, shoes that attach to the pedals are recommended. Don't choose racing shoes that cannot be used for walking!