Training for the Face of America Ride

Get Ready for the Face of America Ride through Proper Preparation

by Bob Hillery
USA Cycling Certified Coach


Position is everything … Really.

But before you start cracking out those training miles, it’s a good idea to check your bike fit. Think it’s “OK?” 60 to 80 RPM (pedal or hand) will be between 3,600 & 4,800 reps per hour, every hour of riding. Small twinges at the start will hurt by the finish.

Legs first: the “main engine” for most, on a regular road bike or recumbent. Saddle height and seat set back determine the amount of leg bend. The best extension for your leg is to have the max angle at the end of the down (or out) stroke be between 25 & 35 degrees from straight. A great way to approximate the right height is to measure from the greater trochanter (hip ball joint) to the floor. Replicate that distance from where your sit bones hit the saddle to the pedal spindle. This works for full leg and if the residual & prosthetic are below the knee. Too much or too little bend cost you power and cause sore knees.

Day 2 Start in Frederick, Maryland

Riders prepare for the start of day 2 of the 2013 Face of America in Frederick, Maryland. Photograph by Kimberly Warpinski.


Cycling – what a great way to work up a sweat, gain aerobic fitness and still be sitting on your … laurels. But if you’ve ever developed sores or gone numb (you know what I mean), you know there more to it than just sitting.

Your weight should be supported by the “sit bones;” the ischial tuberosities that you feel when you’re on a hard bench. That often seems uncomfortable when people start, so they make the mistake of using a padded seat. Wrong.

Here’s the deal: the lower half of you (engine: glutes, quads, calves) is connected to the upper half (fuel, hydraulics, & controls (lungs, blood, & nerves) by a lot of plumbing that runs under the pelvic girdle. The sit bones keep that up so your weight doesn’t squish all the tubing & reduce energy in & waste out. When you add padding, you may distribute some of the weight on a broader area, but you also increase the push into soft tissues, restricting blood to muscles and to nerves. The first means weaker, more tired muscles; the second can lead to damaged nerves if you ignore it. Nothing is supposed to go numb, no matter how long the ride!

Get the saddle level to the bike with both wheels on a level surface; use a carpenter’s level at the hubs to be sure. If the saddle is nose down, you’ll be constantly sliding forward and off; if the saddle if nose up, besides sliding off the pointy end will be sticking up – awkward.

For front to back placement, a plumb line from the front of your kneecap should pass just about even with the end of the pedal crank with the cranks horizontal and the measured leg side forward. The result should have your sit bones on the seat and you leaning slightly forward with hands lightly on the bars. A decent approximation is to measure from the greater trochanter to the lateral femoral chondral – length of your femur – and use that as the distance from the nose of the saddle to the handle bars.


Pro cyclists look cool in that aerodynamic tuck, leaning forward, but unless you’re blessed with Lance Armstrong’s genetics or have the time to train for it – as in riding is your full-time job – most of us need to be more realistic. How should the upper body and arms look?

On a road bike, with your hands ‘on the hoods,’ your arms should be about parallel. In other words, the width between the brake hoods should be about the width of your shoulders at the collar bones. Too small and your chest is cramped; too large and besides being awkward you’re adding drag.

Your elbows should be relaxed and in about the same position for a comfortable handshake. The skin between the forefinger & thumb should look normal. Many times I’ll see people with white patches of ischemia – pressing the blood out of the area, like white knuckles – indicating too much pressure on their hands.

A quick check when the bike is on a trainer, or someone is holding it firmly, is to have the rider just take their hold them a half inch above the bars. If they tend to fall forward, their core isn’t supporting them and they need a shorter stem or to raise the bars higher. Remember, we’ve already set the seat height and fore & aft position based on the legs – the main engines, so we don’t want to fiddle with the seat to change where the body & arms rest.

For hand-cycles, the position depends on the geometry of the bike. There are many more variations in the evolving world of hand- or trunk cycling that there are in the pretty standardized 2-wheel road bike world. One good starting resource is Seth Arseneau’s article. Note he echoes the road bike world’s comments about higher cadences. In hand bikes that’s done with shorter crank arms and is balanced by changing the gearing. While raw power sounds great, mile after mile after mile it will be steady power, higher (aerobic) cadences, and a comfortable position that makes the ride faster and more enjoyable.


It’s spring, but it snowed in my home state of New Hampshire yesterday. 30 this morning and upper 40s F. later today. How do you prepare for large weather changes?

Layers – start with a good base layer like UnderArmor™ or a similar sport T from AthleticWorks™ (the WalMart brand). The light poly shirt provides a layer to trap warm air and prevents the next layer from rubbing. SmartWool™ is also great, but more expensive. Avoid cotton: it rubs in all the wrong places.
Next layer is a jersey. Mid-weight is what I use for spring, but the bigger decision is long vs. short sleeve. On days that get sunny, a short sleeve jersey (and T) with arm warmers gives the most flexibility during a ride. Remember, you should start feeling just a little cool or under dressed because the exercise should warm you up. If the day gets warmer or you’re riding hard, you can always pull off the arm warmers. It’s safest to stop and do this, rolling them to stow in a rear jersey pocket. Unless cycling is your day job, leaving to cool dressing-while-riding moves to the pro peleton!

A light weight jacket, perhaps water proof if it looks like rain – or snow – can make you warm enough for any spring ride, and also easily stow as you warm up.

Shorts – if it’s below 60 F., you should use something that goes below the knees to keep that joint warm. If that’s not an issue for you as a hand cyclist or with a prosthesis, remember that circulation is what warms the body, and residual limbs have to be kept warm or they act as heat sinks, reducing core temperature. Also, for hand cyclists, you’ll feel warm exercising but remember that by not using the major glute and quad groups you’re not generating as much internal heat. This is especially a challenge when it gets wet and you lose heat more rapidly. On the 2010 Face of America ride, several folks had to hop in the SAG wagon with hypothermia after rain set in on the ride.

As always, start out with easy riding until you’re warmed up. Take about 15 minutes to get the blood pumping to the muscles and joints before hammering at a race pace. And remember to cool down for the last 15 to 20 minutes of the ride.

Face of America riders

Face of America riders head north of Washington through Maryland in 2014. Photograph by David Rhinehart.


The muscles need fuel. We’ll skip the eat-right-all-the-time bits, and I’ll try to avoid the magical claims of foods, berries, spices, or goo (however one spells it). You’ve heard it all before and the claims & counter claims can make anyone dizzy. We’ll stick to basics.

Protein – meat, fish, beans – are building blocks to make & repair muscle. Yes we need it, but it’s not fuel in our sense. Fats – have a bad rap, but are essential in moderation. Avoid saturated & ‘trans-‘ or partially hydrogenated and remember that gram for gram they have double the calories. Carbohydrates – sugars, starches, grains – these are the real fuel. That said, they metabolize in a variety of ways with some faster than others. The final pieces are minerals, especially electrolytes.

Most long distance riding energy comes from aerobic metabolism. This uses glucose from body stores and at long duration steady effort helps burn those triglycerides the Doc is always nagging us about (Navy Seal Guide to Fitness and Nutrition, Deuster, et al., 2007, p.16). The fats come from stores around the body and with the aid of the liver become useful fuel.

Quick hard efforts, sprints and hills, will use anaerobic metabolism and uses glycogen stored within the muscles themselves. This is a limited supply of instant energy, and takes time to recharge. Most people have perhaps three to six of these sprints before they just run out of gas. You can still roll along, using aerobic metabolism, but the pack gets farther ahead and you grind rather than jump up hills.

The aerobic fuel is usually not a problem; I carry too many extra pounds of ‘stored fuel’ around (that’s my story & I’m stickin’ to it). The anaerobic we can actually do something about. Juices, fruits, power bars, even Snickers™ can provide a quick surge of glucose to the system and during a long easy aerobic stretch this can re-charge muscle glycogen. Just remember that the need for these sugars is small and more calories in than burned packs on the pounds even if you are exercising.

Finally – hydrate. Drink water. Water is essential to all metabolism. You should be drinking about a water bottle an hour while riding. If you haven’t had to urinate or it’s a distinct yellow, you may be dehydrated. You don’t need fancy sports drinks that often add sugars. Most of us have more salt than we need in prepared foods, but if you’re sweating heavily eat a banana – they’re a great source of potassium, an important muscle firing electrolyte.


Okay, so your bike ride is just over a week away. What riding should we be doing? By now, it’s no longer miles of miles to prepare. If you do one or two more “long rides” on the order of 20-25 miles you’ll be fine. That’s about the max distance between rest stops on the superbly supported Face of America ride.

So for the next week, let’s focus on technique. Think higher cadence, smaller gears to use aerobic metabolism rather than low cadence and big gears, which will tend to use anaerobic processes, burning that limited store of muscle glycogen. It’s like using light weights and lots of reps rather than power-lifting that one big load once.

When you’re going down slope – shallow or a real hill – try to shift to the biggest gears you can and still have a ~70-80 rpm cadence. Use gravity and the big gears are easier; this also helps you keep up the momentum to ‘carry’ over the next uphill part. Many of the hills on the Face of America route are rollers – up, down, up, down, up. Getting the most out of the down really makes it easier to get up the one in front of you. Practice this. If you’ve got a stretch of quiet road with even one dip – a camel-humped sort of road – you can practice a few hill repeats from peak-to-peak and back.

The other technique to work on is shifting for that hill. In the old days, with 10-speed bikes and down-tube shifters (no “click” indexing), riders had to eye-ball the hills and get in the right gear early, before the hill, because shifting and missing while half-way up the hill was risky. Chain slip, or jam, or not getting the right gear, could mean grinding slowly or falling off, as the rest of the pack passes you by. Whether on a hand bike or current Shimano or SRAM shifters, getting the gears you need early just means a little higher cadence to start (90-100) that settles in to the 70+ rpm as your momentum carries you up the hill.

Bottom line – work on technique and get in one to two ‘long rides’ before the Face of America ride. The support is outstanding, and if you can do a third of the day’s distance a week prior to the event, you should be fine.


Reaching the week of your ride, you are ready to go or at least, as ready as you’re going to get. The good news is that a World T.E.A.M. Sports event such as the Face of America, the crew, volunteers, and your riding colleagues will make it a rewarding event.

What do you need to do now, just before the start? Well, double check the bike. Any squeaks, clanks, or weird twitches are going to be exponentially annoying on a long ride. If you or your local bike shop don’t have the time, or skills, to do it, there will be some mechanical support on the ride – but remember it’s not supposed to substitute for regular maintenance.

Clean that chain! Plain water and a rag (or rags!) will usually do. Sprays or harsh chemical degreasers ten to get the lube out of the insides of the links, and that’s not good. Wipe it down, use an old toothbrush between the links, apply a few drops of light oil or synthetic chain lube, then spin the chain again in dry section of rag to wipe off excess. Extra oil or lube just collects sand and grit.

A quick look and wiggle of the frame, wheels, cranks and pedals or hand grips to make sure they’re tight is easy and essential. Take a really good look at the tires. Worn tread, nicks, deep rub marks (especially if cording is showing), bulges, and so on are all bad signs and mean “replace the tire.” Inflate the tire to spec, and check it the next day to make sure it’s holding most of the pressure. All tires lose some pressure overnight, but if it seems soft to the touch it’s got a slow leak that will only get worse during a long ride.

Check your helmet – straps, suspension, no cracks or squished parts. Bike helmets are designed to do their job once: whether that’s saving your head from hitting the deck or bouncing off the road if you drop it. If you use a clip-less shoe system, check to make sure the cleats are in the right spots (for you) and the screws are snug. Finally, take a good look at your gloves. They really make a big difference on long rides.

That’s about it. Whether you mount up, kick tires & light fires, or take in all lines, it’s time to get this op underway.

Stay warm, stay dry, & stay right. See you on the road.

Note: This article is adapted from Bob Hillery’s “Coaches’ Corner” series, published in World T.E.A.M. Sports‘ Face of America 2011 digital newsletter. He recommends that for more great information about training and preparation for a major ride, check out Dr. Andy Pruitt’s Complete Medical Guide for Cyclists.

USA Cycling provides a helpful article about indoor training from certified coach Kevin Lee.

Face of America 2013 Sunday rest stop.

Riders at the 2013 Face of America arrive at a northern Maryland rest stop. Photograph by Richard Rhinehart.