Organizing a Century, a Rider’s Perspective



I have never personally organized a century, but I have participated in several, and I can give a rider’s perspective as to what is necessary, as well as to the extras that make a great one.


Of course, the main feature is the route. The kind of route you wish to design depends in part on the level of participation you desire. The harder the route, generally, the fewer people will attempt it; however, those who do attempt it will be more seasoned, fitter riders who will have fewer needs for the “SAG wagon.”


Routes can be mostly flat, rolling, hilly as heck, or somewhere in between. At least here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, it is impossible to have a completely flat course, but it is certainly possible to either deliberately omit or include the harder, steeper hills in the area. As a guide, one can consider the total feet of climbing (gross, just counting the uphill side) over the course of the route:

Easy5,000 feet or less
Medium5,000-8,000 feet
Hard8,000-12,000 feet
InsaneOver 12,000 feet

The Mon Valley Century, mostly following the riverbanks of the Monongehela River, just crosses into the medium category, with slightly over 5,000 feet of climbing, and much of that owes to two big hills on the course (Beallsville Road, and the big hill heading east out of Brownsville). There are numerous rolling hills near the end of the course that make up the balance. That the organizers could come up with so relatively few feet of climbing is astonishing, as, on average, the roads in Southwestern Pennsylvania climb 67 feet per mile.

The difficulty of the route cannot be graded solely on the total accumulated altitude, however. The locations of the bigger climbs on the route have a big impact. The closer they occur to the end of the ride (when riders’ legs are most tired), the harder the route will be.


Unless your event is going to be so large that you require permits and police escorts, the course is not going to be closed to traffic. Cyclists and cars will be sharing the roads that are used. It is vital to pick a safe route, and it is also vital that cyclists respect traffic laws (don’t run stop signs and red lights, stay to the right as long as it is safe, ride single file when cars need to pass, etc.). That said, the route design should, in so far as it is possible, favor “quiet” roads that usually do not see much traffic. Bear in mind that some roads that are normally very busy during the week can become quiet on the typical weekend morning when century rides are held; thus, these roads can be used for the early parts of the course.

Except for busy roads, it is not so important that the road have a wide, paved shoulder. On quiet country roads, cyclists and cars can share the lane, as cars will often cross the yellow line to safely pass a cyclist. If the route cannot avoid a busy road, however, then try to keep the busy road section as short as possible, and the busy road should have a wide, paved shoulder that is free of debris (broken glass, sharp metal objects), drainage grates, and rough pavement. As an example, U.S. 422 where it passes McConnell’s Mill State Park is a very, very poor choice; however, U.S. 19 through Portersville is just fine.


The best century rides will have road markings indicating the turns. These are typically three or four arrows painted on the road, starting well before the turn, indicating that the turn is coming, as well as a confirmation arrow after the turn, to indicate that the rider is on the right road. When an event features rides of different lengths, the routes for those rides should be marked in their own colors.

This can pose some difficulty when you are using roads that have also been used by other events, as a popular cycling area is going to have numerous events throughout a year. In such a case, it might be worthwhile to talk to the organizers of those other events and agree upon disjoint color schemes (e.g., the one event might use matte paints while your event uses metallic paints). If that isn’t possible, then adding the initials for your event to your arrows will help.

For very tricky turns, you might post a volunteer to direct the riders. Make sure to provide this volunteer with a chair, some sun shade (portable umbrella?), and plenty of refreshments! Fortunately, unless the route doubles back on itself, this poor soul probably won’t have to be there all day. Even if the route does double back, volunteers can work in shifts.

Cue Sheet

In addition to road markings, every century that I’ve attended has had a cue sheet (turn-by-turn directions, with mileage to the turn, road names, and any additional description that may be needed to find the turn or to warn of some special hazard, like a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill, or a hidden pothole). National Geographic has some excellent software that will map out the route, draw an elevation profile, and generate a rudimentary cue sheet, or you can use Bikely, a website that uses Google Maps to create biking routes. With Bikely, you can annotate any route point you like, and that annotation will appear on the generated cue sheet. The catch is that you must annotate the turns, or they won’t be on the cue sheet. Bikely will also generate an elevation profile and will (conservatively) estimate the cumulative elevation gain.

SAG (Support And Gear)

Rest Stops

Especially on a hot summer day, a cyclist cannot carry enough food and water to complete a century. The route needs to feature “SAG stops,” at which electrolyte replacement drinks (e.g., Gatorade) and water, as well as high-energy, easily-digested food is available. Bananas (usually cut in half), energy bars (Clif Bars are my favorite, but get whatever you can get sponsors to give you), cookies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (again, in half, and on white bread), and so on are good choices. Cyclists will be losing a lot of salt during their rides as well, so some salty foods are also good (pretzels, potato chips, and so on).

SAG stops are not generally all open for the entire day. They’re usually only open for a few hours during the day, when the riders are expected to be there. Due to the widely-varying abilities of the riders who will participate, the window of time gets larger and larger during the day. The first stop might only need to be open for 90 minutes to two hours, for example, while the last stop might need to be open for four hours. To help plan, figure that the fastest riders will, depending upon the difficulty of the course, be averaging 20-25mph, and the slowest riders might only average 10mph.

I can only gauge how much liquid and solid refreshment you’ll need based upon my own experience. I would figure on a pint each of water and electrolyte drink per rider, per 10 miles, with rest stops no more than 25 miles apart (closer if the terrain is difficult and the day is really hot). Have enough banana halves for each rider to have one, and expect at least half the riders to eat half a PB&J at each stop. By far, the liquids are the most important, so don’t sweat it if you’re off by a little bit on the food—what isn’t eaten at an early rest stop can be transported to a later rest stop, and if you run short, there are grocery stores everywhere that can be hit to supply the later stops.

SAG stops should have one or two porta-johns, as riders who are properly hydrated are going to have to go, and avoiding public urination (when you really gotta go, you really gotta go) will keep your event in good standing with the communities through which it passes. Some hand sanitizer is a nice touch.

Support Vehicles

The better centuries have several support vehicles patrolling the course, looking for riders in need of help. Riders will generally need:

It’s not necessary for every SAG vehicle to be able to provide every service (you might only have one mechanic, for example), but it does no harm to have a few extra inner tubes (usually suitable for size 700C tires, with Presta valves) in each vehicle. All vehicles should be equipped either with radios or with hands-free cell phones to stay in communication with the ride coordinator. The coordinator is going to want to know where the last rider on the course is, among other things, so that (s)he will know if a rest stop can be taken down early and transported farther down the route (you don’t need to have separate sets of volunteers for each stop. When one stop closes, it can leapfrog down the road to become one of the later stops). Every rest stop should also have a radio or a working cell phone, to be able to call for a SAG vehicle in case a rider is in trouble.

SAG vehicles should have bike racks, in case a rider is injured or for some other reason has to abandon the ride. Roof racks are the best, but hitch racks are OK if they have stabilizer bars and enough bungees to keep the bikes from swinging around and knocking into each other. Riders should remove cycle computers, seat bags, and water bottles before the bike is racked, so that nothing gets lost from the bike while it is racked. To make the most efficient use of SAG vehicles, they should patrol the route after picking up a rider, in case any other riders need help, before depositing the rider(s) back at the start. Of course, a rider in need of medical attention is a different story. That rider should be taken wherever (s)he needs to go, either to ride-provided medical personnel or to the hospital.

Because personal vehicles are usually recruited for SAG, anyone not wanting to have sweat or (in the case of a crash that resulted in road rash) blood on their seats should use some kind of seat cover, even if it’s just a towel.

Since I brought it up, it wouldn’t hurt for each SAG vehicle to have a “road rash” kit. This is simply water (to wash out the scrape) and perhaps some neosporin or bacitracin ointment, a compress, and some tape. A road-rashed rider can often continue and complete the ride, but treating the road rash will help healing begin sooner.

SAG vehicles should have some kind of placard that identifies them as being with the event, so that riders can recognize them when they see them. A rider in need of SAG support should raise his or her left arm, and then meet up with the SAG vehicle after the vehicle has come to a stop in a safe place.

Aprés Ride

If you can get a sponsor to provide a post-ride meal for the cyclists, that would be awesome (Tour de Cure does this, for example). Salad, pasta, and barbecued chicken go over well, as does chocolate milk, which, interestingly, is one of the best post-event recovery drinks going—even better than the expensive specialty recovery sports drinks. This isn’t a requirement, but it is handy, as cyclists who complete a century are going to be hungry enough to start devouring park benches. If you cannot find a sponsor, and if your event is a fundraiser, or for some other reason you just don’t want to deal with it (e.g., you want to keep the price down by not building the cost of the meal into your registration fee), then you can skip the meal and just have a SAG stop at the end, with liquids and the usual things you had at your other stops.

Rider Goodies

Typically, an event will have a goodie bag. The bag will contain, at minimum, the rider’s number, four safety pins to affix the number to the rider’s jersey, an event t-shirt, and, if there is a post-ride meal, an arm band or a ticket to redeem to get the meal. If you can get sponsors for any of these (e.g., they pay for the t-shirt printing by buying space for their logos on the back of the t-shirt), that’s a win. You can also get sponsors for things like water bottles, cycling socks, etc.

If you have an exceptionally cool design, you might market a jersey with the event’s logo for an additional fee, or as a reward for meeting some level of fundraising associated with the event. Per-piece costs for custom-printed jerseys are high in small numbers, but they drop off quickly as the numbers increase. To give you an idea, $60-$80 is not an unfair price to ask for a nice cycling jersey. You needn’t have them made up beforehand (and then get stuck with a bunch). You can have them as an additional item in your online registration, and, with enough lead time, either have them in the rider’s goodie bag or mail them to riders after the event. The Brasstown Bald Buster Century does this, for example.


Many events do pre-registration on the internet, either through their own portal or through an online vendor who specializes in handling registration for sporting events (e.g.,, although there are others). It is up to you to decide how you want to handle pre-registration, what the deadline will be, and whether or not you will accept walk-up registration the day of the event.

Pre-registration lets you plan your logistics the best. You’ll know how much stuff you need at rest stops and so on. Walk-ups let you handle people who decide to enter at the last minute, but they make planning more difficult.

Generally, there is no refund for pre-registration when it is handled through an online vendor. Refund policies are up to you. Whatever they are, as long as they are stated beforehand, in plain language, before the rider submits his or her credit card number, they’re fair.

Additional Issues

I have not touched on such things as insurance, liability, or co-ordination with local police departments. Having never organized an event myself, I do not have experience with these matters. Certainly, I think it would be wise to let the police departments that serve the municipalities through which your route runs know about your event well in advance. They may know of some other event (e.g., town festival, parade, etc.) that will close streets that you intended to use. You might also want to let EMS departments know of your event, so that they will be able to have someone handy to respond in case of an emergency. Often, fire halls and such will even offer to let you host a SAG stop at their location (the Tour de Cure has one inside a fire hall, in the shade, for example).

You will want to speak with the coordinators of other century rides to see what advice they have to offer.

Finally, if you are either an event organizer or an experienced century rider who has some ideas for improving this page, please let me know!

Further Resources

How to Organize a Century (from Century Rides Across New England)

Western Pennsylvania Wheelmen

$Date: 2007/05/04 21:02:03 $