What is the ideal length for a bike ride?
In cycling as in life, some things are subjective, while others are objective. “Which is better, Campy or Shimano?” falls under the subjective column, while “How much does an XG-1295 cassette weigh?” has a definite answer. The objective qualities of a bike, a part, an accessory, or an article of clothing often inform our subjective experience of it, but they don’t always tell the whole story. To be a cyclist is to be in an eternal state of trying to reconcile the two.
At first glance, the question of “What is the ideal distance for a bike ride?” would appear to be entirely subjective and thus unanswerable. I mean, what are we talking about here? Road or dirt? Is it hot out, or is it cold? And what time do I have to be home? Do I have to get back to take the kids to soccer practice at 10 A.M., or can I drop them off with the grandparents and ride all day? Well, despite the seemingly open-ended nature of this question, I’ve conducted extensive research, and I’m pleased to report that it does, in fact, have a quantifiable answer.
The ideal length for a bike ride is 20 miles.
At this point, you’re no doubt indignant and demanding I show my math. No problem! First, let’s look at the length of an entire day, which is 24 hours. Now let’s say you spend seven of those hours sleeping (if you’re lucky). That leaves you with 17 hours, during which you’ve got to work, eat, rest, tend to your household business, care for any children or pets you may have acquired, socialize, recreate, engage in intimacy with your partner, and get caught up on Ozark—not necessarily in that particular order, and subject to varying proportions, depending on the day of the week. And somewhere in that mix, you’ve got to squeeze in a ride.
Obviously, all of the above means that, for anyone who’s not a professional cyclist, life favors shorter rides over longer ones. However, there’s also a distinct danger in taking too short a ride, because if you’re not satisfied when you return, you might be tempted to take a much longer ride the next day, thus forfeiting any time you may have saved. In this sense, a short ride can be something of a false economy, like cheap bib shorts or treating your serious medical condition with CBD. At the same time, there’s also a danger in going too long, which is that riding begets riding. The harder and farther you go, the fitter you get, and before you know it, you’re waking up at 3 A.M. to put in 75 miles before work just to maintain your base fitness. This is no way to live.
After much trial and error, and having spent periods of my life at pretty much every level of cycling form—from Did my bike magically get better somehow? to Are my hub bearings binding?—I’ve determined that 20 miles is a ride length you can easily tailor to fit any fitness scenario. If you’ve let yourself go and haven’t touched the bike for a while, 20 miles is still eminently manageable, and a few rides at that length will get you back into decent shape. While a diet of 20-mile rides may not keep you at the very pinnacle of conditioning when you’re in the best shape of your life, it’ll at least let you down gently, and should you need to target some big event in the future, you won’t have much trouble ratcheting yourself back up again.
More importantly, a 20-mile ride is elastic in that, despite being compact enough to integrate into your 17 waking hours, it gives you plenty to play with in terms of duration and intensity. Approach it in a casual fashion and it’s a leisurely two-hour spin—more than enough to clear your head. Attack it like a lioness tearing apart a zebra, and you can knock it out in a little over an hour, with your legs burning from start to finish. Either way, you can work a 20-mile ride into even the busiest schedule on a regular basis, and you’ll still have plenty of energy left to deal with the rest of your day. Twenty miles is long enough to justify putting on all that Lycra, yet it’s short enough to do in sneakers and jorts. Even if the weather sucks, you can still suck it up for 20 miles. There’s no need to stop during a 20-mile ride, but it’s also perfectly reasonable to sit down for a coffee at the turnaround point. And if you have the time and you’re so inclined, you can configure it into something pretty burly: do it all off-road, or stack it full of climbing, and you’ve got a ride much bigger than the sum of its miles.
Naturally, not all rides should be 20 miles. A quick spin around the neighborhood can be as delightful as a sonnet, and a triple-digit expedition can be cathartic. But neither length is well suited to being the mainstay of your cycling diet. The 20-mile ride is to the cyclist what the “tight five” is to the comedian, or the sandwich is to lunch. Put it together right and it’s always enough.