By Ned Suesse
I sometimes joke that I am the least fit person ever to finish Dakar. That's almost certainly false, but I am not a natural athlete by any measure, and I have learned a few techniques over the years that help me manage energy when on long rides.
The first and most important principle is learning to read your body and understand what's left in the tank. As we get more tired, our strength and response time worsen, and we tend to ride less well, leading us to use more energy, and get even more tired. I call this the death spiral, and it is absolutely critical to avoid it. Once in the death spiral, it's hard to climb out, and it's a place where injury happens and bad decisions get made.
When you sense your energy flagging, find a comfortable place to eat and drink. For me, I will lose track of my condition with the adrenaline of a tough section, and I'll realize I'm tired on an easy one- which is perfect, because it gives me a chance to take a break and get moving again when I can actually get somewhere.
Even 1 mph will get you through a tough section much faster than 0mph will. Hard sections will never end if you are not moving, so keep your helmet on and make slow, yet steady progress toward the goal. It will not get easier if you are not moving! There's no better way to prolong a miserable section than stopping in it!
Don't stop in places that are not restful. If you're hot, and you stop in the sun, you're only going to get hotter without air moving by. Keep going slow and steady until you can rest in the shade. There's nothing worse
you can do for yourself than overheat.
Nutrition is key, and it's personal. The things that work for one person, won't for another. But, general rules are to avoid simple sugars that will give a quick flash of energy (but an even deeper lull after) and make sure you get some protein in the morning. Electrolyte balance is critical, especially where you're sweating a lot, and drinks like Gatorade aren't great for replenishing them. Look into some of the tablet and pill form electrolytes, which will really help your muscles work at their best deep into a ride. And finally, bring lots of food and water. I often eat 3-4 times in a ride, and it really helps me keep focus and performance.
Always let the bike do the work. Don't lift or push unless it is absolutely necessary (and it almost never is!). The energy contained in even a cupful of gas is more calories than you have eaten today. Practice being very easy on the clutch, and you'll be amazed at where the rear wheel will push the bike. Spinning the tire is never the answer.
No matter how fast or slow you are, the last few percent of your speed use vastly more energy (and entail more risk) than the first 95%. On long rides, going slow isn't the answer, but neither is going fast. Find your comfort zone and live in it. If you have moments where you tense up or feel scared, you're going too fast. But the same can be true of going too slow- boredom leads to a loss of focus and stupid mistakes, and the bike doesn't work like it should. There's a happy medium where the suspension is working but you're not over-riding, and that should be your goal.