By calling this post “How to ride your first sportive” I’ve alienated those who don’t know what a sportive is and don’t want to find out. I’ve drawn in those who are thinking “What on earth is a sportive?” They are the types that will get lost in a day of following links on Wikipedia. I’ve also scared away many of the more hard-core cyclists who’ve already done a sportive and are thinking “wow, that Andreas is so dumb, the number is supposed to be placed at the front of the bike”. Well, I now know the number is supposed to go at the front and please stick around as I’m sure you can add your advice to people new to this at the end of the post.
So what is a sportive? It’s an organised (or disorganised) cycling event covering a short (10 mile) or long distance (100+ miles). Most are organised purely for the joy of taking part and finishing. Others are about the competitiveness. If you like riding your bike, you’ll enjoy one.
Last weekend, I rode the London Revolution. An incredibly well organised ride around the outskirts of London. Hence, I thought now would be the perfect time to write this post while things are still fresh in my mind and in my painful legs.
What is it like to ride a sportive?
Let’s use the London Revolution as an example. It’s a 180 mile bike ride spread over two days. You also have the option of joining for just the first or second half.
You’ll be allocated a starting point and time. When you arrive you’ll be given some safety advice and instructions on following the directions. If you are lucky then the ride will be well signposted. Otherwise, you may have to use a turn-by-turn direction sheet or a GPS file.
That’s when the cycling begins. Ask five cyclists what they love about riding a sportive and you’ll get five different answers. For some it’s the challenge, for others the scenery. For me, it’s for the feeling you get after you’ve completed a 100 mile ride. A feeling of complete calm with a mind empty of all day to day worries.
Where can I find a good sportive to try?
Do I need to train?
Yes and no. I estimate that I ride daily in London an average distance of around 10 miles. I found the 100 miles in one go (with 2 stops) tough but doable. Ideally, I would have built up my training a little more by completing longer rides of 25-30 miles in the months running up to the ride.
What will I need?
Here’s a useful checklist for you:
- Bike: Ideally a road bike, cyclocross, audax or touring bike. However, a couple of people joked about how they were overtaken by a Brompton on the 100 mile sportive. Whilst a road bike is expensive, it’s light and efficient with a comfortable riding position (once you get used to it). The other option is to rent one off a company such as Totally Bikes. We’ve published a list of companies that rent bicycles in London.
- Cleats: You’ll be happy you chose the clip-in pedals and shoes when you hit the hills. This will essentially boost your performance as you are pulling on the upturn of the crank but you are also pushing down against a wider area thus transferring your power more efficiently. If you’ve not tried them before, I recommend trial runs somewhere where when you fall, you won’t hurt yourself. This isn’t essential – I’ve seen cyclists ride with all kinds of pedals.
- Bottles + Bottle cages: A couple of bottles strapped to your bicycle will mean you don’t need to stop to have a drink. Frequent stopping and starting will kill your pace. A note of caution though: Don’t attempt to reach for your bottle as you are powering around a corner. The results can be disastrous.
- Helmet: Most sportive organisers have made this compulsory. Whilst I’m very pro-choice, I really believe in the virtues of a helmet on a fast sportive where there can be dangers of loose gravel, potholes and badly trained drivers.
- Saddle bag: A saddle bag is great for storing the bits you’ll need for the sportive.
- Puncture repair kit, tyre levers, mini-pump, spare inner tubes and a multitool should be kept in a saddle bag.
- Cycling jersey: One with pockets at the back will allow you to stuff a few energy bars, gels and a banana that you can reach without stopping along the sportive.
- Fingerless gloves: Riding over such a long distance can be painful to your hands. Especially as the UK’s roads are generally not that well maintained. A pair of gloves can really help out.
- Cycling shorts: The lycra shorts you see with padding at the back will keep you riding for longer.
- Waterproof jacket: Ideally you should have a waterproof jacket stuffed away. This can be wrapped up and placed under the saddle.
- Chamois cream/Vaseline: Your private regions will appreciate!
- Bike computer: Something along the lines of a Garmin Edge 200 will help you set a pace and see how far along the ride you are. If you’ve got the money then the Garmin Edge 800 will also show you the route. Alternatively, you could mount your mobile phone to your bike using something such as the Tigra bike mount.
Tips for riding your first sportive
I’d recommend against a backpack. The added weight on your back isn’t comfortable. I made the error of riding with a messenger bag and that created all sorts of pain along my sides and back. If you do wish to carry more gear such as a camera, then a pack such as the Deuter will keep you comfortable and allow you easy reach to the pockets. On organised rides such as the London Revolution you can bring a bag that will be delivered to the finishing line.
Ride carefully! There are dangers to cycling at speed. A bit of loose gravel can send you flying off your bike. Keep an eye out for potholes, bad drivers and loose gravel and be especially careful around corners. The usual safe cycling tips apply, whereby you should give yourself some clearance from the side of the road and only allow a car to overtake when you feel comfortable doing so. Even if that will cause some drivers to honk.
Pace yourself. The ride is long so there’s no point powering ahead at the beginning to lose strength later on. Choose a comfortable pace.
Join up. You are around 15-20% more efficient when you are riding behind another cyclist or in a bunch. If you are riding with a friend then take turns in being at the front. Otherwise, join up with other people on the ride. You’ll find most sportive riders are really friendly and happy to have a riding partner as long as you can keep up with their pace.
Don’t stop too often. It’s worth sticking it out until allocated pit stops as stopping and starting will make you more tired in the long run.
Read up on the literature. When you pay for a sportive, you’ll generally get quite a bit of literature in your inbox and on the rides website. Make sure you read through. It will give you useful details such as what will be supplied by the organiser.
Little and often. You should stay hydrated and take the occasional energy bar or gel.
Anything I’ve missed? Any questions? Comments below!
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.