How to ride your first sportive

Riding a sportive - number of the rider

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?

London revolution sportive riders

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?

The website www.cyclosport.org is a good place to look. We also mention a lot of upcoming London rides on our Twitter.

Do I need to train?

Bikes parked at the London revolution

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?

SIS energy bar

Here’s a useful checklist for you:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Saddle bag: A saddle bag is great for storing the bits you’ll need for the sportive.
  6. Puncture repair kit, tyre levers, mini-pump, spare inner tubes and a multitool should be kept in a saddle bag.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Cycling shorts: The lycra shorts you see with padding at the back will keep you riding for longer.
  10. Waterproof jacket: Ideally you should have a waterproof jacket stuffed away. This can be wrapped up and placed under the saddle.
  11. Chamois cream/Vaseline: Your private regions will appreciate!
  12. 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!

Join 9,241 fellow cyclists who are subscribed to the London Cyclist newsletter

Sign up for our free newsletter to get...

  • Advice on the best cycling gear
  • A Friday roundup of all the latest London cycling news
  • Exclusive content not available on the blog

Subscribe today, and get exclusive access forever! (It's free)

*No spam, ever!

As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

30 Responses to How to ride your first sportive

  1. debencyclist 21/05/2012 at 4:39 pm #

    http://debencyclist.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/suffolk-sunrise-100km/

    I think you’ve got it all covered. I did my first sportive a few days ago, the Suffolk Sunrise 100. It was brilliant and I’m keen to do it again and try to improve my time.

    I put raspberry lucozade in my bottles rather than just water and jelly beans in my bar bag for energy on the go, as you say its best not to stop too often if you can avoid it.

    • Andreas 21/05/2012 at 8:04 pm #

      Was a little worried about taking all the energy gels we were given – seems unnatural. Couple of the other riders agreed with me and followed a similar strategy to you.

      • Tim 22/05/2012 at 12:58 pm #

        I was dubious about the gels as well but tried one at 10 miles to go in the London Revolution when I hit my low point, the traffic and unexpected hills. It did seem to make a difference to the last bit of the ride. I would suggest trying out the freebies beforehand though. Without getting too graphic, if you find that one type has an unwanted effect (incredible trapped wind for example) you have time to try another brand (or not take them) rather than finding yourself on day 2 of a ride needing to constantly “deflate” :-)

        Andreas – I’d also suggest reading the information in the brown envelope that they give you at the start as I’m pretty sure the London Revolution info. told you where to put your number (although at least you don’t have embarrassing photos as a result of placing it where you did)

        All in all a really good ride though.

  2. Rupert Englander 21/05/2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Good article. I think you got all the bases covered.

    The only other thing I would say is try to make sure you get a good nights sleep before the event. It can be hard, especially if you are anxious about missing an early alarm call, but the sleep will definitely help.

    I did both days of the London Revolution and can confirm that it was a very well organised event and a lot of fun. Having done sportives in the past, this was the first back-to-back I have done and did need an extra level of training to build the endurance.

    Nice blog too by the way! :-)

    • Andreas 21/05/2012 at 8:06 pm #

      Thanks Rupert – great ride wasn’t it! Good call on the trying to not worry about the early alarm – I always do that!

  3. Barton 21/05/2012 at 6:06 pm #

    So that is what a sportive is! I was too lazy to look it up, but your article answered it for me. Thanks for letting me remain lazy and not lost in wiki-land.

    Wish we’d use that term here (US), we seem to just call them “rides” or “tours” depending on the distance (less than 50 miles seems to be a ride, more becomes a tour). Sportive definitely gives it a separation from just a group out for a weekend ride.

    I have been training for the local 100 mile Tour de Tonka (around a town called Minnetonka which is more lakes and bays than actual land). Sadly, the map just got published and now I really don’t want to do it – the 35 – 70 mile rides go in and out of the lakes and bays, the 100 mile ride simply follows the county roads and state highways through the open prairie and farmland making a big rectangle, never getting near the water. It’s pretty enough, but I ride that every weekend…..

    • Andreas 21/05/2012 at 8:07 pm #

      Interesting, thought a sportive was a US term too! The Tour de Tonka sounds good – though definitely be worth trying to just join the shorter ride by the sounds of things.

      • Montyz 25/05/2012 at 12:45 pm #

        Hi Barton – Some Sportives permit you to select a shorter ride on the day [not the other way around though], so you may be able to switch to the 70-miler, enjoy the ride and scenery and also be just a happier bunny; After all your paying for it [I assume]. Enjoy either way.

  4. Lee Bailey 21/05/2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Andreas

    Great article. I also rode London Revolution as my first “sportive”. I have always been put off in the past as Sportive sounds so serious and competitive and whilst I love cycling I am not currently fit enough to be “racing” over 100 miles in a day.

    However, having now completed one, and realise that whilst I am not the fastest I am also not the slowest and even if I was there are people there to help and support me I, will definitely be doing another.

    Whilst 185 miles over 2 days is tough the finishers at Revolution showed it is doable with a bit of training and application on the days and it was a fantastic way to spend a weekend.

    • Andreas 21/05/2012 at 8:09 pm #

      Lee – good on you mate! Think a lot of people are put off by sportives – pleased to hear your first experience was a positive one. On to the next one!

    • Michelle 21/05/2012 at 9:25 pm #

      Ditto. My first sportive too, I’d been intimidated by them in the past but this one was brilliant. And it made me push myself to a time I never realised I could do, which is also encouraging :).

  5. Andrew 21/05/2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Is a sportive different than a charity ride? I’ve never come across the term (in the U.S.).

    • Andreas 21/05/2012 at 8:48 pm #

      A sportive often has an entry fee but you don’t need to raise money for charity.

  6. Amanda O'Dell 21/05/2012 at 8:57 pm #

    What sort of speed would most riders aiming for? I’d be worried about getting left behind!

    • Giles Roadnight 21/05/2012 at 9:05 pm #

      In my experience all sorts of different speeds. Also everyone starts at different times (in my experience) so it’s in no way obvious who’s “last”.

      Check out Evans Ride It events. I’ve done a few of them and they’ve all worked out pretty well for me. They usually offer fun (15 miles), short (30 miles), medium (60 miles) and long (90 miles) so you can do a distance you’re comfortable with at yuour own pace.

      • Andreas 25/05/2012 at 4:07 pm #

        I’ve just checked my Garmin and I can see my average speed was 12.9mph for the last 25-30 miles – pretty slow but didn’t feel left behind. Hope that helps!

  7. Giles Roadnight 21/05/2012 at 9:02 pm #

    Here’s a good example of what can happen going downhill, round a corner, over gravel with cars coming the other way. Really was very scary at the time:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CdYI5Y56m0

    That was on the way back from Box Hill last weekend. I’ll be even more cautious about down hills now!

    I’m doing Kind of the Downs (short) on Sunday as practice for Nightrider and London to Brighton. Lets hope for good weather!

  8. Cameron 21/05/2012 at 11:37 pm #

    London Revolution 2012 was my first sportive too – did it with two workmates both their first time. We all loved it and would do it again. It was tough but doable with training and focus.

    We weren’t in it for the times just to experience the countryside, and feeling of being part of organised cycle event.

    The photos are up now from the photographers and every single one I am smiling even up Box Hill and the other steeper one – Gangers Hill I think.

  9. PaulR 22/05/2012 at 12:13 pm #

    I did both days of the London Revolution and (mostly) had a great time. I got knocked of my bike by an out of control mobility scooter after only 6.5 miles on the first day, but still managed to complete both days. The med team were awesome and looked after the road rash, bruising and other damage – i couln’t really walk but i could still ride :)

    I thought that the first day, although much longer in distance, was easier. Day two’s hills were hard work and I can imagine them being a real struggle for less experiened riders.

    I think they key thing to remember if you are doing your first sportive and you are not used to riding that sort of distance is that you just need to pace yourself. Don’t go off too fast and burn yourself out in the first 50 miles, as the second 50 will feel like hell. Take your time, make sure that you eat and drink enough before and during the event (often this means taking on more energy than you think you actually need).

    The Evans Ride-It sportives are great for first timers. The wide range of distances offered make them good for all experience levels, they have try-before-you-buy on gore clothing and garmins and they are usually really friendly.

  10. Cycling Alpe D'Huez 22/05/2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Hi Andreas

    That’s good advice for those who are new to sportives. The only point I’d challenge though is the one on training. You must be pretty healty and active if you can go from regular 10 mile rides to 100 miles without too many problems!

    In my experience most people training for distance events aim to complete something 2/3rds the length of the course, usually at least a week before the event (to give you time to recover fully before the big day). The last 3rd can be done on race ‘adrenalin’. It will also give you a good idea of pacing, which if you’ve never done a distance like that is very easy to get wrong.

    Maybe for your next sportive you could check out this one which starts just up the road from where I live :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Marmotte

    • Goonz 22/05/2012 at 1:47 pm #

      Its actually amazing what your body is capable of. I commute just under 100 miles a week and the most I had ever ridden in one go was 62 miles to Brighton.

      I just finished a 24hr London2Paris cycle on the weekend and surprisingly I was in the top 2 the whole way (the other guy being a brilliant mountain biker who just powered up the hills). The other guys in the group has even completed mont ventoux and the Lands end to john ogroats rides so it was not a group to be laughed at!

  11. Hop 22/05/2012 at 1:27 pm #

    Watch out using fingerless gloves on the road

    http://www.woodbridgesurfers.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/suffolk-sunrise-100-mile-road-ride.html

  12. Goonz 22/05/2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Not sure if mine is a sportive but I just finished a London2Paris 24hr cycle over the weekend. Total cycling 262 miles.

    A lot of the points you have made here hold true for what me and my colleagues did. Riding in a group or even a pair is so much easier physically and mentally.

    Always remember to have enough provisions on you at all times and pace yourself with your water and snacks. The gels should ONLY be used as a last resort and not as a regular intake. Not only are they bad on the gut and made eating anything extremely difficult the more you take the shorter their effect lasts for.

    I now appreciate the qualities of good food on the go. Bananas, cereal bars and flapjacks. Life savers. I used Lucozade sport which was ok but got rather sick of it near the end and water with a hydration powder which actually was extremely effective.

    After that you feel like you could achieve anything but I now know what I need to work more on and so will be finding some serious hills to train on.

    Andreas does your ebook contain good hills in London for training? I don’t want to travel too far out of london if I can help it.

  13. PaulR 22/05/2012 at 3:16 pm #

    Goonz, you have to get out of London to get really good hill training, but there are some decent hills in london.
    Richmond Park – the main hill on the Richmond Park loop is ok for a bit of training. Because it is on the loop you can tackly it multiple times in a short period. it’s not very long or steep, but just use a higher gear than normal so you have to work harder. Keep it in the big ring and tackle it repeatedly
    North London – you have a few good hills really close to each other north of the river, surrounding Hampstead Heath. Dartmouth Park Hill, Swain’s Lane, Highgate West Hill, Highgate Hill, whatever the hill is that goes up to Alexandra Palace and East Heath Road. None of these are that long, but some are quite steep (especially Swains Lane) so can be good hill training. Watch out for the traffic though!

  14. Goonz 22/05/2012 at 3:31 pm #

    Thanks will definitely look into those hills. Will look into buying that book in the next few weeks too and get some serious miles in over the summer.

  15. Montyz 25/05/2012 at 1:03 pm #

    Good information here. Thanks andreas et al. I have signed up to participate in the Wiggle Dragon Ride [125Km] and I’m begining to think it may have been a mistake for a first Sportive. I’ve been training for 78-miles having completed a few 50-milers comfortably [I’m lying]. However, as advised in this blog, when I read the Sprortive details thoroughly it appears that it’s 78-miles of HILLS… steep hills. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  16. Amanda O'Dell 25/05/2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Really enjoying all the comments on this post. I finally got my ‘Ride 2 Work’ voucher today so will be upgrading to something that could cope with the distance at a reasonable speed as soon as I can find something small enough (very limited range of road/cyclocross bikes for short women!) – so maybe by next summer I’ll have worked up the nerve to tackle some more serious distances ;-)

  17. stuart 05/06/2012 at 12:18 am #

    On the subject of energy gels etc., I’m a newcomer to sportives and was introduced to energy gels and the like on my first sportive. I now insist on them as I have seen a marked improvement in the levels of fatigue I suffer in the later stages of a long ride. I started using just the free samples but now purchase my own supplies from http://www.sportiveenergy.com/ . I particularly like the CNP energy gel max. It was developed with the help of British cycling and the team sky pro cycling team. If the professionals use it there must be some useful benefits from its use.

  18. Ross 07/04/2013 at 3:04 pm #

    On the subject of shoes and pedals – what would be good for entry level? I’ve seen Shimano RT81s tipped as good sportive shoes, but don’t know what to pair these up with? Single entry pedals seem harder to get into – any recommendations?

    Thanks!

    • Paul 24/04/2014 at 5:07 pm #

      Ross I got some shimano RT82 touring shoes as my first clipless pedals – these use the SPD cleats which are the mountain bike style ones as opposed to SPD-SL which are the ‘road’ ones where you can only clip out by rotating the heel outwards, whereas the SPDs you can clip out either way, although I only ever rotate outward.

      I use them with shimano a530 pedals which have the clip-in on one side and are flat on the other for normal shoes so that I don’t have to change my pedals ever. They’re really easy to get in and more importantly out of. It doesn’t matter which side of the pedal you hit first when you pull off from lights etc as you can still pedal on the flat side with the RT82 shoe as the cleat is recessed.

Leave a Reply