Like you, we were glued to our screens until the early hours during the Rio Olympics, watching record-breaking TeamGB and their ravenous appetite for gold medals. In the Velodrome particularly there were some truly inspirational performances, not least from Laura Trott and Jason Kenny. Like you, it made us want to get straight on a bike.
Our bike sales since Rio have increased by 61% compared to the same period in 2015, and sportive bikes have been immensely popular – sales are up 85% on last year.
If you are new to the party – welcome, we hope you get as much out of cycling as we have over the years. If you’re not, what are you waiting for?
Since we’re not just about selling bikes, but also helping you get the most out of cycling, this is our complete guide to sportives. From what you need to enter, to how you need to train and what events you should consider, we’ve got it all here.
What are Sportives?
Sportives are mass-participation cycling events, and although there is always a competitive element, riders are looking at their own times rather than racing specific individuals on the road.
To understand the difference between a cycling race and a sportive, think of a running comparison. In a fun run, there are simply too many competitors for it to be classed as a race, so rather than competing against one another, they’re competing with themselves, trying to achieve their best possible time over the distance.
Why do them?
For those looking to make the step up from long bike rides and work commutes to proper, physically demanding cycling events, sportives are a great place to start. There are usually three distance options to choose from, and the friendly faces you meet along the way make every inch of torturous inclines well worth it.
Sportives take place on pre-planned routes up and down the country, with varying challenges on offer depending on the length of the course and the difficulty of the route. So it should be easy to find one that suits your level, and you don’t have to worry about planning your route or getting lost during the event.
What do you need?
Sportive-specific bikes might not look especially different from regular racing bikes, but there are subtle differences to benefit the rider. Weight is still kept low – any weight you carry you have to carry up all those hills – but it’s not as strict as on racing bikes, as a few concessions can be made to suit an endurance race.
The overall shape of the sportive bike frame typically has a more relaxed geometry, making it more comfortable when spending long periods of time in the saddle. The relaxed geometry makes a longer wheelbase for stability, while bringing the handlebars closer and higher so the rider is less extended.
Exactly what geometry is best for you depends on your height and what you find to be a comfortable position – you can find out more detail about bike geometry in our blog, and check out our range of sportive bikes here.
A sportive bike also uses the same tyres of that of a road bike, meaning if you have more than one bike in your garden shed, you can swap and change the tyres depending on the events you’ve got coming up.
First of all, you’ll need a helmet. If you only get one piece of kit, it needs to be this – organised sportives simply won’t let you participate without one.
Specialist cycling shoes are also a must-have, although it’s fine if you’d rather make a steady transition from riding in cages to being fully strapped if you’re just starting out.
One thing that’s worth bearing in mind however is that even the slightest movement of your foot on a bike pedal can impact the way in which the power is transferred from your leg, through the pedals and into the wheels.
Do this once and you compromise your speed at that time, but do this over a whole race and you are making things a lot, lot harder than they need to be. Cycling shoes anchor to the pedals of a sportive bike in a way designed to transfer your leg power to the pedals in the ideal fashion. Trust us: once you try them you will see how much easier it is to accelerate.
As for clothing, specialist cycling attire with modern, man-made materials is the way to go. You can feasibly complete a sportive in a cotton T-shirt and shorts, but cotton retains your sweat, which will leave you feeling clammy, cold and weighed down.
Cycling jerseys should be on all riders’ shopping lists, not only because they come with specially designed pockets for storing food and essential accessories, but because the synthetic materials are designed with comfort and endurance in mind.
Padded shorts are a must-have too, although for those that don’t quite have the funds to invest straight away, a tub of Chamois Cream will certainly help to cure any aches and pains.
While you may see Tour de France riders in just Lycra shorts and a zip-necked Lycra riding shirt, in Britain you’ll need a few more clothing options. Being exposed to wind or rain will leave you feeling cold, which can have a debilitating effect on muscle performance.
In changeable conditions, a combination of a short-sleeved cycling shirt and arm warmers or gloves, along with cycling shorts and leg warmers, will give you options. In colder weather, full-length cycling shirts and trousers may be a better bet.
Modern cycling jackets come with windproof fronts and breathable backs. This is important as windbreakers keep air out but therefore also lock sweat in. Trapped sweat cools you down and can leave you feeling cold. If rain is expected, a thin but waterproof rain cape will keep you mostly dry. The great thing about these is that they can easily be folded up, which makes them extremely easy to transport.
Whatever you decide is the best approach on the given day of your sportive, remember that layering allows you to take off clothes when you get too warm during the ride, but you can’t magic up clothes you don’t have if you get too cold.
You’ll want to carry plenty of liquid on a sportive, so make sure your bike has a couple of bottle cages added to the frame.
Aside from refreshments (more on in-sportive food and nutrition shortly), you’ll want to carry only the bare essentials with you. A small seat-post bag could carry a puncture repair kit, but repairing a puncture is time-consuming and fiddly, and not something you really want to do by the side of the road during a race, possibly in the rain.
Instead, use a seat-post or top-tube bag to carry two spare inner tubes and some tyre levers. If you get more than two punctures you may just have to accept that it has not been your day and put it down to experience! Make sure you practice using your tyre levers at home, so you know exactly what you’re doing should you get a puncture during your ride. Oh, and don’t forget the pump!
A sportive is more than just a long bike ride and although tackling one doesn’t demand the same level of fitness as a cross country or race event, there are a few things to consider before signing up. Even if you’re used to exercise, you still need to get your body used to using the particular muscles associated with cycling, and spending long periods in a cycling position.
Food and nutrition
Our bodies can burn both fats and carbohydrates to generate the energy needed to exercise, but carbohydrates are a far better fuel. Carbohydrates are the petrol in your engine.
As it’s unlikely that you’ll be going on long training rides every day – particularly as you’re just starting to build up your riding capability – you need to make sure that your intake of carbohydrate matches your training. Too much carbohydrate in our diets – i.e. carbohydrate fuel that doesn’t get burned – can disrupt our blood sugar levels, leading to energy fluctuations and mood swings, and cause us to gain excess body weight.
A sensible serving of carbohydrates for a regular meal is about the size of a clenched fist, but before big rides, you can up this to about 50% of your total plate. This is called ‘carb-loading’. While our bodies cannot store huge amount of carbohydrates, you can top up your stores to give yourself the maximum amount of fuel for your big ride.
Good sources of carbohydrate include rice, pasta and bread, but the wholegrain versions of each are better for you and provide a better, steadier carbohydrate release.
While carbs provide the fuel, protein helps you not only build muscle, but repair muscle that gets damaged when you do strenuous exercise. So balance your carbohydrate intake with lean protein-rich foods such as chicken, turkey and fish. You may want to supplement your protein intake with protein shakes or bars.
Everyone is different, and by paying attention to what you eat, keeping everything in appropriate moderation and assessing the impact your food has on your energy levels during training rides, you’ll be able to work out what the best food intake plan is for you.
As you approach the sportive, you can take on a very specific nutrition regime that extends into the race itself. We linked up with Annie Simpson, a nutrition expert from OTE Sports, to provide a detailed pre-, post- and during-race nutrition plan for a 100-mile sportive. You can find that detailed guide here.
Unsurprisingly, the best exercises for inexperienced cyclists focus on the legs – squats and deadlifts, building in intensity, will add necessary strength to your legs so that those first long rides are possible. These exercises can also provide you with ways to keep your training going during those short evening slots when you’re not able to get out on your bike. British Cycling has a useful video guide on the right squats and dead lifts available here.
Once you’re able to tackle longer rides, the best way to prepare for a sportive is simply to ride your bike regularly. Start with shorter, more sedate routes, and slowly build up to more challenging hills – steeper and longer, then add in more hill frequency. Ultimately, you should study the route of your planned sportive – the event website will have this – and try to start tackling similar hills on your training routes. National Cycle Networks will help you find a list of cycling routes in your area.
For those running short on time, why not try extending your commute or investing in a turbo trainer (below) to help you get the most out of your new found love for cycling?
Join a Riding club
A sportive isn’t a personal thing and being part of a riding club can really help you prepare in the best possible way. Riding with others can enable riders to get all sorts of tips and advice, while any long training rides become more of a social event than a mundane workout.
There are over 1,500 UK-based cycling clubs registered with British Cycling, or you can use a site such as RideSocial.co.uk to look for other cyclists in your area.
Or why not start your own club? If you commute daily to work by bike, and are looking to make the step up to a sportive, are there any colleagues who are up for the same challenge? Having peers who are of a similar experience level striving towards the same goal can really spur you on, help maintain interest and training intensity, and make it more fun and rewarding too.
Events for you to ride
The Isle of Wight is a fantastic place to ride a bike, with beautiful scenery and rolling hills galore. The annual Randonnee on the island offers both 55km and 100km routes, making it a suitable event for beginners and more experienced riders alike.
For something a little different, the Lincoln Grand Prix Sportive may seem like easy going over the famously-flat Lincolnshire countryside, but there is an almighty challenge presented by the city of Lincoln itself – a climb up winding, narrow cobbled streets approaching inclines of 20% is definitely an unusual way to end an endurance event. All riders are catered for with routes of between 33 and 102 miles available.
For the more experienced rider, each year the organisers of the Tour de Yorkshire give amateurs the chance to tackle the same final stretch of course as the pros do on the last day of the race. The course changes each year but will undoubtedly be a challenging one.
At the far end of the scale, perhaps the ultimate sportive test found on these shores is the mid-Wales ‘Monster’. Nearly 200km with a seemingly never-ending number of huge climbs over ten hours, up to a third of the 100-rider field have been known to fail to finish. Not for the faint-hearted.
Whatever level you’re at, or want to get to, the huge number of sportives and led rides around the country means you’re sure to find something to aim for.
British Cycling can help you find your ideal sportive with their event finder, then the rest is up to you. Best of luck!