Ask the Experts: A beginner's guide to sportives

Ask the Experts: A beginner's guide to sportives

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Knowledge Level: Beginner

With a packed calendar in the UK and abroad and some events selling out within minutes of entries going live, you may think the sportives, or gran fondos as they’re known in Italy and the States, have been an established part of cycling for years. However, it might surprise you to know that the first sportive, or randonnée cyclosportive to give it its full French name, was La Marmotte in 1982.

Since then the l’Etape du Tour, which gives amateurs a chance to ride a stage of the Tour de France, and other events throughout the world attract millions of participants annually and have reinvigorated cycling as a sport for all.

Sportives typically follow the routes of iconic professional races or tackle especially challenging terrain. These may be the renowned mountain passes of the Grand Tours, infamous local climbs, the notorious pavé of Northern France and Belgium or the Strada Bianca in Italy.

Although on the continent prizes are often awarded to the fastest rider and age-group winners, sportives are not races. You may have a number and be given a time and a placing but, in the UK, to avoid the stringent rules of cycle racing on public highways, you’re officially not racing. This isn’t to say that sportives aren’t competitive, riders will often cooperate in groups to gain faster times, don’t be surprised if there’s a sprint for the line or the top of a big climb and, with many events setting gold, silver and bronze time standards, every rider is in their own personal battle against the course and the clock.

Why should I do one?

If you enjoy riding a bike and are looking for a way to motivate yourself to get out more often, a sportive can provide the ideal challenge. With events ranging from 30 km to 250 km and covering flat, rolling and genuinely mountainous terrain, there’s a sportive for all levels of riding fitness and experience. They provide an unbeatable opportunity to ride amazing roads, without having to worry about route finding, knowing you’ve got feed stations and mechanical support and maybe even riding in the tyre tracks of the legends of our sport. Whether it’s a big sell-out commercial event attracting 25,000 plus riders or a small local ride with just a couple of hundred, you’ll be sharing the experience with like-minded people, enjoying the atmosphere and benefitting from safety in numbers. Finally the sense of achievement of rolling over the finish line makes all the training worthwhile and we guarantee, after finishing your first, you’ll be signing up for another straight away.

Do I need a special bike or kit?

Shorter sportives can be trained for and completed on any road worthy bike, including mountain bikes and hybrids, although we’d advise fitting slick tyres on the former. However you’ll get maximum enjoyment and be able to best fulfil your riding potential on a road bike. The key concern is that it fits properly and is comfortable to ride for long distances. Many manufacturers produce bikes with “sportive geometry” that is more relaxed and forgiving than the aggressive geometry of a racing bike. Visit your local bike shop rather than buying online and they should be able to advise you on the right bike for you and set it up correctly. For hillier sportives gearing is also an issue to consider, especially if you’re a novice or weaker rider. A compact or triple chainset and a wide ranging rear cassette will help you conquer the most arduous climbs without having to resort to walking. Your local bike shop should be able to advise if you talk to them about your experience, fitness and cycling goals. Most sportives will insist on you wearing a helmet, it’s mandatory for all riders participating in British Cycling registered events and we’d strongly recommend you wearing one whenever you ride. Some cycling specific clothing will ensure you stay comfortable on the bike no matter what the weather and you’ll also need to carry some essential tools and spares.

What should I look for in a sportive?

Look for a sportive that’s suitable for your ability and experience. The distance and terrain should be a challenge but you also want the day to be enjoyable and not too gruelling. This means preparing properly and training for a 100 km sportive should be taken as seriously as running a marathon. If you’re unsure of your ability or readiness, join some local Breeze or Sky-Rides, talk to the Ride Leaders and maybe target some shorter and flatter events as stepping stones.

You can find a full selection of UK sportives in the calendar. Listings give details of distances available, the amount of climbing, any special information and what the event offers. Try to find a sportive that really inspires you. Whether that’s a distance you’ve never completed before, it takes in a climb you want to conquer or it’s in part of the country you’ve always wanted to visit, try to make it a special day.

A handful of sportives take place on closed roads but these do tend to be very popular so you’ll need to sign up quickly. All sportives should be well way-marked and have marshals on any unclear junctions. Many sportives offer GPS files of the route and, if not, it’s often possible to find one that someone has made available on line. Check what feed stations are available and whether there’s any mechanical support. Is there secure parking at the event start/finish and any post-ride food available? Look online and in magazines for reports on events, speak to riders who’ve done them previously and try to sign up some of your mates to train and ride with.

Visit our Sportive Homepage, where you can find event news, tips and training, and a dedicated sportive events calendar that includes our newest feature British Cycling Grading to help you find your perfect event. You may even find inspiration from our Sportive Bloggers.

How to train for a sportive

Training for a sportive successfully requires following a structured training plan. This allows you to develop the necessary fitness and techniques progressively, safely and with minimum risk of injury or overtraining. The British Cycling Training Plans are designed by the same coaches and using the same philosophies and methods that have put British Cycling on top of the World. The Beginner’s Plan is ideal  if you’re a complete cycling novice, have never followed a structured training plan or its been a few years since you last turned your pedals. It’s delivered in manageable 4-week blocks and links to numerous supporting documents  including fitness testing, jargon buster, strength and flexibility routines, nutrition and equipment advice.

If you’re not already a British Cycling Member, Ride Membership is perfect for sportive riders. As well as a wide range of retail discounts, there are a number of other key benefits including up to £10m third party liability insurance.

Riding a successful sportive

Riding a successful sportive fundamentally boils down to three area. Training, pacing and fuelling. If you follow the British Cycling Training Plan, you’ll address all three, as well as learning key bike handling skills, as you work through the plan. You’ll build cycling fitness, learn how to use feedback such as heart rate and cadence to monitor intensity and with advice from top experts, such as Nigel Mitchell, Great Britain Cycling Team and Team Sky nutritionist, learn how to eat properly before, during and after your rides. You’ll also find invaluable advice on pre-event logistical planning, learned from working with the World’s top cyclists and coaches, that’ll mean you have a stress free passage to the start line and can focus 100% on your ride.

Essential sportive skills and etiquette

For many riders, who train predominately on their own or in small groups, being on the road with hundreds, or even thousands of other riders, can be overwhelming and intimidating. There’s plenty of great advice on group riding and, to gain more group riding experience, joining a club is an excellent idea.

Sportives are a fun and relaxed way for you to enjoy cycling great routes in the company of like minded individuals. Become aware of the do’s and don’ts and sportive etiquette to make them safer and enjoyable for all. 

Foreign sportives

There are few cycling experiences to beat taking part in one of the big continental sportives such as the Etape, the Marmotte, the Tour of Flanders or the Gran Fondo Stelvio Santini. The atmosphere is incredible, whole towns come out to cheer you along the road and the feed stations have to be seen to be believed. There are many companies offering complete packages, including race entry but, especially if you’re a member of a club, travelling independently or with a few friends gives you greater flexibility. If you’re flying with your bike take care to pack it properly and be sure to check that your travel insurance covers cycling events just in case you have or cause an accident.

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