In this post I give some tips on how to select your next sportive event.
If you’ve never ridden a sportive, but you’d like to, this guide should help you select the right one to start with – one that you’ll finish, enjoy, and which can lead on to bigger and better (longer and higher) things.
This guide should also provide advice if you’ve done one or two sportives but you want to take things to the next level. I give some thoughts on how to push yourself, without going crazy…
If you’ve already done loads of sportives before, some of this may seem like teaching grandmother to suck inner tubes. Feel free to ignore if you wish, or you can always keep on reading and leave your own advice in the comments below.
The Grimpeur’s Sportive Sign Up Philosophy (Patent Not Pending)
My basic argument is that for your next sportive, you should sign up to one that is ‘appropriate’.
If you can find anyone that disagrees with this rather banal statement, then I’ll eat my helmet (my bike helmet…).
What I really mean: your next sportive needs to be suited to your ability, well organised and reasonably easy to get to and from. There is no point signing up to an event with all the enthusiasm in the world, only to find that the realities and practicalities cause you to bail at the last moment.
Choosing Your First Ever Sportive
Much of the advice that follows is relevant, even if you haven’t done a sportive before. Clearly you want the distance and amount of climbing (as well as the intensity of climbing) to be within the bounds of achievable reality.
My additional piece of advice would be to sign up for something that is deliberately well within your athletic abilities. If you’ve signed up for something a bit more challenging (the 100-mile RideLondon for instance), enter another sportive, well in advance, that is a lot shorter and more low key in terms of the logistics.
Mo Farah On A Bike
In this year’s London Marathon (where, inexplicably, the participants do not use bikes), Mo Farah ran half the race before dropping out. This was an intentional part of his process for stepping up to competing over the marathon distance. He wanted to experience the logistics of the weekend, the atmosphere of the crowd, the process of getting to the start line, all in advance of actually moving up to the marathon distance (which I guess will be in 2014).
If the sportive world seems a little alien, then you could do the same as Mo. Sign up for a short route (50–65km) and take the opportunity to experience the non-riding aspects of the day: deciding what to wear and carry on the bike; getting to the event start; registration; feed stops.
You’ll definitely finish a shorter route. You’ll be left wanting more, full of enthusiasm for your next event. You’ll have dispelled all those little uncertainties that add to the background stress when you’re participating in a more challenging sportive.
How To Select Your Next Sportive (If You’ve Already Done One)
Time for another musette of wisdom, featuring the following cliches:
- It depends;
- Go hard or go home;
- Reach for the hero inside yourself;
- You’ve got to ride on time, ride on time, you’ve got to…
My take is that deciding on your next sportive depends upon a casserole of factors, that include:
I was persuaded by the argument of another cycling blogger that in distance terms, you train up to around 70% of the ride distance and you rely on adrenaline, the crowd and sheer bloody-mindedness to get you round on the day.
This worked for me in RideLondon. My maximum ride length in the run up was around 100km. The event course was around 164km. The additional distance proved not to be a particular problem.
Following this argument, I now know I can cycle 100 miles (actually more, given the start wasn’t the real start, and I had to cycle to and from the event). If we make 100 miles my 70% distance, my new ‘max distance’ is 143 miles (229km).
The point is a little bit moot. There aren’t many 200km sportives (we’re starting to get into multi-day sportive or audax territory). But I’m no longer as concerned about 100+ mile distances, in and of themselves, hence:
Genius Idea 1: Your next sportive could be a bit longer than your last one…
Not all 100-mile events are born equal. Cycling for 100 miles entirely on closed roads, where 60% of the course is very flat, is very different from cycling 100 miles in the Alps, the Welsh mountains or the Peak District.
So for your next sportive, you could up the challenge level by tackling a course with more climbing and descent.
A handy tool I use for judging the ‘terrain intensity’ of an event is borrowed from another cycling blogger, Phil at race-pace.net. He calculates the Ride Ascent Ratio (‘RAR’) of a ride by dividing the number of vertical feet climbed by the distance covered in miles
by the number of vertical feet climbed (corrected thanks to the eagle eyes of Tim in the comments section below). This then allows Phil to classify a ride as:
- Easy/Flat (RAR of less than 40)
- Medium/Undulating (40–80)
- Hard/Hilly (80+)
In the run up to RideLondon, despite being way off in terms of my number of miles covered, I was heartened by the fact I’d calculated the course to have a RAR of just over 40, putting it right at the easy end of the ‘Medium/Undulating’ category. My regular training rides, albeit shorter, tended to be in the 80s. I’d done a few longer rides that were in the 100s.
Now clearly Rider Ascent Ratio can be a bit of a blunt tool. It makes no allowance for distance. I’d warrant that a 5 mile slog up a hill (with a RAR of 100+) is quite a lot easier than spending 6 hours and 100 miles in the RideLondon saddle (RAR of ~40). Obviously you need to use your common sense, as you employ:
Genius Idea 2: Your next sportive could involve more climbing than your last one…
Time Of Year
The considerations above are probably the two main ones in terms of characteristics that you choose to brag about.
No one (I could be wrong) says, “I’ve done a 100-mile summer sportive, now I want to step it up by doing the same distance but during that difficult-to-predict weather period at the end of the summer/start of autumn.”
But the time of year at which an event takes place is an important consideration. RideLondon would have been a lot more challenging for many people (me included) if it had been wet or (worse) windy.
A sportive that takes place in March or early April, or in October/November is likely to be run in more tiring conditions, and require more thought to be given to kit and training.
*Genius Idea 3: Enter a sportive where the weather conditions may be less favourable… (this is starting to get a little tenuous)
Undertaking a sportive in your local area makes your life easier: you know the local terrain and weather conditions; you can stay at your own house; it’ll be a short drive (or even a ride) to the start.
You waste less mental energy organising logistics (accommodation; packing for a weekend) or worrying about things (traffic; getting lost en route to the start) that are peripheral to the ride itself.
But now you’re feeling confident about the ride itself, you’ve freed up capacity to deal with those ancillary elements, allowing you to try a sportive somewhere else in the country (particularly the ‘logistically-complicated’ RideLondon, or even abroad (e.g. L’Etape or La Marmotte, bearing in mind the earlier advice about terrain!).
Genius Idea 4: Get out of your local comfort zone and sign up to a sportive in another area or country…
There are more and more sportives being organised each year. You have a huge opportunity to choose the next sportive that satisfies your own personal Goldilocks criteria (not too long, not too lumpy, not too hot…).
It strikes me that the key is to set yourself a challenge, so you feel the satisfaction afterwards, but not so extreme that you lose your nerve in the run up to the event. Each sportive is a step in the journey to becoming a better cyclist. Make sure that each step is an enjoyable one.
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