January is upon us. Not quite the traditional time to get into road cycling, at least in the northern hemisphere (what with the ice, snow, surprising new lake locations etc).
Still, you want to rid yourself of that pesky extra tyre. You want to get fit. You want to get out there and DO SOMETHING.
Let’s assume you have been inspired by Chris Froome, Laura Trott, Marianne Vos or Chris Horner (he says, trying to cover every potential ‘interest group’) and this year you’re going to complete your first cyclo sportive (or Gran Fondo). You’ll need a suitable bike and the Grimpeur is here to offer a few ‘words of wisdom’.
This is an (unedited!) excerpt from my forthcoming (and as yet unnamed) eBook, aimed at beginner cyclists that want to move rapidly from novice through to confident sportive finisher. It’ll be launching in early February. Sign up to my email list if you want me to let you know when it’s ready (plus, in the meantime, you’ll get my current free eBook).
UPDATE! The following post is an (unedited) excerpt from my new book, ‘Sportiveur: A Beginner’s Guide To Training For, Completing And Enjoying Your First Sportive’. If you’d like to find out more about the book, and download your copy, click here.
Right on with the show….
What Type Of Bike Do You Need To Ride A Sportive?
Any bike. Next question.
Whoa there, not so fast Tonto.
There is a line of argument that if you’re just trying out sportive riding for size, then don’t rush out to buy a road bike until you know you’ll stick with it.
This is sort of true.
If you’re already a cycle commuter (cyclo-muter – is that a word?), riding a hybrid, there’s no harm in having a go at a short-ish, flat-ish sportive on your regular steed. In this case, you’d be finding out whether sportive participation is something you enjoy. As a cyclo-muter (yes, it’s a word), I assume you’re already sold on the merits of cycling itself.
On the other hand, if your last significant cycling experience took place in childhood, and you either do not own a bike or your 2-tonne ‘full-suspension’ mountain bike lies rusting in your parents’ shed, I’d recommend taking a little more care over your choice of sportive bike.
Can’t I Just Borrow A Bike?
Yes. Providing you know someone that (i) has a bike that’s fit for sportive purpose; (ii) is prepared to lend it to you for the next 3–6 months; and (iii) is approximately the same size as you, with an equivalent level of flexibility.
It might be easier just to buy your own bike. Since it is my not-so-evil plan that the splendid endeavour of road cycling becomes a large part of your life until you pop your cleats, you’re going to need a bike (or twelve).
A Bike For Sportives
At it’s core, a bike is fundamentally a tool in the hands of a user (you, the rider). You select a tool based on the job you want it to do.
To my mind, the job of a sportive bike is to:
- carry its rider, in reasonable comfort and with good speed, over a course of up to 100 miles (and maybe more) in a single day;
- be able to deal with a riding surface that is paved but can, at times, be rough and pot-holed;
- be light enough to be ridden uphill but robust enough to stand up to the repeated use required during training.
If you focus on the job you need the bike to do, then choosing the features you need (and spotting the ones that you don’t) becomes a lot easier.
What Are The Important Features Of A Sportive Bike?
It’s all well and dandy to describe the ideal sportive bike, but it is the search for the ‘ideal [whatever] bike’ that causes cyclists around the world to spend ever-increasing amounts of cash each year at bike shops and on the internet.
For your first sportive bike, you want to know what’s important and worth spending money on, and what can be allocated to the ‘nice to have’ list for your next bike (as you’ll find out, there’s always a ‘next bike’…).
My key sportive bike characteristics, listed by importance, are:
Type of Bike
You need to go for a road bike (i.e. one with drop handlebars, skinny tyres, no suspension). You will find hybrids or mountain bikes to be too slow or too heavy (or both).
The dimensions of the bike frame are such that you can adopt a comfortable, efficient and powerful position on the bike.
I talk about bike fitting elsewhere in the book (headline message: I recommend you get a professional to fit you… er… professionally), but the two key dimensions are:
- from where you sit on the saddle to where your hands rest on the handlebars; and
- from where you sit on the saddle to where you feet attach to the pedals.
The former determines how far you have to reach and therefore the angle of your back as you lean forward. The latter determines the angle of your knees as you rotate the pedals.
Both dimensions are crucial (and why I rank ‘size’ so highly in this list). Riding in a comfortable position makes you more likely to persevere through the fatigue on event day in order to complete your sportive. It makes you more likely to complete that training ride in the driving wind and rain.
Riding position also determines how efficiently the energy that you put in to cycling is translated into forward motion on the road. You don’t need to worry about eking out every last watt of power (the units used and monitored by pro cyclists) but a good position on the bike will mean that you’re not wasting your hard-fought effort.
Most importantly, a suitable riding position reduces the chances of picking up an injury during training.
A Cautionary Tale
For most of my adult cycling ‘career’, I’ve ridden a cheap Dawes road bike. I bought it on whim when my then girlfriend (now wife, huzzah!) was buying a commuter bike. A quick test ride around the block and I deemed it good.
Seven years later, with numerous bouts of prolonged knee pain, both on and off the bike, it occurred to me to get a professional bike fit (actually I was forced to do it by readers of my blog).
It turns out that the bike was woefully mis-sized for me. The reach to the handlebars was so great that my back was angled as low as a professional cyclist.
I hadn’t even adjusted the saddle height! It was so low that my knees were almost knocking my chest at the top of the pedal stroke. No wonder I was having knee pain – my leg position was putting a huge amount of strain on the joint.
To cut a long story short (and use an unnecessary cliché), I was prescribed a new (correctly-sized) bike and a suitable riding position. Within a fortnight, virtually all my knee discomfort disappeared, both when riding and walking. It hasn’t returned.
Moral of the story: ride a bike that fits.
So the size of the frame, and the adjustments made to fit you and the bike together, are the first things you should be thinking of when buying a new bike (or borrowing from a trusting and similarly-sized friend).
Gears (And Specifically The Choice of Gear Ratios)
Bikes are sold with different combinations of chainrings and cassettes, in order to offer you a range of gears to choose from when riding.
For most people’s first road bike, the focus tends to be on cost, weight, how it looks, and the quality of the components (gears, brakes etc) rather than how the bike will do its job for the rider.
Understanding the job of the gears, and having the right selection fitted to your bike, is crucial to your enjoyment of cycling, particularly in the early stages of your training.
Why Are Gears Important For The Beginner Sportive Rider?
Sportives are endurance events. In order to complete that first 100 mile ride, you’ll be in the saddle for 6–7 hours or more. Assuming you’ve built up to a reasonable level of fitness, and you’re eating and drinking regularly through the ride, you’ll be able to maintain a steady and sustainable pace throughout.
The problems comes with the hills. Even a relatively flat sportive such as RideLondon, has two significant climbs. Some beginner cyclists are born with strong, muscular legs (or have otherwise acquired them) and are happy to grind up the hills in a high gear.
Most people, me included, would find that strategy causes their legs essentially to become useless for the rest of the ride. If your leg muscles start to cramp, (i) it’s very painful; (ii) it can require a potentially-dangerous emergency stop; and (iii) it’s possible that your day’s ride ends here.
A better option would be, where possible, to ride in as low a gear as makes sense (after all, you do want to maintain at least a sense of moving forward). This allows you to spin your pedals more rapidly, placing less strain on the muscles and instead relying on your aerobic fitness.
So my recommendation would be to go for a selection that is biased towards more lower gears than higher. Err on the side of caution when it comes to selecting your lowest gear – make attempting the steeper slopes as easy as possible for yourself.
I have lost count of how many times I’ve been delighted to have a very low gear available to me on a climb. In some cases it’s been the difference between being able to ride and having to get off an walk.
[Note From The Grimpeur: Because there are size constraints on how much information the internet can hold, let’s move on to what is less important when choosing your first sportive bike. In the book though, I deal with other important features to consider, e.g. pedals, saddle, bottle holders…]
Things Which Aren’t Important When Choosing Your First Sportive Bike
I assume you don’t have unlimited cash resources. You want to get maximum bang for your buck when buying your first sportive bike. You want the bike to work well for you, as you train for, participate in and enjoy your first sportive. For the budget-conscious cyclist, here are a few things that you shouldn’t worry too much about.
A Carbon Fibre Frame
As a novice road cyclist, I’ll assume you haven’t yet been absorbed into the church that worships handmade steel bikes.
Instead, you’re more likely to be choosing between a frame made out of aluminium alloy (which is used for most entry-level road bikes) and carbon fibre. You may be aware that the professional teams generally ride carbon fibre bikes. A bloke down the pub might have extolled the virtues of carbon because it ‘makes the bike lighter’ (what sort of pubs do you frequent?).
For the cyclist starting out on their sportive voyage, the choice of material for her first bike matters very little.
Carbon fibre frames tend to be more expensive – if you have a limited budget, you might not even be able to stretch that far. If you do find that you can afford a cheaper carbon bike, you’re likely to be comprising on more important features, such as the quality of the brakes and the gear components.
Cheaper carbon fibre, whilst marginally lighter than an equivalent alloy frame, may not be as strong or as durable. In any event, the weight of the frame comprises only a proportion of the overall weight of the bike (the wheels and components contribute a significant amount, as do you!).
Talking of weight…
Road cyclists are obsessed by weight. Particularly the weight of their bike(s).
A committed road cyclist will re-mortgage their beloved family pet if it means they can afford a new titanium bottle holder, shaving a mighty 5g off last year’s model.
For the first-time sportive rider, weight is a much lower priority concern. (Unless it’s your own weight that we’re talking about, but that’s a topic for another chapter)
You’re much better focusing on the fit of the bike and the appropriate choice of the gears. These factors will have a far greater impact on your ability to ride for longer and to be able to ride up hills than achieving a marginal reduction in weight.
You wouldn’t let the colour (or design) of a bike influence your choice of bike, would you?
(You would? Ah. Don’t worry. It happens to us all.)
Whatever your aesthetic sensibilities, let’s agree that the colour of the bike has little or no bearing on how well it performs.
But, irrespective of how far you let the look of a bike determine your buying decision, it’s worth remembering that for any new bike available now, there is likely to be a ‘last year’s version’ available for a much lower price.
You’ll want to compare the two versions carefully, but generally the frame and the components will be the same. All that will differ is the colour scheme. And we just agreed that you don’t care about that….
Grimpeur Ends Excerpt, Starts Promoting…
So there we have it. A (slightly unpolished) little bit of my eBook. If you’d like to read more, click here for information.
If you’d to receive more advice to help you prepare for and enjoy your next cyclosportive, do sign up for my email list. You’ll get free access to my Sportive Cyclists Toolbox, including my eBook: 4 Steps To Your First Long Distance Sportive.
Until next time, safe riding.