Cycling down a road lined with trees

Beginners Guide to Sportives

Signed up for your first cycling sportive or just considering it?

Checkout our complete guide that will help you understand what you are getting into – and the gear you’ll be buying to train and ride it.

What are sportives

Sportives have become really popular cycling events over the last 20 years. They are mass participation events where the aim is to complete the distance rather than race. They are usually timed, so if you are competitive you can ride for a good time as well.

Riders set off in small groups – so it is your total time to complete the route you are placed on rather than first over the finishing line. Rather than competing against riders on the road, you are competing against the clock, yourself and trying to get the best time possible.

Sportives are well organised events, with fully signed routes, pit stops with water, refreshments, medical and mechanical support. A few of the larger sportives are on closed roads – but most you have to share the road with cars.

Sportives usually have a short, medium and long routes, so cater for all riders.

Why do them?

Commiting to an event is a good motivator to get you out on your bike and training. There is also a really good camaraderie amongst the other riders taking part. The routes are really well planned out and usually include local sights to see or hills to challenge you.

What kit do you need

Bike

Obvious I know! You can’t do a sportive without a bike with 2 wheels – although I guess you could try and do one on a uni-cycle! (not advised! :))

Sportives have become so popular bike manufacturers have created specific ranges of bikes to cater to the cyclists taking part.

Cannondale Synapse perfect bike for sportive events

As sportives are ridden more as endurance events, the bikes are designed with an element of comfort in mind.

This means a frame with a geometry that gives you a more upright and relaxed riding position.

If you are buying a new bike, you’ll be looking at road bikes with drop handlebars, and slick tyres. The tyre width will usually be around 28mm which is on the wider side of things that race bikes.

Wider tyres are able to be ridden at a lower pressure which will give a more comfortable ride.

Trust me – after a few hours in the saddle you’ll be very glad of this.

The gear ratios that come on sportive bikes are usually set for endurance rides which will give you easier gears to spin your legs up hills rather than having to be out of the saddle and pumping the pedals.

Budget

If you haven’t got a bike yet – you have a number of options.

Second Hand Bikes

Facebook Market Place is full of bikes for sale locally to you. You can pick up a reasonable road bike for a couple of hundred £’s. It’d likely need a proper service and a few parts (new chain, tyres etc) at your local bike shop (cost approx £200 depending on parts needed)

So you could get yourself a good bike for £400-£500.

Budget Sportive Bikes

If you are only looking at riding a single sportive event – and not committed to too much cycling after the event you’ve entered, a new bike for around £500 will do.

It’s worth getting a new bike, rather than a second hand serviced bike, as it’ll come with a guarantee from the bike shop and a free service after a couple of months. The bike will also have some resale value if you wish to sell it after.

New Sportive Bikes

If you have been bitten by the cycling bug and can see yourself continuing the training and enter more events, it may be worth investing a bit more cash in a good bike.

Generally, the more you spend – the lighter the bike and the better the components. As you get above £1000 you’ll also get carbon fibre frames as an option which will give you a more comfortable ride.

You can spend anywhere up to £6000 on a new sportive bike. This will come with electric gears, aero wheels and power meters, but once you get to around mid range bikes of £2,500 the more you spend gives you a diminishing return in terms of performance.

Kit

As with any new hobby, there is going to be a bit of an outlay in terms of kit and equipment you need. We’ll indicate what is required, nice to have and luxury.

Helmet

Required – No helmet, no ride – is often the policy of most sportive events. So even if you have a helmet, make sure you put it in the car if you are driving to your event!

Gloves

Required – Vibrations from the road surface can be hard on your wrists, elbows and shoulders. Wearing cycling gloves that have padding at the points of contact.

Gloves are also useful for wiping away sweat and also snot (urgh!) if you need to blow your nose – but doing this means you should wash your gloves every now and again! Based on this, it’s also good practice to take your gloves off at pit stops when you get food. Removing gloves and using sanitizer certainly helps stop the spread of bugs.

Cycling Shorts

Required – if you are doing a short sportive (30 miles or less) you can potentially get away without cycling shorts. But for any distance over 30 miles you will be very thankful you are wearing cycling shorts with a padded chamois.

Even if you are doing a 30 mile sportive. Once you add up the training rides and miles, a pair of cycling shorts will be a comfortable investment.

We’d also always recommend bib shorts. These have straps that go over the shoulders that help the shorts stay in the correct position and therefore the chamoix in the right place between you and your saddle.

Jersey

Required – again you could get away with just wearing a t-shirt, but if it’s hot then you are going to sweat and if it rains the t-shirt will get wet. Either way – cotton t-shirts retain the water or sweat which will leave you feeling clammy, cold and/or weighed down depending on the conditions.

Cycling tops also have three pockets at the back which are the ideal place to store spare inner tubes, other tools, snacks, and may be a rain jacket.

Base layer

Required – not all training is going to be in lovely sunshine. If you are like most cyclists you’ll also be starting your training rides relatively early in the morning. Base layers are thin, skin tight tops, that keep your core and arms warm.

Sportives also start early in the morning (unless you are doing a nighttime ride – which the same applies for anyway) so the temperature will be colder, and a base layer will help keep you warm.

As base layers are made of a thin material, if the temperature does get hotter as you ride along, it’s easy to take off and store in a back pocket of your cycling jersey.

Rain Jacket

Required – It’s going to rain at some point while you are cycling. Being wet, combined with wind, can quite quickly get you really cold. Being wet and cold affects your morale, performance and in the worst case can lead to a medical issue.

A cycling rain jacket is super thin, so it can roll up and fit in the back of one of your jersey pockets. It is designed to keep you dry, rather than warm. A consequence of keeping you dry means a rain jacket is often wind proof which can help keep you warm.

Sure you can be a fair weather cyclist and only train in the nice weather. But you cannot always guarantee nice weather once you get out riding or on the day of your sportive.

Cycling shoes

Nice to have – if you are doing a medium or long sportive, cycling shoes and clip in pedals will make you more efficient on the bike – thus saving energy with each pedal stroke.

There’s always the fear for new cyclists that they won’t be able to unclip in time when they come to a stop, but there’s an adjuster on all clip in pedals that makes it really easy to unclip. Most people pick it up within a few minutes of riding.

The ultimate truth is – all cyclists have, or have nearly fallen over because they haven’t been able to unclip from their pedals in time. Accept this – move on, and enjoy the extra speed or distance you’ll get from more efficient pedaling.

Long Sleeve Cycling Top

Nice to have – Unless you are going out in real cold weather, you can get away with a base layer, short sleeve cycling jersey, and rain jacket in most conditions.

If you have been bitten by the cycling bug, and get out in all conditions, it won’t be long before a long sleeve cycling top will be delivered to your door by your favourite courier!

Leg warmers

Nice to have – to save on buying shorts and leggings, you could buy some leg warmers. These have the advantage of turning any pair of cycling shorts into leggings and can also come off and go in your pocket once the day and you have warmed up.

Over Shoes

Nice to have – Most road cycling shoes are designed for riding in the summer and have air vents to help keep your feet cool. In the Autumn, Winter and Spring – it can often be cold and wet.

Overshoes will help keep your feet warm and dry.

Once your feet get wet and cold – they’ll never get dry on the ride. Overshoes are a game changer.

Just make sure you don’t have your socks sticking out the top of your overshoes! This will mean the top of your socks get wet, and the water will seep all the way down. Once you get wet socks while riding, they almost never dry out on the ride.

Glasses

Nice to have – A pair of glasses are important for a number of reasons:

  • Keep the wind out of your eye
  • Shade your eyes from the sun
  • Keep bugs and dirt out of your eyes.

Annoyingly when it’s raining I find glasses often become useless as the rain drops make it impossible to see out of them – I’m sure someone has a solution somewhere! (no I’m not trying glass wipers!)

Tools and Accessories

It’s important to be able to fix a few things on your bike should you get a mechanical breakdown while out on a ride. 

Spare inner tubes and patches

You are going to get a puncture at some point.

Practice changing inner tubes at home, to make sure you can do it when you are 30 miles from home. You will be glad you did!

Always try to carry two spare inner tubes for a couple of reasons:

1, A friend I’m riding with might have a puncture and not be prepared as you. Always good to be the super hero with a spare inner tube! Sods law if you then get a puncture down the road though! Two spares allows you to be a super hero and sort your own puncture!

2, Occasionally you might pinch the inner tube while changing it, or not find the sharp object (little bits of glass are sometimes really tricky to find) in the tyre, and your replacement inner tube will get straight down!

These are both good reasons for carrying a few puncture repair patches as well.

Tyre levers

You’ll need to get your inner tube out if you get a puncture and you do this with tyre levers. Road tyres are quite tight fitting on the wheel rims so you need decent tyre levers. Test yours out when you buy them and make sure they are strong enough to be able to get your tyre off the rim.

Mini pump

If you get a puncture you are going to need to put air back in your tyres. Some people carry a CO2 canister these days, but you only get one chance to make those work! I’m a cautious kind of guy and prefer the reliability of a mini pump and so always have one attached to my bike via the water bottle cage fitting.

Saddle bag

Pop your spare inner tubes, patches and tire levers in a saddle bag and attach it under your saddle. Leave them all in there and you’ll not need to worry about checking you have them at the start of each ride.

Mini tool

It’s good to be able to fix small mechanical mishaps on the road. Carrying a multitool can be the difference between getting home on your bike or using your phone begging your other half or friends to pick you up.

Pick a mini tool that will fit in your saddle bag, has a chain tool, and ideally tire levers. Check the allen keys that makeup the tool fit the most common bolts on your bike.

Optional Extras

Bike computer

Get real time stats such as speed, distance and even heart rate, altitude and how quickly you are pedaling (cadence).

If you simply want to record your rides on a map, Strava on your Android or iPhone will suffice. You can even buy clamps to attach your phone to your handlebars – although as phones get larger this becomes a less attractive option!

But if you want the extra stats in real time a GPS bike computer from Lezyne, Garmin or Wahoo should be on your shopping list.

Higher end bike computers also have mapping and turn by turn navigation functionality. This is great if you are unsure of training routes as you can download other peoples .gpx files and your bike computer will direct you around the ride.

Technique Essentials

Group Riding

Cycling, and especially sportives, are social events. It can take a long time to complete the course distance and the time will pass a lot more quickly if you ride within a group and chat away to other cyclists.

cyclists in a group on a road lined with trees

This also allows you to draft behind other rides. You can reduce your effort by as much as 30% by following someone closely behind. By riding on someone’s wheel you are decreasing your own drag from air resistance. If you are cycling into a head wind this will be even more important.

It also takes some time to get used to riding two abreast. While the Highway Code allows and even suggests cyclists ride two abreast, this practice does annoy car drivers. We all need to get along on the roads, so if you are riding along a narrow road or a car has been behind your group for a while, it’s helpful to move from two abreast to single file and help the car over take.

Sportives can mean anything from a few hundred to thousands of cyclists on the road. While the organisers do set groups off at intervals, a car travelling along the same route as the sportive will ultimately come across a large number of riders. This does cause some drivers to get very irate and drive dangerously. This behaviour is totally unacceptable, but as cyclists we need to be aware we are in very vulnerable positions compared to car drivers and so should ride defensively and always expect the unexpected.

It’s better to be safe and alive, than right and dead. Cycle defensively.

Climbing

Most sportives will go up some hills. When signing up you want to check the total amount of feet/metres you will be climbing on the ride as well as the total distance. Bear this in mind for your training.

Cycling up hills is all about setting a good pace and rhythm. The rhythm is defined by the cadence you set – basically how fast you spin the pedals. The pace should be comfortable and something you can maintain.

Good rhythm and pace are usually set by going uphill and remaining seated on your saddle. If you find your cadence dropping you can either get out of the saddle and pump those legs to get your bike’s speed and cadence up again, or change to an easier gear.

Climbing out of the saddle is similar to sprinting. You’ll only be able to maintain it for a short burst, so save it for either extra steep bits of a hill or when you want to get your cadence up again. You can improve the amount of time you can climb out of the saddle by doing it when you are out training.

One of the best ways to get better at climbing is weight related, either you or the bike.

A lighter bike will be more suited to going up a hill quickly, and if the rider is lighter, this will make it much easier to climb. Bare this in mind when you are questioning the value of your training or healthy eating.

Descending

What goes up must come down, and as Sportives often start and finish at the same place – you’ll have as much descending as climbing to do.

Getting down a hill at speed, while also safely, is an important skill. Most people think you can make up more time climbing, but Tour de France races have been won and lost on a descent before.

Descending and having your hands on the drops will help give you more confidence. Your fingers are in a much stronger position to brake on the drops. Your thumbs will also stop your hands coming off the bars if you were to hit a bump, which is a big concern if you descend with your hands on the brake lever hoods.

Ideally you should try and brake before a corner rather than during. This is the same as a racing car. You and your bike will feel much more stable turning the corner simply rolling, rather than trying to turn the corner and brake at the same time.

Having said that, obviously if you need to brake while in a corner as you’ve entered it too fast – do!

As much as you need to train to go up hills, you should practice down hills to help build your confidence.

Food and Nutrition

If you are doing any exercise over an hour you’ll benefit in refueling your body with carbohydrates. Your body is limited in how many carbohydrates it can store. Fats and Carbohydrates are utilized as energy during exercise, but when the exercise becomes more intense our bodies turn to carbohydrates only.

Get low on glycogen (which is what carbohydrates are converted into) and you’ll potentially bonk, hit the wall, or whatever cycling term you want to use.

Our advice is to snack often – say every hour on the hour. Have flapjacks, bananas, peanut butter and jam sandwiches readily available in your back pockets.

As you sweat your body will lose salt. Snacks such as ready salted crisps or salted peanuts are a good bet, but also an isotonic drink is a good idea. I always have two water bottles on my bike. One has plain water in, the other has water with an isotonic tablet dissolved such as OTE hydro tablets.

Energy gels give a near instant shot of energy, and caffine can help you feel more energised. A lot of people find too many energy gels can give them an upset stomach so it’s important to:

  • Try various brands and find out which one works well with your digestive system
  • Save the gels for when you really need them. Take one 10 minutes before a big climb, or with 10 miles to go to the end and you are flagging.

A mixture of real food eaten as small snacks, water, isotonic drink and the occasional gel will get you to the finish.

If you do bonk, or hit the wall – you need sugar as soon as possible. Full fat coke is good for this, or a bar of chocolate. Both of these will get your energy level back up – but remember to continue regular snacking as the sugar hit will only last so long.

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