Road Cycling

How to approach your first sportive

Teetering on the edge of signing up to a sportive? Worried about what to expect? We’ve all been there, but don’t worry – they’re not as scary as you think.

Editor Kirsty shares her first-ever experience of a sportive, proving they’re wonderful events for everyone. From novices right through to experienced riders, there’s something for everyone to enjoy!

The road to sportives via LEJOG

Kirsty and Gavin. Sunglasses: model’s own

Gavin and I got into sportives as preparation to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats (LEJOG).

Once I’d set a target of August 2011 to ride LEJOG and coaxed the family to get involved, it was time to step up the training. I left my dad and brother to their own devices as they were already avid cyclists and lived in areas that were conducive to long training rides.

It was a different story for my other half and me. Not only did we live in London, but before meeting me, Gavin was more interested in surfing and snowboarding than spending hours in the saddle. I was lucky that he wanted to share my hobby but I felt pressure to sort out a training regime that would enable us both be able to cycle the 900 odd miles of LEJOG.

Before we tried our hand at sportives, we had some rather interesting training rides. As Gavin was pretty fit, I assumed he would be able to manage the same mileage I could. This wasn’t the case. We once took the train to Brighton, to cycle up and down the front, but while we were pedalling along the seafront, I spotted a sign for London and suggested we ride home.

I’m from from the North East, so let’s just say my geography of the South East back then was rather sketchy. I didn’t realise that it was 65 miles from the seafront to our front door back in London. It was an unbearably hot day, we’d packed enough food for a little pootle and I didn’t have a GPS or map with me. Not exactly perfect conditions to set off on a 65-mile jaunt with a newbie tagging along.

Gavin has since bought me a map of Brighton, and many others, oh and a Garmin.

We managed to get just within the M25 when the proverbial wheels fell off. Gav bonked catastrophically. Getting back on the bikes was not an option. After finding a pub, we found a taxi company willing to pick up us and the bikes.

While waiting for the taxi, we realised that I wasn’t experienced enough to lead a route, coach Gavin and train myself all at the same time.

Sportives looked like the obvious answer. We bit the bullet after more failed rides with just the two of us, drawn by the idea of designated routes that would let us focus on just pedaling.

Our first sportive

As we had planned to ride roughly 100 miles a day on the LEJOG, I thought it was appropriate to ride a sportive of the same length. I scoured the Internet and found the 2010 Bike Blenheim Palace Sportive and signed us up for the 100-mile route. If you rode that year, you will remember the horrific weather and torrential downpours. It was one of the most difficult rides I’ve ever done, but it opened our eyes to the world of sportives.

The first thing I realised on turning up was that you didn’t need a road bike. We saw people hauling hybrids, mountain bikes and sit up and beg bikes out of their car boots. It helps immensely to have a road bike because they’re lighter and roll faster, but don’t let the lack of one put you off – just get on and do it.

Sportives are a perfect excuse to explore great British scenery. Image by M.J.S. via Flickr

It seems ridiculous to think that back then, Gavin and I were nervous about wearing Lycra among other cyclists. It wasn’t that we were embarrassed to wear it; we knew the benefits. It was more that we thought people would assume we had achieved a certain level of cycling, and then think that we were ‘all the gear and no idea’ types. This was another worry that was soon forgotten. At sportives every kind of rider is there so unless you’re making a tit of yourself, you won’t stand out.

As mentioned earlier we were drawn to sportives because they offered designated routes. When we got to Blenheim Palace we were pleasantly surprised to hear that not only did we get signs (on trees, road signs and painted on the road) and marshals but also a map of the route to give us a rough idea if we got lost.

No looking back. I thoroughly love sportives, cram in as many challenging ones as possible. Such as the Etape Pennines back in Oct 2013.

The other thing that struck me was the camaraderie between riders. Those cyclists that passed me (obviously not that many as I was riding so fast) would give me words of encouragement, much needed when I was hitting the 80-mile mark. If there was someone struggling to change a tyre, everyone passing would ask whether they needed any help. In fact, I struck up many a conversation with people that ended up cycling with me, and it really helped the miles pass by.

On the other hand, it was great to have such a range of riders to cycle with as it helped to push me. As the youngest of three, and being the only sister out of the siblings, I have a healthy competitive spirit and having faster folk around me was like dangling a carrot in front of me. As soon as someone passed me, I would churn like mad for as long as possible to keep up with them before I blew a gasket and had to down a gel to stave off the dreaded bonk.

What was most useful to Gavin and I, was that it let us each cycle at our own pace without worrying about the other. I knew that somewhere round the safety of the course Gavin would be cursing me for signing him up, but secretly enjoying it, deep down. As he wasn’t that experienced, he really needed to cycle on his own, working out the nuances of his own cycling without me breathing down his neck.

There’s no shame in getting off and walking up Hardknott Pass in the notorious Fred Whitton Sportive. Image by Paul Dobson via Flickr

When we reached the finishing line the volunteers cheered every rider like a winner, making you grin like an idiot! Before Blenheim Palace, I don’t think I’d ever cycled 100 miles on my own without my Dad or brothers, so it really felt like a momentous achievement. It was only trumped when I saw Gavin cross the finish line; never had I felt so proud of someone.

Not only had he battled the distance, he didn’t give up and did it in some of the worst conditions you could possibly cycle in. I think although it was incredibly tough, just knowing that he could cycle 100 miles in one day was such a turning point for him, something changed in his attitude towards biking after that day.

If you are teetering on the edge of signing up to a sportive go do it now. Nothing beats that feeling of finishing. The only thing I would suggest is start off on the shorter distances and build up.


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