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Surviving your first race — how to step up from sportive rider to proper competition

How to set your inner racer free

So, you’ve sportived your way around the country, you’ve Dragoned and Etaped until your legs are tired and your heart’s content. You’ve Marmoted and Fondo’d in three languages. For your next trick, then, how about road racing?

I say this because I know you want to. You pretend that sportives are races, you pretend that you’re racing when you train. So do it. 

Here’s how.

Prepare to suffer

Road races are likely to be shorter and faster than anything you have done before. Your initial perception will be that the race is going to be fast, but what you might not be prepared for is the continual sprinting out of turns.

Over the course of a race this will take its toll on you, and even the best sprinter can feel drained when the final mad dash to the line starts. One moment you might be thinking, this isn’t so bad, the next you’re hanging on for dear life.

That’s why it’s fun! In a sportive there is no pressure to stay with one group or another, to accelerate, to drive hard over climbs and such.

You’ll be experiencing this while riding at speed in a bunch, cornering a few centimetres from other riders, and wondering how much more pain you can tolerate, before tolerating some more.

Fit for it

Let’s tackle the fitness aspects. If you’ve tackled a fair few sportives your endurance will be fine, in that you can ride for an hour and a half. So the focus needs to shift away from steady long rides to the aspects of fitness that will allow you to do that 90 minutes or so at speed, with pretty continuous needs to accelerate and sprint.

I’m going to suggest three interval sessions. You can cut your steady state endurance rides down to make room for the time and effort required.

1 Slow to Fast
Find a little circuit a mile or so long with three or four corners. Ride at a comfortable pace, take the corners quite slowly then sprint out of them hard for 5 seconds or so, before dropping the pace just a little for 10 seconds, then ease back to the comfortable pace. Note that most road races are left turn only.

2 High Pains Drifter
Ride at a high pace that is barely tolerable for 30 seconds, then accelerate hard and sustain the effort for 30 seconds. Ease up and drift back to just a little below the first pace for 30 seconds, then 60 seconds seconds at the base. So you’re in effect drifting from hard, to very hard, hardish, easy, and back up through. Do this until you hate me.

3 Riveting
There will be times when the pace seems plain stupid. Get used to it by nailing yourself to the saddle for 3-4 minutes at a time – as if you’re running late for a 10-mile TT. Ride easily for 3 minutes, then go again. Do between four and eight of these efforts. This is almost enough to prepare you for those moments when you look down and you’re doing 38mph on the flat.

Now for some practical guff…

  • Pin your number on so it’s not acting like a small parachute. Putting your jersey on back to front is a good way to pin a number on while the jersey is tight. Stabbing your belly in the process doesn’t hurt that much. Remember to put it back the right way before the race.
  • Learn to take your bottle from the cage and drink and return it to the cage without looking. Use your right hand to do this because if you use the left and have to brake suddenly you may well take a trip over the handlebar.
  • Put a little sticker on your bar saying ‘drink’. It’s easy to forget when you’re chewing the stem for 30 miles.
  • Generally the pace will calm after 10-15 minutes and you may even get back onto the bunch! The pace does not slow over the top of hills, so get ready to accelerate when you want to recover – do this often enough in training and it’s less hideous in a race.
  • Don’t be afraid to shout and know what other shouts mean. Hole left, hold your line, car down, and so on – communicate what’s going on.
  • No one wants to crash into you. They might be rubbing your arse with their brake hood but that’s not an attempt to tip you off, so relax, ride smoothly and breathe big deep breaths. Don’t cause other riders to panic: hold your line in turns, don’t buzz their rear tyre and don’t swerve for every ripple in the road.
  • Do not assume that you’re not at the back of the bunch – it’s easy to let a few riders slip past and think you still have a few behind you. Then a wheel is let go and before you know it you’re riding solo on a hiding to nothing. Do NOT ask me how I know that this could happen at least twice this season .
  • Overlapping wheels happens, so just be aware that if the rider in front gets out of the saddle, their wheel will come back and also tilt.
  • If you get dropped, keep chipping away. You can join other riders, the bunch may pause for a while and you could get back on. Plus it’s good training.
  • If you know for a fact that you don’t have a decent sprint, stay away from the final sprint or you’ll be going backwards at 22mph as others are going forward at 39mph – the cause of numerous crashes.
  • Don’t be afraid to get stuck in and see if you can animate the race, but bear in mind you only have so many matches to burn.
  • If you want to move up the bunch, do it on the outside (right hand side), or very politely on the inside, but don’t expect to be given space.
  • Don’t ride on the front if you’re going to fade after 20 minutes – no one will remember it and it certainly won’t be seen as a show of strength.
  • Beware of riders in teeny ankle socks.
  • Beware that after feeling your way in a few road races you may never wish to ride a sportive again.

Dave Smith has been involved in coaching cyclists in all disciplines for more than 25 years. A former GB national and Olympic road coach, Dave has trained Tour stage winners and Olympic medallists, world champions and numerous national champions. In addition he has applied his quirky and counter intuitive thinking to help dozens of regular cyclists, polo players and F1 drivers. He rides 250 miles a week on and off-road in all weathers.

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