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8 ways to get the best out of a sportive: top tips to get you through your first cycling event smoothly

Whether you're aiming for performance or just a great day on the bike, these tricks and techniques will help

Riding your first sportive or organised cycling event now these kind of things are allowed again? Here are some top tips from the team to help you get through your first sportive smoothly and ensure you enjoy the ride. 

> ​The stuff they don't tell you about sportives

1. Pace yourself

Don’t go off too fast at the start. It's very easy to get excited and set off too fast, we know we've been there and done it ourselves. Instead set yourself a realistic speed goal and stick to it, and try and find other people riding at a similar pace and ride with them. 

This is especially important if it’s your first sportive. It’s better to finish with a smile on your face and feel you could have ridden faster, than push too hard and struggle to get round. Once you’ve successfully completed your first event you can start entering more and increasing your pace as your confidence and fitness improves. 

Sportives can bring out the competitive element in some people, but remember, it's not a race. There are always a few who go off in a hurry at the start and it can be tempting to chase them, but you can risk going too deep into your energy reserve and risk bonking well before the finish. Ignore them and ride sensibly at your own pace, and you’ll probably find you overtake those early pace setters later in the ride. Trust us, that happens all the time. 

Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100 - riders passing a mill

2. Be prepared

This is the UK and, as if you need reminding, the weather and road conditions can be very unpredictable. Sportives usually start early in the morning so it can be a chilly few miles with cold legs so ensure you wrap up to stay warm at the beginning of the ride. It’s a sensible idea to wear clothing that allows you to adapt to changeable weather conditions, and packing a lightweight gilet or waterproof jacket might be a smart option if the forecast isn’t looking great. Hilly sportives can be difficult to dress for; you get hot on the way up, and cold on the way down, so an extra layer you can easily remove as needed might work for you.

As well as clothing, it pays to be mechanically prepared as well. While some sportives do offer mechanical assistance, it’s best to be prepared and able to carry out the basic repair jobs yourself. So carry at least two spare tubes, tyre levers if you need them and some repair patches, and a mini pump. Most of those bits will fit inside a small saddle pack and the pump can go in a jersey pocket or be attached to the frame with a bracket. A decent multitool with a chain tool is an essential as well. 

Also, consider carrying some cash in case you need to buy some emergency supplies and have the phone number of the emergency contact stored on your mobile phone. 

- The best multi tools — get the right bits to fix your bike's bits

3. Eat and drink often

Most sportives have regular food and drink stops but it’s important to be prepared and take two full bottles of water or energy drink and put some food in your pockets, so you can ensure you keep your energy levels topped up during the ride. 

Keep eating, you can easily burn thousands of calories riding a long sportive. The key is to eat little and often, you want to be drinking or eating something every 15 minutes, don’t wait until you’re hungry or thirsty as it’ll be too late then. If you’re not confident about eating while riding, there's nothing wrong with stopping, just pick the right moment. The top of the climb before a descent is preferable to scoffing some food at the foot of a climb. 

- Tips for fuelling your sportive

As well as eating during the ride, ensure you get a good breakfast in before the start and preferably a few hours in advance of setting off so the body can digest the food. Porridge, muesli, toast, eggs and fruit are all good healthy choices but go with your personal preference, just be sure to lean towards as much carbohydrate as you can with a little protein. 

And when you've successfully completed the event, don't forget to have some food soon after finishing. Anything from a recovery drink to a chocolate milk drink in the immediate aftermath of the event will start the recovery process and tide you over until you can get a proper meal.

4. Bike maintenance

How to clean and lube your chain — Apply Lube

We’ve seen too many cyclists either at the start of a sportive on a few miles into the event struggling with a mechanical problem that very often is down to a lack of maintenance and preparation. It pays to ensure your bike is in fine fettle before tackling a sportive so make sure you either get it checked over by your local bike shop, or do an inspection yourself. You want to make sure nothing is worn out or about to wear out such as tyre tyres or brake pads, the chain and sprockets are clean and well oiled, and the gears are shifting correctly.

- Videos: The essential bike maintenance advice from adjusting your gears to getting the most from your brakes

- 19 of the best 2017 sportive bikes

5. Do I need to train?

That’s a question we hear often about people preparing for a sportive, and the answer is that it depends on the distance. It’s easy to be daunted by long distance sportives but most event organisers offer several route options so our advice is to start small and build up your confidence before going long, rather than getting yourself into the deep end. 

When preparing for the sportive it’s not really necessary to have been able to ride the target distance in training. If you’ve entered a 75km sportive and you can ride 45km, you’ll be just fine with the extra distance, provided you pace yourself and remember to eat. If you’ve entered a very hilly sportive and you don’t normally ride some hills, then you might want to consider adding more hills to your regular rides for preparation. 

If you do want to do some structured training then be sure to check out our six week training sessions right here.

6. Ride with friends or in a group

sunny group riding.jpg

Riding a sportive with a group of friends can make for a much more enjoyable day out than riding on your own, and you’ll also be able to share the workload and help each other out when you hit a low point or struggle on the hills. If you’re riding regularly with the same people it can really help with your pacing on a sportive as well.

Groups will and do form in sportives, from several hundred cyclists to half a dozen. Sharing the workload can certainly up your average pace and many people do ride sportives faster than they would ride a similar distance on their own, thanks to the slipstream effect and generally the motivation for keeping up with other people. 

There are a few golden rules for riding in a group and you can read all of them in our Guide to Riding in a Group. 

7. Climbing, descending and cornering skills

Sportives can pitch you against unfamiliar roads with climbs, descents and corners that you’ve never ridden before. The important thing to remember with climbs is to pace yourself and to ensure you have adequate gears for the steepest gradients. For safe descending you want to make sure your brakes and tyres are in good working condition, you want to look well ahead down the road, pick the right line, ride to the conditions and try and stay calm and relaxed. 

To help you out the three guides to cornering, descending and climbing below will help you out.

- 14 tips for better descending

- 10 top tips to becoming a better climber

- 11 tips for better cornering

PWC Yorkshire Cycle Ride (CC BY 2.0 Allan McKenzie|Flickr).jpg

8. Enjoy it

An easy one to forget this and some people seem to take riding sportives very seriously. Remember, it’s not a race, and the only person you’re competing against is yourself.

- Cycling survival — 13 beginner mistakes to avoid 

Cafe wisdom: riders offer their top sportive tips

Amongst our more experienced readers/riders, a whole lot of sportive miles have been racked up between them. Here's some useful, whimsical and sometimes controversial comments they've made about sportives in previous versions of this article... 

Grahamd said: "Consider raising funds for a charity, may help you remain motivated should the going get tougher than expected." 

Chadders said: "Watch out for richard heads who thinks its the tour de france and elbow their way past and cut you up just to get in front of you!!! Other than that enjoy it." 

Morat said: "Don't forget to eat so many gels and energy bars that you put on 4lbs during the day." 

andyp said: "Put your gel wrappers in your pocket and take them home, rather than distributing them liberally around the countryside." 

DaveE128 said: "When considering whether your gearing is ok for the steepest hills, I'd suggest ensuring that you can get up it at an efficient cadence without going too far beyond your aerobic threshold (simplest measure - can you keep talking in full sentences between breaths?) In my experience, having to grind up a hill at a low cadence can reduce your endurance and make you feel a lot worse later in the ride. I have seen a lot of people walking hills on sportives because their gearing is too high. With road cycling shoes on, that's not my idea of fun!" 

bechdan said: "Dont book an event the day after the clocks change then forget to change the clocks." 

tritecommentbot said: "Try not to shag anyone at the side of the road."

David worked on the tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes

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