For most of us riding in a large well organised sportive in the French or Italian Alps is about as close to feeling like a professional cyclist as we are ever going to experience. With superb organisation, fancy starting and finishing set ups, spectators, motor cycle outriders, rolling road closures and incredible roads and scenery, this experience should be on every cyclist’s bucket list. Here are a list of tips for your first cyclo-sportive which I have learnt almost always the hard way!
1. Organise your medical certificate well in advance
In Europe a medical certificate is mandatory for participation and you will need to present it when you register for the event. In your home country your family doctor may well not be familiar with issuing such certificates and when you take your appointment to go through this formality with your doctor you many suddenly find yourself subjected to all sorts of tests and your medical history probed like never before. So organise this appointment with your doctor well in advance (at least a month) so all these issues can be resolved and the certificate issued in good time. Then don’t forget to bring it and a photocopy with you to your event! I managed to turn up at an event with an out of date medical certificate which resulted in my unofficial participation (i.e. no numbers or timing chips). As luck would have it I found myself in the winning break of two with 8km to go. Unfortunately the officials spotted my lack of number and ejected me from the break… leaving the other guy to take all the glory!
2. Register the day before the event
It is a lot less stressful to register for the sportive the day before the event than on the morning itself. This means you don’t need to worry about queuing on the day, you can get all the set-up such as number pinning etc done the night before and you can concentrate on the important stuff on the day, such as making sure you have been to the toilet and eating plenty!
3. Bring lots of safety pins
You will probably be required to wear a race number for the event which you will have to attach to your cycling jersey with safety pins. These are not always supplied or you may be given 4 pins which I find is not enough. I generally use 8 safety pins to ensure my number is firmly attached and also will not billow out and act as a parachute as I ride. Use 4 pins at the corners and then the remaining pins mid way down each side of the number. Its very fiddly, so watch those fingers and make sure you can haven’t pinned your jersey pockets shut!
4. Make your bike number aero
Many sportives require you to display a number on the front of your bike. This is often a large rigid piece of plastic that offers about the maximum wind resistance possible when attached in the official manner. This undoes all the benefits of your expensive aero bike and helmet! So it pays to be a bit creative when attaching this number to make it at least a bit more aero. Options I have seen and tried include trimming off all the excess plastic so only the number is displayed and/or wrapping the number around the head tube rather than attaching it to the handlebars. Be careful when trimming if your timing chip is part of the number! Also remember you won’t be allowed to do this officially but unless you expect to win this is unlikely to be a problem!
5. Only carry as many bottles as you need
It could be hot and you will need to drink a lot, however if you intend to use the feed stations on the course you will also have plenty of opportunities to fill your bottles. There is nothing more annoying than finding you have carried an extra kilo of water all day when you have spent a fortune shaving every gram off your bike (and perhaps even dieting to lose a few kilos yourself!). I find one large water bottle is usually enough but you must take into account your own levels of water consumption and the conditions on the day! Also if you take water bottles that you aren’t too attached to then you can ditch one at a feed station if it is proving to be superfluous to requirements.
6. Be psyched and ready at the start, for many this is a race!
In Europe cyclo-sportives are ridden as races by many of the participants so be ready when you cross the start line for the initial pace to be very high and the group riding to be intense. If you aren’t comfortable riding fast in a large group then you need to start towards the back and ride carefully in a straight line (don’t wobble or swerve around) while the faster riders come past you in the initial kilometers. Bear in mind that you don’t want to be riding on your own as this will involve a much longer and more tiring day so early in the event, find a group that is riding at a comfortable pace for you and try to stick with them for the day. You may even find yourself riding with a group of local ex-pros and celebrities as my wife once did!
7. Make the most of riding in a group
For most of the sportive you will be riding surrounded by other riders. You can save yourself a huge amount of energy if you ride efficiently and safely in a group making the most of the drafting available. This is best practiced at home in advance with your mates in a small group before doing it at speed in a very large group at the start of a sportive. Try to spot strong experienced riders (generally a bit wizened and very tanned) and get on their wheel because they will keep a steady pace and move around the group smoothly without sudden braking or direction changes. You can also make yourself popular within your group on the road by riding smoothly yourself (no sudden braking or swerving), holding a steady line around corners leaving space for the riders around you and also occasionally taking your turn at the front. However, don’t do too much work on the front for at least the first half of the event. Save the heroics for the end when you’ll know if you have the legs for it!
8. Arrive early at the start
There will probably be a lot of participants in the event, perhaps even in the thousands. Sometimes there are starting pens to segregate the start into more manageable blocks of roughly similar abilities. More commonly there are only two blocks. One with local heroes, dignitaries and mates of the organisers etc, then a block for everyone else which will be very large. At the start you will generally have to work your way through a narrow gate where a huge bottleneck will form. It’s key to be near the front of your block so you aren’t immediately 20 minutes down on the front of your group. So get to the start line 40-30 minutes before the official start time and hang around at or near the front of your block. Make sure you have already been to the toilet before this point!
9. Get set up with the right gear ratios
Ignore whatever your mates have told you and/or you may have read on the forums. Using the right gears is not a question of your man/womanhood and just because you can get away with your current gearing set up on your local 1-2km 10-12% climbs, does not mean these will work for you on 10-20km alpine climbs. Think low – a compact double chainset (50-34 tooth) and at least a 28 or 30 tooth largest rear sprocket. Make sure you have ridden this set-up before the event so it is all working smoothly and you won’t have to be dealing with mechanical issues on the day.
10. What to carry
There are a minimum number of items you need to take with you on the day and I wouldn’t take anything else unless absolutely necessary. These need to be as small, light and portable as possible. The required items are mobile phone, personal ID (e.g. driving licence), emergency contact details, cash (notes obviously!), lightweight jacket, spare inner tube, puncture repair kit, pump/inflator, basic mini-tool, energy bars, gels and 4-6 electrolyte tablets (e.g. Nunn tabs to add to water bottles filled during the event).
Armed with these tips you should at least not make some of the fundamental errors I have made and be in a position to enjoy a fantastic day out that you will remember for life. It goes without saying you’ll also need to do a bit of training too before you arrive on the start line but we can talk about that another time!