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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

Cycle Sportives: A Safe Haven

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

road cycling
The face of seeing a steep, long hill ahead.

Cycle sportives, the only place I have felt safe cycling long distances in preparation for Iron Man. They take the pressure off having to focus on direction and distance as a solo rider. No more following Google maps, no more trying to guess how far you have covered and no more getting into a flap as you think you have taken a wrong turn.

After trying to cycle around Kent on my own numerous times and getting lost, getting scared or getting bored I would always cut my longer weekly cycles down drastically. This was of course no good as I was nowhere near being able to cycle the 110 miles needed for Iron Man. Therefore, I decided to look into cycling in groups, not overly ideal as I was a beginner and a lot of large groups were experienced cyclists that would take off and leave me for dust. In addition, I would need to learn to cycle on my own for Iron Man to an extent.

This led me back to sportives, "races" similar to the one I completed with a friend back in November 2017. They are usually laid-back, well-marked cycle routes which would attract numerous cyclists from around the area to amalgamate and cycle together in small packs throughout the day. These events are perfect for the following reasons:

1- Large groups of people.

Great practice for race day where there will be a few more people than I am used to. Also, it is nice to have people around you going through the same pain, it keeps you going.

2 - You can cycle solo if need be

Yes, the mass of people around you is great, but if you want to cycle solo you can. It is what you make of it. Wanting to cycle solo for practice but also get a bit bored at mile 90? Just catch up to someone and have a chat for ten minutes. Then when you need to get back on it and crack on, you can go solo again.

3 - Food stops

SO MUCH FOOD. Do I need to say more?

4 - The laid-back feeling.

When introducing yourself to something new sometimes a laid-back feel is perfect for gradually breaking you in. They are friendly feeling events where everyone is happy to help and explain if you get stuck. No pressure and a great way to learn.

5 - Well marked routes.

This means you can relax a bit and focus on the actual cycling rather than panicking about where you are and where you are going.

6 -Help if needed from other cyclists or from the maintenance team.

So far I have not needed to call the mechanic out onto the course to save me, but it is nice to know the option is there if you need it, rather than a 10-mile walk back home carrying a bike. I have found that cyclists are very friendly and helpful people. If you stop at the side of the road most will ask you if you need help. It is nice to have the offer of help if needed.

7 - You make them as hard as you like.

Yes, there are cuts-offs, but these are usually pretty generous so everyone can finish their selected distance. Equally, if you want to tear arse around the course there is nothing stopping you. You make it as hard as you like.

8 - Variety.

There is a huge variety of distances available from 25 miles to 180 miles cycles. There are usually three distances on the day 20-30 miles (sprint), 50- 80 miles (standard) or 90 miles plus (epic). All of course with varying difficulty and elevation. Something for everyone and a great way to measure improvement, by working your way up the ranks.

9 - Exposure.

Avoiding obstacles such as a large town, a busy roundabout or a mammoth hill is no longer an option. Sign up for a sportive and there is no way out. You have to get on with it. You have to bite the bullet and tackle the scary roundabout head-on or get your legs pumping and get to the top of the hill, no excuses, it's the route so you are doing it!

10 - Change of Scenery

It can become a little boring cycling the same routes near home over and over. The vast number of sportives over the country means you can challenge yourself in new environments and see some of the UK you might never have seen before.

11 - Learning

The majority of people at these things are avid, experienced cyclists. They have stories, they have trinkets of information so you will be inundated with a lot of very useful information. Just watching these people cycle will also prove to be a huge help. It is not until you see someone cycling properly that you realise how rubbish you really are.

Here are a few examples of the above coming to light from what I have experienced and why sportives are a great way to get out and about on the bike.

Sportive number 2 of 5 to date (Oxfordshire):

A 60-mile sportive where everyone was particularly friendly. Optimistic about using this cycle as a gauge of where I was with my training I was excited to see how far I had come and if I found this distance easy or if I would fall by the wayside.

The first hurdle was getting over the car park rubber matting. I managed to slide over on a section as I had my cleats on, great start I was not even on the bike yet and I had hit the deck. The gentlemen in the car next to me helped me up (granted laughing). Thankfully I was fine and we got chatting, I explained why I was doing this. The man had in fact done a half Iron Man and proceeded to tell me all about it, the training I would need to do and all the helpful tips he had as a beginner. Not a lot of this went in and I wish I had the means to take notes as a lot of it sounded very helpful but I took a few trinkets away with me to think about.

On the start line, I was struggling to get clipped into my peddles and the woman next to me explained if I cock my ankle outwards when clipping as well as out it will be easier. As a result, it was much easier. I thanked her and we were off into the beautiful countryside. I loved the first 15 miles. I demolished the hills, although they were only small, and was flying around the course making it my mission to stay in the thick of it all.

In all my newfound confidence I sailed past the first food stop as I had food and water on me to see me through to the second pit stop. 500m past the pit stop I hit a pothole and heard the dreaded sound of air leaving my front tyre. This took me by such surprise that I slammed my brakes on to stop in the middle of the road and forgot about my feet being clipped in...crash...I hit the deck.

"Are you ok?" mused a dog walker passing by

"Urm yep, I am good thank you, think I had better scrape myself off the middle of the road though!"

The tyre had not yet gone down all the way so I took a chance that it would hold up for 500m back to the pit stop and hopped on. At the food stop I went to the mechanic to be lazy and get him to sort it out for me...alas there was a rather long queue of people with much worse issues than a blown inner tube. So I got to work fixing it myself and managed no problems (improvement it would appear!) A lady sitting next to me was also fixing an inner tube, she did not seem to know what to do past taking it all apart, so I gave her a hand with her inner tubes too.

"Thank you so much it is so nice to have experienced cyclists give people like me a hand..." She gestured

"Urm I am not experienced" I replied "this is my second sportive ever, I only started to ride a bike properly in October"

"OH! Well, you seem to know what you are doing!"

Trying not to be smug/proud I gave her the tyre back to get pumped up by the mechanic. The pair of us had a quick snack and decided to cycle the next few miles together.

It was nice to have a friend for a bit, she was a very good cyclist and turns out she was a lot more experienced than she let on, having been cycling for 3 years in a competitive nature. She was pacey and I managed to keep up with her until she had another puncture. This made me sad, I was enjoying having someone to keep up with and someone to talk to, taking my mind off the numbing bum situation. We got off and she took out another inner tube, it had a rip in it (apparently inner tubes have set-by dates!?) and she had to be collected by a mechanic, I was left on my own.

Once I had cycled around the countryside of Oxfordshire for 40 miles or so the course took a decidedly alternative route along busy main roads. Adopting my approach of head down and just getting on with it I was not as scared as I had been in the past with cars speeding past me. However, we had then navigated to a right turn across an even busier road with a roundabout right turn after. I was on my own and I was a little bit worried, to say the least. I waited for a break in the unrelenting traffic, everyone speeding up as they did not want a cyclist in front of them. After being sat there for 5 minutes I got fed up and just threw myself out into the front of the cars, stopping halfway for another small break to cross completely over. "Well done Em, now the roundabout," I thought. Arriving at the roundabout I was a bit shaky. I tried to signal a right turn whilst focusing on stopping and the traffic without much luck, so for safety reasons decided two hands on the bars was the best approach, the cars could wait. Nodding my head to the right so the car behind had some vague idea of my plans I scooted around the roundabout, again cars pulling out in front to beat me to the road entrance.

A few car honks later (aimed at me) and I was off the busy roads but I was surprised by how much I did not care that people honked at me...was this why some cyclists appear so obnoxious on the roads? They are all secretly scared senseless and are in the zone of trying to stay on their bike?

Back out into the countryside and I was aware that we were due a huge hill climb back up to the finish line at any minute, stopping to have a snack and water break I eyed up the hills in the distance. "Come on dear, keep going!", three young men sped past me "You've got one hill climb then that is it" the second shouted. "It's a pretty brutal vertical one though!" Shouted the third. So on tired legs, I clipped in and made my way towards the bottom of the final climb.

Now, bear in mind this at the time was the furthest I had cycled for a long time and possibly the furthest in one day so my legs were a little bit tired and my bum a bit sore so on arriving at the bottom of the last climb and seeing it was indeed a steep monster I was a bit demoralised, however knowing that the finish line was at the top I pushed on. Head down, legs at a steady cadence I kept going, plugging on opting for standing up in my peddles every now and again at particular steep sections to stretch my legs out a bit. We all climbed and climbed, everyone, slowing down to a glacier pace.

Cars hooted at us all, some people swerved a bit into the middle of the road due to tiredness and there were a lot of demoralised people standing at the side of the road having a break. Every person I overtook spurred me not to have a break. At every turn I was expecting to see some relief to the climb but it continued to relent on getting ever steeper to the point I was standing in my peddles in the lowest gear possible and still going at a slow pace. "Help, I have no more gears left and it's getting steeper" I panicked. The man in front of me stopped suddenly and I swerved into the middle of the road to avoid him, nearly taking out a man overtaking us. "Sorry!" the stopping man shouted, "you bloody will be" muttered the man next me...not overly friendly! I plonked myself behind the rude overtaking man and followed his lead. Then he also stopped! "sorry" he took all my efforts not to reply "you bloody will be" but I was so tired I could not talk and just peddled on, and on and on.

cycling uphill
You have to laugh or you will cry

Finally a turn and a light at the end of a very long winding tunnel. With every last inch of strength employed I pushed and pushed to the top of the hill, standing up, bike swaying from side to side, determined to get to the top without stopping...and I did. If I was not so pooped I would have had a mini celebration, but instead, I puffed my way along the remaining flat roads to the finish.

This sportive forced me to get on with things, roundabouts and hills, attack them. It also helped to have people around me both to chat with and for competition. If someone was stopping I would go a bit further, if someone slowed up I would peddle a bit faster. It is hugely motivating improving and overtaking folk.

Wiggle Sportive 4 of 5 to date (South Downs):

This sportive was a bit of a leg stretch after a hard training day the day prior and consisted of 40 miles. This one all went rather well. There were no falls, no inner tube deaths and for the most part, I enjoyed myself.

40 miles felt like a very short distance compared to the previous cycles so the fitness and tolerance of time on a bike were improving. The only issue I had with this event was that no matter how many times I ate or drank water beforehand I felt shattered. In hindsight, this was due to training the day before and not having a good night's sleep. It was this event that highlighted the importance of rest and a decent sleep before an event.

Rainy cycling

This was completed with no stops at the pit stops, I just carried on, 40 miles after all is not that far compared to 90 so it all felt relatively short. It was this event that gave me some confidence that I was improving. Yes, it was a short event and yes nothing went wrong to challenge me. However, a few months ago I would have not found 40 miles easy (especially on no sleep and training the day before) and I would have stopped for food and drink all the time on the course, progression had apparently happened which is always nice.

So to anyone wondering how to get out on their bike in a safe and fun way for triathlon training I could not recommend cycling sportive more highly. They have very much been a saving grace to my cycle training and are a fantastic way to measure how much you had progressed! A great website to use to plan and book cycle (and triathlon events) is a site I have used many a time to plan my schedule.


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