A beginner’s guide to cycling your first sportive (long distance)

It’s decided: this year, you will cycle with your first “sportive” – the official term used to define a non competitive (not a race) long distance cycling event, a cycling challenge over the 100km or mile mark.
Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, you probably have no idea what you are in for. This article will introduce with with humour to the wonderful world of cycling, full of MAMILs – Middle Age Men In Lycra– fanatic amateur cyclists, or, as the Oxford dictionary defines the word since its entry in 2014 “A middle-aged man who is a very keen road cyclist, typically one who rides an expensive bike and wears the type of clothing associated with professional cyclists“.
When I set myself to complete, Vatternrundan, the largest sportive in the world (30.000 participants biking a 300km loop around a lake, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Sweden), my knowledge of biking was limited to the occasional tourist exploration and the standing bike of the spinning class. In this article, I am bursting myths and whispering inadmissible secrets – this is all I wished I had known when I signed up for my first long distance race plus a few funny anecdotes about my journey from newbie to collecting enough knowledge to write this how to guide.


Table of contents:

1. How to choose your sportive
2. Cycling gear:
– Bike and Equipement
– What to wear when cycling
3. Training for your first sportive:
– Setting up a training planning
– Other tips
4. Getting ready for race day:
– Last week before the race
– Don’t show up uninformed
– Race day: getting to the finish line

How to choose your sportive

If you have decided to set yourself the challenge to ride a long distance but don’t know which one to choose, here are a few aspects worth considering:
  • Distance and technicality of the course: kilometres/miles but also elevation – is it relatively flat? are all the hills at the end? For a first sportive you may to refrain from riding the Mount Ventoux (one of the mythical Tour de France climbs)
  • Location and logistics: for a first sportive, something close to home is probably a reasonable choice. Transportation (especially flying!) will add unnecessary extra stress.This comes from the experience of some one who deliberately choose to cycle 300km in Sweden while living in London. Joy!
  • Date and climate: even if you can’t control the weather you may want t adapt to your personal preferences
  • Fun factor: this covers a variety of elements and everybody may have a different idea of what fun is (actually some would argue that a 100km/miles cycling day is not their proper definition of fun!). Consider discovering a new region, the participation of friends, the beauty of the scenery, the camaraderie or even the food served – I met some cyclists who want to race only in France or Italy to eat plenty of salami and cheese, why not!

The gear: everything you need and more

If this is your first sportive you may want to avoid to invest in a lot of expensive gear, I have reduce the list down to the must have.


Choosing the bike and other equipment

Road bike

You can cycle 200km on an hybrid bike but if the course is only going through tarmac, riding a lighter road bike will be much more enjoyable. Prices vary greatly (from $300 to thousands!) and it is difficult to say how much you should spend on a bike. My opinion is that a beginner will see little difference between a good quality entry level bike and a really expensive high tech bike.

The best thing about bike is that you can literally change all the pieces. Would you decide later on you want better gears, pedals, wheels, saddle… you can replace everything bits by bits. Mamils report that this has broken a few marriages …

The best way to buy a good bike to get advise in a bike shop – or even better, in a couple of bike shops – if you are not sure you can trust the salesman. Take your time and make sure you properly try them (a few minutes) so that you don’t buy a too big or too small bike – the frame is the only thing you cannot replace… or it is called buying a new bike! When checking prices, remember that usually pedals will not be included in the price – yes you get to choose which pedals you want, probably the last thing you want to do as a beginner but just go with the flow 🙂

In most shop, a fitting will be included when you buy your bike i.e. the shop will advise you on the best height for the handle bars, saddle etc…

Do you need clipless pedals?

Riding the Tour d’Essex (May 2016)

Clipless pedals (SPDs) will keep your shoe prisoner of the pedal, allowing better flow when pedalling therefore saving lots of energy. Many will call them indispensable for long distance races but as always it is up to you! There are different types depending if you want to focus on mountain biking, road biking or touring.

Warning: yes you will look like a clown when you walk with them and do as much noise as if you were dancing claquettes. You will also hate them the first time you try to bike with them but more on that later…

Biking shoes: Yes, uncomfortable to walk in too! The cleats will make you walk on your heel and a tap dancing noise will follow you wherever you go. Similar to the Bib shorts, once on the bike, they are actually surprisingly comfortable. You can choose different system of closing and different material. I have really appreciated my carbon shoes for being super light!

Good to know:

  • Shoes and cleats are sold separately. There are different  standards so make sure you buy shoes compatible with the cleats compatible with your pedals! I have found it easier to choose the choose and then the get the rest and to bring your equipment to the shop if you want to replace.
  • On some shoes the cleats can be moved slightly forward and backwards, allowing you to experiment to find the perfect alignment.
  • Pedals can be adjusted to make the clip-in harder or more loose. Start loose and tighten them as you gain on confidence.
  • All cleats are not equal! Different model have different degree of float, meaning they allow for more or less “flexibility” on the contact with the pedal. Especially for beginners it is recommended to go with a bit more float, this will feel comfortable and will be easier to get in and out.
  • When worn out, cleat can be replaced.

Other items:

  • Water bottle and bottle cage: hydratation is key, you may need 2 on some races.
  • Bell: mandatory on all courses
  • Helmet: mandatory on all courses – I recommend choosing one with ventilation i.e. drop the city one
  • Pocket bike pump, which can be hook to your frame.
  • Saddle bag to keep your essentials: space tube and essential tools such as multi-function tool for maintenance, glue, rustines, tyres levels. For a long distance, you may want to go for one of the bigger size, allowing you also to keep mobile phone and important documents as well as gels.

What to wear when cycling

Should I wear BIB shorts?

Probably the sexiest thing on earth after the mankini, (though some dared to complete a sportive just wearing a mankini) bib shorts are basically a lycra short with an integrated pillow for your ass and straps that make them look like dungarees.

They are really uncomfortable to walk in as you feel like you are wearing diapers -yes! And to avoid chaffing and actually taking full advantage of the “pillow” you wear them commando. You read correctly, no underwear. Now stop staring at all bikers’ crotch :-).

Despite all the negative points, I would definitely recommend them. Bibs compared to traditional shorts have the advantage of fully covering your back ( no cold wind when your tee-shirt is sticking out your shorts) and being really comfortable for the belly (no elastic waist).  You can choose between different length: full length tights, 3/4 and shorts. A note for girls: bibs were obviously invented for guys and from time to time I have found the straps a big difficult to position around the chest area. If I had to buy some today I would probably consider a pair with front straps that can be jointly clipped in the middle for comfort and convenience but that’s a personal choice…

By the way, be aware: Bib shorts or not, your ass will still hurt after a few hours on the saddle – it will just come a bit later ;-).

Other clothing items needed

  • Sport socks: choose sport socks that go a bit higher than your ankle and hold enough not to fall when pedalling – really annoying
  • Biking gloves: with reinforcement to avoid blisters. I choose mitaines gloves for their versatility and added extra pair on top covering fingers if needed.
  • Base layer and sports tee shirt or a cycling jersey if you are happy to spend the money – the only real advantage of the jersey is the possibility to store snack and other small items in the back pockets.
  • Lightweight windproof / waterproof jacket: you can use your running / hiking gear.
  • Sunglasses: if you have to ride at night, interchangeable glasses can be useful (will avoid to get dust or water in your eyes).
  • Cycling gloves: you think you don’t need some? You may reconsider when you start cycling more than a couple of hours. Choose between short finger model for warmer conditions or long gloves for colder days. Some models have loops pull them out easily when sweaty or wet (I initially thought this was a design mistake…).
  • Lights: mandatory on many races. If you have to bike through the night, spend some money on good lights, you won’t regret it! Lights are also a must for commuters to ensure you are visible in traffic.
  • Overshoes: definitely not essential on most of the race. Overshoes are basically waterproof jacket for your shoes in case of rain or cold. I bought some but didn’t pack them for the sportive, there was already so much to pack!
Safety note: avoid dark jersey or jacket especially if you ride in busy areas as you will not be seen. For commuting, a reflective long jacket and reflective gloves and helmet will make a bigger difference than you think.

Training for your sportive: one mile a time

 Before engaging in any physical activity, please consult your doctor. Tips highlighted below are things that worked for me and ned to be taken with a pinch of salt. Don’t exercise if you are tired and injured. If you feel unwell stop immediately and seek for assistance.


Set up a training planning

“To climb a mountain start at the bottom”. Having a rough plan layout on how you will build up to the race will definitely help you. It will ensure you get guidance but also will remind you of your progress!
Online training plans can be really discouraging so I would encourage to check some for inspiration but to draw out your own. A few things to consider:
  • Be honest with yourself: are you really gonna train five times a week? I have found out that 3 training sessions ( 2 shorts and a longer one on the weekend) is something more reasonable and that you can actually commit to without quitting your full time job and giving up your social life and everything else you love. You can always try to make an effort to squeeze a forth session when possible.
  • Alternate short, intervals sessions with long weekend rides. One session of each type a week is a good rule of thumb. If you have time for one more training, throw in a “crossfit” session i.e. another sport (running, swimming, yoga…)
  • Shorter sessions, intervals based are designed to improve your cardio. You will alternatively push hard and rest. Make sure there is big difference for pace between your fast and your slow.
  • Hill training will get these legs burning and help you to develop your leg power. It is not always easy to find a hill. Alternatively, train on a stationary bike and increase the resistance.
  • Endurance sessions: longer sessions both in terms of time and distance at comfortable pace. Stat where you are comfortable (1h30-2h maybe) and increase slowly the mileage in order not to destroy your body.
  • Your longest ride should at least be 2/3 of the race day distance/time. Find a local race where you could put this in action. Train in your race day set up (nutrition, clothing, try to find a loop that mimic the race day course).
  • Respect the rest days and refrain from over exercising! A rule of thumb is to increase the total weekly mileage by no more than 10% each week.
  • Plan a recovery week before the race to get all the energy you need back. This is known as “taper” week, with the general recommandation  of cuttings your distance by 2 and training really little the last 2-3 days. You are also allow to eat a LOT during that week!

Other training tips:

  • Don’t start too late! Winter is not an excuse. I have found spinning classes fantastic to get the body into shape, it makes the first rides less scary. You can really focus on giving everything without worrying about the traffic, branches or falling off your bike! It also allows you to start bit early, when the winter is not necessary over yet. Try at least two classes a week to see some improvements.
  • To make training more enjoyable, get a training partner or join a club. The later can be really intimidating but in many bigger cities you will find club sessions dedicated to newbies.
  • Train in all conditions: rain, wind, hot day. This will help you to feel ready, whatever the conditions are on the race day and test your optimal clothing combinaison for different temperatures.
  • And finally, don’t forget to have fun! Training can sometimes feel like a chore. Spice it up by changing locations, riding with friends or in a club or make your long ride an excuse to discover some new places.

Becoming a confident cyclist

In addition to actually training to manage to bike the distance a bike, here are a few other key things to learn:

  • Learning to ride with clipless shoes. Supposedly every beginner has to fall off clipped in, though this doesn’t make it less annoying. Don’t worry too much about it, you will only fall clip in if you reach a complete stop, and therefore you are unlikely to get properly injured, except a few bruises for your ego as they say if you are at a busy junction. Practise a few times on a quiet road before heading off into traffic!
  • Cycling signals and riding in a crowds. Some sportives can be a bit crowded and you may get nervous being so closely surrounded by so many bikes. A good way to become comfortable with that is to go on a few group rides.
  • How to drink on bike, as it will allow you to hydrate more regularly than if you have to stop. I personally deciding to keep eating on firm ground while having a quick rest instead of tempting a perilous balancing act but that’s a skill that many manage.
  • last but not least: learning how to repair a puncture and change a tube of course! This is a MUST if you are gonna get on a sportive and honestly and not as scary as it may sound. I have watched this video over and over again and practised a few times. I actually never had to do it myself but it felt good to know that I could somehow fix it if I had to (I only got a flat tire once and I was on my way to bike shop for my bike’s first maintenance check!).

Getting ready for the sportive

Last week before the race

This is the perfect time to:
  • Do a bit of maintenance of your bike: clean it fully, add lubricant, adjust the brakes and the pedals etc.
  • Double check some details about the race: how long in advance do you need to be there, is there parking, any special rule you need to be aware of?
  • Taper (see above, training tips) and drink plenty of water
  •  The night before: Check your equipment one last time and pack everything. Eat a lot of carbs -nothing you haven’t try before- and relax. Skip coffee and alcohol.

Plan your race

The words “race strategy” may seem over exaggerated when it comes to riding your first sportive. However, having a good knowledge of the course is an invaluable advantage. It will help you to feel more prepared as well. Check the course: what is the toughest part? when will you be able to recover?

Most organised sportive races will provide water and food at different pits stops. Many publish in advance on their website what they will serve. Check their information and evaluate how much extra food you need to carry.

Nutrition tips:

  • Always leave the pit stop with a full bottle of water
  • No surprises, bananas are highly valued by cyclists as they are easy to digest and carry (at the back of your jersey), provide a good amount of energy. The skilled ones will manage it eat them while riding i.e. not myself.
  • Pack only snacks you like and at least one lift you up item
  • Gels and energy bars can be really helpful in case of drop of energy and are rarely provided, pack a few and keep one until the last stretch. (Only if you have tested them during your training period).

Race day: quitting is NOT an option

Race day: how to finish you sportive

Keeping the body in good condition

  • Feeling unwell? Slow down and do a quick check: are you pedalling in a smooth, continuous manner, is the gear best adapted to your effort (not too much, not too little). Because you are riding long distance, on flat terrain you should be able to have to talk by brief sentences – you should not be out of breath.
  • Take advantage of the stop stations to refuel but also to have a quick stretch of your back and legs to avoid cramps. As a beginner, I found it easier to stop more regularly (every 1h30 or so).
  • Drink plenty.
  • Stay away from the energy products you have not tried – not all estomac tolerate them very well.

The real battle is with your mind

  • Break the sportive in manageable bits (for example, I visualised Vatternrundan as 3 races of roughly 100km each, corresponding to the points where we will be able to enjoy proper food. Try to think only about the task at end: reaching the next milestone.
  • Focus on positive thoughts: how will you feel once you cross the finish line?
  • Feeling down? Distract your mind: look up, enjoy the surrounding, try to focus on people cheering, cheer up a co-cyclist… It is also the time to enjoy the best snack you packed.
  • Remember, you have done all the hard work and this is the day where it all comes together.

I hope you found this guide useful, and that it helped demystify cycling your first sportive. Now get on your bike and enjoy the ride! You can use the comment section to let me know how your training goes.

Want more?

Read about my journey from newbie to riding a 300km race.

Looking for inspiration for a long ride? Why not cycling the Tour de Yorkshire.

Share your thoughts!