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The stuff they don't tell you about sportives: find out about the hassles nobody mentions

Got a largely informal cycling event coming up? Find out about the niggles and annoyances that sportive event organisers don't mention

Sportives, we've missed them! Now the country is opening up and UK race calendars are starting to get populated again, you might have one in the diary before the end of the year. If it's going to be your first, here are a few things that people don't usually tell you.

Not all sportives are equal

There was a time in the early 2000s when virtually every organised road event was suddenly rebranded a sportive. It was the latest buzz word in cycling.

These days 'sportive' is used to cover everything from local charity rides that attract a few dozen people to closed road epics that cater for thousands. There's nothing wrong with that, but make sure you do a bit of digging to find out what you're getting for your money.

8 ways to get the best out of a sportive

Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100 - riders passing a mill

You'll want to check the route, particularly the distance and the amount of climbing involved, but there are less obvious things to look out for too. How many feed stations are there? Is there mechanical support? Will you get a finisher medal or T-shirt? What about a sweep vehicle for those who have to bail?

Find out about sportives you can enter on the British Cycling website

Some of these things might be important to you, others might not. Make sure you find out ahead of time to avoid disappointment.

You might encounter lousy riding skills

Your caring, sharing doesn't like to do anyone down, but none of us were born with the ability to ride safely in a group; it's a skill – or a series of skills – usually developed by first riding with a few mates and/or on club rides.

Check out 6 tips for riding in a group 

However, not everyone goes down this route and in a big sportive there will always be people who have never ridden in a bunch before, and there's occasionally that one rider whose confidence far exceeds their abilities. They've seen Peter Sagan on the telly and thinks that their handling skills are of the same level. They're wrong.

Someone who rides erratically in a group is bad news for everyone's safety. On wet roads they're even more of a liability. If another rider makes you jittery, don't wait for them to touch wheels, get yourself out of there. If you can't forge ahead, drop back to find another group.

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You could ride the route for nothing

One of the objections people sometimes have to sportives is that you could ride the route for nowt if you wanted. You need to work your way though a hell of a lot of flapjacks and energy drink to cover a £30 entry fee.

That's true, of course, but sportives offer you the chance to ride a ride an organised route, perhaps in an unfamiliar area, with loads of other riders and support if anything goes wrong. Although not common, you might even get to ride on closed roads (this always jacks the price up). 

Take a look at 23 of the best 2018 & 2019 sportive bikes

If none of that is important to you then, yeah, you could save a few quid by riding the route on your own.PWC Yorkshire Cycle Ride (CC BY 2.0 Allan McKenzie|Flickr).jpg

Audax is cheaper

Audax rides are generally cheaper to enter than sportives. With Audax you get a route and a time limit, and you have to get your brevet card stamped at intermediate checkpoints, but you won't usually get food/drink provided or a sag wagon to pick you up if it all goes wrong. Self sufficiency is highly prized.

Check out 12 of the best Audax bikes

Signage issues... Grrr!

Good sportive organisers get the signage right every time, others... not so much.

Admittedly, some signage issues aren't the organiser's fault. They can't help it if some halfwit goes out and rips signs down because they object to cyclists riding past their house on a Sunday morning.

I was on one sportive, though, where the organiser had stuck a large sign on the far side of a right hand turn, highly visible for a couple of hundred yards... until a car pulled up at the junction, when it became totally obscured. Off into the back of beyond we went, none the wiser.

Find out about 11 of the best 2019 sportive road bikes under £1,000

Make sure you're following the correct signs too. When sponsored the sportive at Mountain Mayhem the route crossed that of another sportive out in the Herefordshire hills, and one rider ended up following a wheel 50 miles in the wrong direction!

To avoid getting lost you can print out the route or download and follow it on to a GPS computer. 

They're nearly always on Sundays

You get the occasional Saturday sportive and some on bank holiday Mondays, but the vast majority are held on Sunday mornings. That makes sense for most people but if you regularly have something else you need to do on Sundays you're out of luck.

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You can't rely on support for everything

One of the best things about sportives is that there's some sort of support if things don't go to plan, but you still need to take personal responsibility for your welfare. You need to ride enough in preparation for the event, get your pacing right for the full distance, take on enough food and drink, have the right clothing for the conditions... If you're even wondering whether to take arm/leg warmers and a waterproof jacket, the chances are that you should.

Check out our guide to wet weather cycle clothing and gear

You can maximise your chances of having a good day by taking the time to prepare properly.

Find out how to get fit in 6 weeks 

Get your bike and accessories are prepared

If you've trained hard for a sportive you really don't want to be let down by your equipment, so check your bike over thoroughly in advance and make sure everything is working properly (get someone else to do it if you're not mechanically minded). 

Don't forget to charge everything fully: your mobile phone, bike computer and, if you have it, electronic shifting.

Find out what you should take with you on every rideZefal EZ Max FC CO2 Inflator.jpg

However well you've prepared, mechanical issues can still occur, particularly punctures, so make sure you have the know-how and the essentials you need to deal with them (usually a spare inner tube, tyre levers and pump) along with a multi-tool to tighten anything that comes loose. 

Find out about 13 essential bike checks you should make before you go for a ride

Sportives aren't races

The fact that sportives aren't races is something that may probably already known to you, but to first-timers it can come as a surprise. Sportives are non-competitive events that are timed. Some give gold, silver and bronze standard finishing times, but they're still not races.

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Fair enough, some people ride a sportive as fast as possible as a personal challenge, but if you want to race you need to enter a race. Find out how to enter a race here

Cafe wisdom: readers have their say on sportives

As well as our good selves, readers (particularly those who have plenty of sportives under their belts) are always a good source of knowledge when it comes to offering advice and sharing stories from their sportive adventures. Here's the pick of the best comments from a previous version of this article... 

sooper6 said: "I enjoyed them when I first got into cycling, when what they offered was of value for a poorly equipped novice. Now being a bit more experienced and kitted out with a gps computer, the only sportive offerings worth paying for is a closed road event."

wknight said: "Another reason sportives cost money is all the marshalls. I attend as one of those marshalls on a motorbike and we get paid expenses. Many of us ride hundreds of miles there and back to the venue. Its not a job anyone can do as you must hold an advanced motorcycle qualification and of course special training.  We often start around 6am and are still there when the last rider comes home. When you break down or have an accident, we are often first on scene to call for assistance with our radios and will stay with you until you leave the scene. We often carry tubes, pumps and tools to get you going and water on hot days. I have escorted many a rider on the Dragon home in the dark to ensure their safe arrival.  Just remember all of this when you ride for free and please when you are doing a sportive, let us come past as we are often on our way to to another cyclist waiting for our help." 

Judge dreadful said: "I've only ever done a couple of closed road sportives, and found a couple of open road sportives, on a ride I've been doing, which was nothing to do with the Sportives. I've done the closed road ones for charities, I wouldn't do a sportive for 'fun'. There tends to be too wide a range of experience and ability for it to be safe enough, in my experience."

nickW said: "I have done a few and then went over to holland to ride the amstel gold sportive run on the saturday before the pro races, have to say what a complete great biking weekend, ride a great route with some hills suprisingly, and then you get to watch the pros ride the course the next day, I did the 200km route and as me and my riding partner got to about 150km my partner began to feel the strain and she started to struggle a bit , we then got picked up by a ladies pro team out for a warm up for the next day, gave us a tow for about 30km, great ride and would recommend it, the overpowering smell of beer and fries as you start the cauburg climb with three kms to go was worth it!" 

Generally speaking said: "My first sportive was fairly local, the Matlock Top Ten, ten of the toughest climbs in the area including the famous Bank Road, however 6 weeks prior to the event I tore my quad and was unable to ride for a few weeks so had to hope for the best and then on the day we had torrential rain but I wasn't deterred and managed a reasonable time of 3 1/2 hours, I was soaked to the bone and absolutely frozen by the end (did I mention that it was October) but I still enjoyed it." 

peted76 said: "Another thing to note is that after signing up for a sportif, you might get an email saying you've got to be at the start line at 6am, which unless you live or are staying next door to the start line might mean you'll have to get up in the middle of the night!" 

The _Kaner said: "On a 120km Sportive, a route I was vaguely familiar with, I was behind another cyclist for about 10km... Before he turned into a drive way.
Turns out he wasn't in the Sportive, neither was I by that point.
I knew how to get back to the start point by heading out towards Trim (Irish Midlands). Ended up doing 148km. When I got back, almost everyone had cleared up, cleared off...I spent the next 30 minutes in the car fighting off leg cramps, until I was fit enough to drive home.
Moral: know where you're going, don't be afraid to ask if you don't... Pay attention to any road markings." 

efail said: "Sportives aren't races" until you go to France, where many are. They have podiums, prizes and position lists in all of the age groups through to 70. They are often linked to national/local championships. Many of them have a sit down meal, with wine, after the "race", and quite a few give a decent cycling shirt. The ones I have done, in the south, have marshals on every corner and junction. Their organisation is quite fantastic, especially when you think something like the Ariegoise has about 5,000 entries." 

Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.

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