I spent a weekend in May riding the London Revolution, a bike ride that covers 190 miles in two days. It starts at Lea Valley Athletics Centre in north-east London, then heads south and west to Ascot on Day One, then heads north (west) and east and back to Lea Valley on Day Two. Last year it went anti-clockwise; people who did both thought the change was a good idea.
I’d been training for four months – in fact, I followed the London Revolution training plan pretty closely. As I got to within 20 miles of the finish on Day Two, I realised there might be only three rules to finishing a sportive, certainly if you’re not at the racing fitness end of the spectrum. They’re all about muscles.
- Rule One: Prepare your muscles
- Rule Two: Feed your muscles
- Rule Three: Preserve your muscles.
Prepare your muscles
Do the training. Unless you’re the kind of person who does a club run every Sunday, you need to get yourself into shape. London Revolution sent out a handy 16 week guide, with three or four rides a week, of varying intensity and length, an hour then later an hour and a half during the week, longer rides at the weekend. The final weekend before the event was three hours on Saturday, four and a half hours on Sunday. Don’t skimp on the padded cycling shorts: bib shorts are the most comfortable. There are similar guides all over the internet.
When I first looked at the training guide, I didn’t think that it was enough, but I read somewhere that “Performance = Form Minus Fatigue”. The ride days build up form, the rest days reduce fatigue. Reassuringly, I could feel my fitness levels, and speed, increasing as I trained. The next time I’ll probably throw in a little extra off-bike cross-training to build up power a bit, some squats and so on.
Feed your muscles
Eat and drink regularly on the bike, both on longer training rides and on the ride itself. Monty at Sportive Cyclist has written about this so I don’t have to, but basically you need carbohydrates before and during, and protein afterwards (see “Preserve”, below), and while you’re riding you can absorb about 60 grams/ 2+ ounces an hour. There are now lots of commercial snacks on offer, but as Bike Radar pointed out, there are also a lot of perfectly good, and cheaper, home grown alternatives.
I also keep one or two sports gels in my back pockets for emergencies. They taste disgusting – like liquid sugar, which is basically what they are – but they are a life-saver in those moments when you feel as if you’re turning the pedals and going nowhere. Ten minutes later, when it hits your system, you wonder why you felt tired.
Preserve your muscles
Manage your effort and your recovery. There are different aspects to this. The first is, especially on a long ride, to ride within yourself a bit, at least until you have a sniff of the end or know that you can recover on a long downhill. This includes using the ring instead of the chain gear when you start off, so you warm up properly, and not being embarrassed about using the “granny” gear (small ring, if you have one) when your legs are tiring and the road suddenly goes uphill.
(Just to be clear: on the training rides there will be some days when you’re deliberately pushing yourself; that’s an important part of the training process).
This also means riding at your own pace. On every sportive fitter and stronger cyclists will pass you, briskly, and from time to time you’ll be tempted to try to hop on to the back of such a group, suffering from the delusion that they’re only travelling a little faster than you are. Do not do this: no matter how good it makes you feel at that moment, you’ll pay later. As the Little Feat song says,
You know that you’re over the hill
When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill.
The other important part of “preservation” is recovery: first, warming down and stretching, as needed. It is worth taking this seriously; I cramped horribly one evening after skimping onit after a training ride. And second, eating and drinking as soon as you’ve finished to help the muscles repair themselves afterwards. The London Revolution people were handing out chocolate flavoured recovery drinks as you finished, and there are lots of sports drinks out there for recovery, but basically you need protein. A big glass of milk also works pretty well.