Everything you need to know about … Riding your first European Sportive

You’ve ridden some local sportives in the UK. You’ve spent your work days in July glued to ITV Player watching the Tour. You’ve read all about the cobbles of Roubaix and the bergs of Flanders. Its time to pack your bike and ride the greatest roads in the world at one of Europe’s best sportives. Here is our guide to everything you need to know to ride your first sportive:

Stelvio Santini

Before you go – training for the sportive

Chances are the sportive you are riding will be tougher than most UK rides. As an example, Ride London features 1800m over it’s 160km route. The Etape is shorter at 146km but well over double the climbing at 4500m. The Marmotte is over 5000m climbing. Even the non mountainous sportives pack a punch. 156km of Liege Bastogne Liege will come with 2600m climbing, 167km of Mallorca 312 will set you back over 2700m.
Therefore you need to make sure you are prepared. The earlier you can start the better but most importantly make sure you are training with a purpose. A good investment is in a training plan. Check out Dig Deep Coaching for a 12 week plan designed for sportive riders – 12 week training plan.
One of the great things about a sportive is having a target for all your training & a reason to eat better. During your training make sure you find what nutrition works for you whether its gels, bars or something home made. Your body will react differently to different brands so use your training to find the best one for you and bring your own supply to the sportive.

Travelling to your sportive

For sportives in Belgium, Holland and northern France, driving is often the easiest option. Make sure you have a decent bike rack and that your hotel has secure bike storage – we had the unpleasant experience of leaving our bikes overnight locked on the rack to find them gone in the morning. The other good alternative is the Eurostar though for good deals and to make sure you can get your bike onboard you need to book early.
If you are flying, you will need to pack your bike. You can either buy a bike box (here is a buyers guide to bike boxes – Road.cc Bike Box Guide) or rent one (Bike Box Online are the best known here – http://www.bikebox-online.co.uk/). Either way you will need some knowledge of basic bike mechanics as you will need to remove pedals, handlebars and wheels. There are numerous videos on YouTube to help you. Most airlines require you to book your bike box when purchasing your flight. Costs vary from free with most BA flights where you have a checked luggage allowance (bike & box need to be under 23kg), £30 each way with EasyJet and £50 each way with Ryanair. At the airport you need to go to check in and then take your bike box to the oversize luggage area. Note – if you are flying to the Etape du Tour, get to the airport early as the oversize luggage area gets overwhelmed on this weekend with all the additional bikes.
When you land, you will need to collect your bike from the oversize luggage area. If you are hiring a car, make sure it is big enough for the number of bike boxes you will have. Here is a good guide to car capacity – Bike Box Car Guide. If you are getting a transfer to your hotel, either book this with us or clearly explain that you will have a bike box with you.
We are passionate about bike hotels! We have been there ourselves and heard countless horror stories of people staying over an hour away from the sportive finish or 10km away up another climb. Believe us, when you have finished your sportive you just want your bath / bed or bar. Either book with us (we’ve done the hard part and booked up all the best places) or find somewhere close to the finish, with secure bike storage and that will do an early breakfast on the morning of the sportive.

Registering & starting your sportive

For most sportives you can collect your entry pack at the start of the event. This is mostly the case when there is a rolling start in the morning (including all of the spring classics). Entry packs consist normally of a bib to pin onto your jersey, a race number with timing device to attach to your handlebars and some goodies (often a water bottle, gels etc). Often you will receive a map of the sportive to stick onto your top tube. These can be useful visual reminders of the key points of the sportive.
For events with a fixed start (including Marmotte, Nove Colli, Etape and many of bigger summer sportives) entries are collected before the event normally at the race village close to the sportive start. Make sure you pay attention to the documents you need to pick up your entry pack. These often include a doctor’s certificate and increasingly in Italy a British Cycling racing license. The Etape is normally the most difficult sportive logistically as the start and finish are often miles apart. Make sure you have planned into your itinerary time to collect your entry pack.

On the ride, feed stations & mechanical support

Once you are past the start line its into the real thing. Months of excitement and training all go into the next few hours of riding. A few things are different at a European Sportive:
1. White bib shorts are acceptable
2. A lot of Europeans ride with backpacks
3. The pace is quick
4. The pelotons are bigger
You’re going to have to get over point 1 & 2. Let’s discuss the other two. Most sportives have between 4,000 and 14,000 riders so you will never be the fastest or slowest rider. The pace particularly on flat sections tends to be quicker than UK sportives and riders work in groups much more. This is one of the best things about these events, get yourself in a quick group and ride at a pace much quicker than you are used to – very exhilarating. Make sure you are doing a fair share of work at the front but do not tire yourself – when you are starting to feel it peel off and let others take the wind.
Feed stations are plentiful and well marked out. In some places these are packed with local delicacies but standard fare is a bit of fruit (oranges / bananas), sugary sweets, cake, sports drink, water & coke. As mentioned earlier, make sure you bring your sports nutrition brand of choice with you and top up with real food at the feed stops. In most cases, stops are 25 to 40km apart so as long as you are topping up at each stop you should be fine.
Most European sportives also have plenty of mechanical assistance along the route. Both these and the feed stops are clearly signed on your top tube maps. If you have flown to your sportive, you cannot take gas cannisters on the plane so either take a handpump or buy cannisters out there.
At the end of the sportive there is normally a pasta party with some free food. The atmosphere is a mix between euphoric and knackered. Grab a beer in the finish area and allow some time to enjoy the glory of completing your event.

How to make the most of your sportive weekend

Your European sportive will be one of the highlights of your year. So take your time, stay that extra night. The riding in these places is different, and often so much better, than home so arrive a day earlier than you planned and get out for a ride. If you book with us we will send some suggestions for warm up routes that you can load into your Garmin. Most destinations are also perfect for non riders so you can combine a romantic weekend away with a brilliant sportive. Great sportives for these are Tour of Flanders, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad & Gran Fondo Mont Ventoux.
For sportives that have a pro race the following day (Gent Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Paris Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Liege Bastogne Liege) stay an extra day at the end and take in the atmosphere of the race. The host towns go crazy for these races and they are great fun to watch either in a bar, on a giant screen in the town square or even better on the route. Speak to us about VIP packages starting from £75 pp so you can see the race up close but in the comfort of a hospitality area with giant screens, free food and drink.

Whats next

You have got yourself in great shape for your sportive. Understandably after a really tough challenge you may want to unwind and not look at your bike for a few days. You may also want to tuck into food you have banned yourself from for the previous few months. Nothing wrong with that, but without the next ride to aim for this period can drag and before you know it you are back to the weight / FTP / speed you were before you started training. Book yourself another sportive quickly even if it is 6 months away so you will have something to focus on which will force you to do the extra workout or pass on the second round of dessert.

For those riding their first European sportive in 2016, we wish you the very best of luck. Please let us know how you get on and say hi if you see us on the road.