OK, so this is my first post of 2016. Tradition dictates it should be a review of 2015 or predictions for the year ahead, so I have decided to kick off with... my take on what I like to see when it comes to sportives. In homage to the Velominati Rules I have drawn up my own set for organisers and participants- I will plan on adding to these as the year goes on, the kms go up and the grouchiness increases.
1. Riding sportives does not make you an inferior cyclist.
Invariably, any discussion of sportives online will contain comments that will dismiss them and tell participants to "pin on a number and race". These bon mots normally come from the sort of people who feel simply typing "rule 5" is enough of a contribution on threads where (usually beginners to the sport) have asked for some advice on climbing, gearing etc. These fellas (inevitably they are usually male) pride themselves on their highly competitive nature which sets the alarm bells in the pop psychology part of my brain ringing. Basically, sportives are great for many reasons, no matter what the self-appointed purists say. They give cyclists a target to train for, promote social cycling since not everyone's mates are two-wheeled gods of the road and make us a more visible presence on the highways and byways of the land. I have cycled in events alongside Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly, and if it is good enough for them...
2. You shall learn group riding skills and etiquette before the event.
The most uncomfortable part of a mass start sportive? The first few kms until the peloton breaks up and people find themselves in a group more fitting their ability (see Rule 4 for organisers). This is when the realisation strikes for some that they've never actually cycled in a group before and have no control over the braking and manoeuvring in front and around it. Too late now, Buster- relax, sit close to the person in front with your fingers on the brakes, don't be transfixed by their back wheel and watch the second or third person in front of you.
3. You shall let everyone know what you are going to do before you do it.
It sounds like some waffly jargon from some management textbook but never is it more important or accurate- communication is key! Do you get annoyed when driving (yes, often...) and the car in front suddenly brakes and then indicates as opposed to the other way around? Same on bikes except you aren't very likely to fall out of your car and bring other drivers down with you if you have to suddenly drop anchor. Got a mechanical and need to slow or stop? Then shout out in a proud and happy voice- "slowing!". Junction up ahead and turning left? Stick your arm out and shout out "left!". AND PASS IT ON! Just because you can hear the person a few bikes in front of you calling out a warning doesn't mean those behind you did. On too many occasions I have witnessed calls not being relayed back- it is everyone's responsibility. I am generally a placid sort of guy and will go out of my way to avoid confrontation- often to extremes (one reason I don't race- well that and my large belly and slow speed). But I do not hesitate to give grief to those who aren't passing on calls. We don't do it to scare people or sound important-we do it because we don't want to come off and take everyone else down with us because some gabshite hasn't called out "hole" or "gravel".
And when I say let people know what you are going to do and be aware of others around you, I mean it, even when carrying out the most seemingly simple action. Coming to a rise in the road and feel the need to stand up to dance on the pedals á la Contador? Then glance quickly behind you before you get your backside off your saddle to ensure the person on your wheel isn't too close. If you stand just as you are at the top of your pedal stroke your bike can shoot backwards which is not a pleasant thing to see if you are following close behind, and can lead to panic braking. Basically think ahead and analyse every action for its possible consequences on those around you- we all do that then everyone will be safe.
4. Organisers shall stagger starts.
As already noted, the hairiest part of a sportive is often the mass start. Club riders with self esteem issues that they deal with by overtaking everyone, combined with first timers on heavy mountain bikes, who are more used to pottling along tow paths, and everyone in between moving off at the same time can cause chaos. Let the speedy guys off first, then the mediums and finally the pootlers ( Lap the Lough do this very effectively).
5. Organisers shall realise cyclists have enough bidons already.
Tiresome sorts tend to love relating the formula "n+1" in a proud manner reminiscent of Lord Smug of Smuginton Hall. It is seen as some sort of code, shared between those in the know- an identifier that you are a real cyclist not simply a Johnny-come-lately-person-on-a-bike. In reality, it simply means you spend longer posing and preening on internet forums than actually in the saddle. For those not yet initiated, "n" is the number of bikes you currently have and the formula is the answer to the perennial question "How many bikes should I own?". Nowhere in the world of the cyclist does "n" equal "drinking bottle" yet you will be hard pushed to open any cupboard in any keen draisienne pilot's home and not be clobbered with bidons falling out. Many sportives will provide a goodie bag, and the best normally include stuff that may be of use (a mini multi-tool, a spare tube etc). But who, after getting the kms in training for the event and devising a fuelling strategy, is going to show up without a water bottle or two? The problem with bottles is that you can only use so many, but they are too good to throw away. Some may be refashioned as tool containers on shorter rides, but even then you run out of alternative uses. So organisers- please- no more water bottles!
6. You shall not live out your pro-cyclist fantasies.
To be fair, the oul curmudgeons have a point when they say if you want to race, sign up to a race. There is always a few eejits who want to drop everyone and feel good about themselves. You will spot them at the start, wheedling their way to the front before the off, ready to get the drop on everyone. They will probably have deep-section rims and aero helmets- on a sportive. And they will hammer it on, overtaking at the least suitable time and scaring the living daylights out of the pootlers. These fellas live life with a Liggett/Sherwen commentary playing in their head at all times-except when they are asked to actually take part in a proper race. Basically they are the guy who has to repeat a year at school- they find themselves doing much better than the rest of their class because they know how things work before and mistake this for natural ability. They are also prime candidates to break the next two rules.
7. You shall not litter
No matter how well organised, sportives are at the mercy of those who live or travel along the route. Participants are going to impact on the routines of these people so it makes sense that we want them onside and happy enough to put up with a bit of disruption. Dumping your gel or food wrappers as you ride is simply not on, no matter how pro it makes you feel (and actually race organisers in the professional scene have been clamping down on this with green zones and some manufacturers now including small pockets in jerseys to put empty wrappers). I did challenge one lad in a club jersey (I'll not name the club- this time!) throwing his Mars wrapper on the ground as we approached Ballyronan, less than half a mile from a water stop and he looked at me as if I had crapped in his saddlebag.
8. You shall not use a gel before the last leg home.
Less than 3 miles into an 85 mile event a few years ago, I spotted it at the side of the road. A recently discarded (rule 7) gel wrapper. Seriously-if you need a gel so soon after starting, it is going to be a long, painful day for you, my friend! To be honest I have more faith in the restorative power of Haribo (hence why I very rarely do events during Lent!) or marzipan than gels on a sportive. But if you want to use a gel, save it for the hard miles near the end.
9. You shall not wear the event jersey on the day.
This is more a personal opinion than anything else to be honest. It can be a bit disconcerting trying to pick out a friend in the peloton when everyone around is wearing the exact same jersey. But primarily I feel the jersey should be a symbol of completing the event, and as such I only wear them afterwards- after all there is a reason I don't wear a maillot jaune or maglia rosa when I am huffing and puffing around my little riding route. And on a slightly related note- Grand Tour competition jerseys mark you as a target! If even I can overtake you on the draggy climb outside Randalstown then you should get done under the trades description act if you are wearing polkadots.
The other, more important, factor is that you should only use kit on an event that you have trained in. If the first time you put that event jersey on is the morning of the sportive then you are running the risk of making your day more uncomfortable than it needs to be. Jerseys vary in fit and cut and, if you haven't put the kms in while wearing it, you won't know how well it will do its job . What seems fine for the few minutes you have it on when checking it out in the mirror may well feel like you have Brillo pads in your armpits half way through.
10. You shall not wear white shorts.
This is Northern Ireland. It rains. A lot. White shorts go see through when wet.
I have no desire to count how many hairs you have on the crack of your arse.
(This rule is dedicated to the guy in the white shorts I ended up having to overtake and drop near Bushmills during the Giant's Causeway Coast sportive in 2012- it was a great tactic to discourage wheelsuckers).
11. You shall wear bibshorts.
I understand- bibshorts look ridiculous. Many a cyclist's partner can recall the first time they saw their beau/belle in what appeared to be a weird mix of baby grow and wrestler fetish clothing. But comfort rules above all. No matter how big or small your belly, after 80km a waistband will dig in. You go to the drops and suddenly you feel a draft on your back, and the person on your wheel sees more than they want. Bibs are comfortable and practical. Make sure they fit you and the pad is suitable and break them in before the event. While we have gone beyond tenderising steaks, chaffing is no friend of yours, and it only takes the smallest bit of ill fitting material to turn pedalling into purgatory.
12. You shall check your tyre pressures before hand.
You know those really wet, grey days or early evenings when it is really dull and you see cars without headlights on? Or when the temperature is near freezing and a neighbour insists on washing their car, allowing the water to flow and create an ice slide in the road? Or when people still vote for the Tories? The individuals behind these affronts to logic are the same who start a sportive without checking their tyre pressures. However, unlike many of the examples above, they tend not to get away with it. Too low pressures make extra work as well as making pinch flats more likely. Too hard and you may as well be riding a bone shaker. A few seconds to check can save ages changing tubes while the rest of the event streams past into the distance.
13. You shall bring extra inner-tubes and know how to change them.
Punctures happen, even when you have heeded the advice of late sage Sheldon Brown in relation to pressures. So bring inner tubes- it is not fair to rely on the kindness of your companions since if they lend you a tube and are then struck down later on themselves your lack of preparedness just made two people's days harder than they needed to be. On longer events think about two tubes (and if you fancy the really retro look, loop one over your shoulders and combine with a pair of goggles) and patches. If you end up going through three tubes and patches then maybe a mountain bike may be more your thing.
Learn how to change a tube-it is the most basic skill a cyclist needs and it isn't that difficult but standing on a windy, rainy day as your friends wait for you, providing you with all the helpful insults you need and the rest of the event ploughs on is not the ideal classroom.
14. You shall bring the correct pump for your inner tubes.
Generally if you are on a road bike you will have presta valves. Mountain bikes will be schrader. Hybrids could be either. Make sure the pump you have with you (you did pack a pump, didn't you?) fits. Do note that while C02 cartridges save a lot of energy and time, they deflate much quicker. The tyre may be flat again by the following day, but if you are really unlucky and puncture early enough in a long event, you may be losing vital PSI before you get home.
15. You shall bring enough food and water.
Logic again- there may be food and water stops on the way but a)you need to get to them and b) have to hope the freeloaders and club guys didn't get there first and helped themselves leaving nothing for the rest. So make sure you have supplies in your pocket for use in emergencies. La fringale is not fun- seriously. A visit from the man with the hammer may give you stories to tell afterwards but when it hits, that last mile will seem longer than the previous 84 together. If you are in your 36 on the front, 25 on the back, the road is as flat as a pancake and you still wish you had a bigger cog on your cassette- that is the bonk!
16. You shall learn to drink while on the move.
Add this to the list of things you need to practice before you go anywhere near a group ride. You won't get away with pulling over to keep hydrated. It can be be nerve wracking when you are in a group, the road is getting a bit rough and you have to take one hand of the bars, draw your bidon, drink and replace without losing too much speed. Make it clear that you are about to drink to those behind you (rule 3) so they can be prepared in case you wobble. It looks simple and with practice becomes so, but do work on it.
17. You shall not try out any new gel, supplement or drink on the day.
A few years ago I was getting around one sportive quite well, with a group of riders from my club, some of whom had only sat on a saddle for the first time a few months previously. We made good progress until the last water stop, 22 miles from the end. A member of the group (one of the newer recruits) decided to add a Zero tab to their water bottle, despite never having used it before. This person is normally fitter than me so it was a surprise that when the quicker ones took off to hammer on home she did not join them (the general rule had been to ride as a group for most of the day helping each other out, then those with the energy and desire could up their pace and head off on their own after the last stop). I dropped back and could see she was in trouble and she confirmed that her stomach was churning. It was then she revealed she had never used Zero tabs before and now she was struggling to the finish. I told her to drop it into the small ring, spin her legs and sit on my wheel the rest of the way. We did make it but it was a salutary lesson- our bodies are different and react to things in different ways, so plan ahead, know what fuel you are taking with you and use it through your training so you know how it effects you.
18. You shall take your turn on the front.
Eventually the big group you have been in form the start will fragment into smaller bunches. When that occurs a few different scenarios may present themselves. If you are in a group of club riders then they will probably start taking turns riding at the front. Every so often their road captain will call or whistle and the riders will change up, with those who were second in line now being in front. This ("through and off", "bit and bit" or simply "taking yer bolloxing turn in the wind ye gabshite" as it is variously called) will continue reducing your overall energy output while increasing your speed. This is especially important when faced with a headwind. So if you find yourself in such a paceline at least try and take a few turns at the front. If you feel you aren't able to take your go then let them know and sit it out at the back. However do not sit there until the finish is in sight and then use the energy you saved to blast past everyone- they are not your personal lead-out train and you, sir, are no Kittel or Cavendish.
19. You shall inform those behind you if you are losing the wheel in front.
In group riding there are two cardinal sins. One is wheelsucking (see rule 18). The other is "losing the wheel". This doesn't happen because you didn't do your QR skewers up properly- it means you can no longer sit closely enough behind the rider in front to benefit from their slipstream. Then the gap gets bigger and suddenly you and everyone on your wheel is now a new, separate group. It sounds like a small issue but actually can have a big effect and earn some withering remarks from those behind. If you think you can't hold a wheel then let people around you know- if those in front don't knock off the speed a bit, then at least those behind you will have ample warning and can come around you. So yeah, it may result in you going out the back door, but it is safe to say that this probably wasn't the group for you and your act of self-sacrifice will not go un-noticed-especially if you need the lend of a tube or a pump at some later time!
20. You shall not look behind if you hear a crash.
Eyes front at all times. Even if you hear the angel Gabriel's trumpet announcing the apocalypse behind you, do not look around. The sound of people coming off behind you is not nice, but if you rubberneck then it is almost certain you will also go from sitting on your Specialized Tarmac to sitting on the actual tarmac. This is one occasion where you can imitate the pros- have you ever watched a race where suddenly the orderly chaos of a compact peloton is replaced with flying carbon and terminal deceleration? The guys in front, despite knowing many of their close friends are currently sliding along with only a thin layer of lycra between their skin and the rough road surface, keep looking forward and the speed up.
21. You shall not whinge if you miss the entry window.
Sportives aren't just organised a day or two before hand. Organisers will do as much publicity as they can since their event won't work without actual participants and they spread the word as early as possible. For example Lap the Lough takes place at the end of August and entries open in January and the Gran Fondo allows registration from December for the following June. Yet even with so much notice, the organiser's Facebook page in the days running up to the event are full of people moaning and complaining because they didn't get a place. To be fair to the organisers, they are a bit more polite than I would be- the simple message of "you had seven months to sign up so stop annoying our heads you self-absorbed, entitled gabshite" never appears. If you can't get yourself together to enter with so much time, then frankly I doubt your capacity to actually get yourself to the event on the day.