It was the summer of 2010 when I had the idea to cycle Lands End to John O’Groats (LEJOG). Once I’d set August 2011 for the ride and coaxed the family to get involved, it was time to step up the training! My Dad and brother were left to their own devices as they were already avid cyclists and lived in areas that were conducive to long training rides!
It was a different story for my other half and I. Not only did we live in London, before meeting me, Gavin was more interested in surfing and snowboarding than spending hours in the saddle. I was lucky that he wanted to share my hobby but I felt pressure to sort out a training regime that would enable us both be able to cycle the 900 odd miles for LEJOG.
Before we tried our hand at sportives, we had some rather interesting ‘training’ rides. As Gavin was pretty fit, I assumed he would be able to manage the same mileage I could – this wasn’t the case. We once took the train to Brighton, to cycle up and down the front – but whilst we were pedaling along the seafront, I spotted a sign for London and took it upon myself to suggest we ride home.
Being from the North East, let’s just say my geography of the South East back then was rather sketchy and I didn’t realise that it was about 65 miles from the seafront to our front door back in London. To set the scene, it was an unbearably hot day, we’d packed enough food for a little pootle and I didn’t have a GPS or map with me, so not exactly perfect conditions to set off on a 65 miles jaunt.
We managed to get just within the M25 when the proverbial wheels fell off, Gav ‘bonked’ catastrophically and getting back on the bikes was not an option. After finding a pub, we found a taxi company willing to pick us, and the bikes up. Whilst waiting for the taxi, we realised that I wasn’t experienced enough to lead a route, coach Gav and train myself all at the same time.
Even before I rode a sportive I had preconceived ideas about what they were, who rode them and how they were ridden and it all just left me with a feeling of dread. Basically, because sportives were timed I thought they were cycling races for the pros, and in all honesty it was only because I had Gav as a safety blanket that I thought about trying them out. We bit the bullet after more failed rides with just the two of us, drawn to the allure of designated routes so we could focus on just pedaling.
Essentially, sportives are long distance organised cycling events, on non-closed roads over challenging terrain. Most sportives offer various distances on the day, ranging from 50 to 150 miles so you’ll get the full array of riders. You will have to pay to enter the majority of sportives, but it is worth the money as they offer, feed stations, signed/marshaled routes with GPS downloads of the route, timing chips, and that all essential breakdown recovery. Another little extra is the photographers that line the course, always perched at the top of that pesky hill when you’re not looking at your freshest. Although they’re not free, it’s an opportunity to get some hilarious memories of the day – Gav and I bought a couple, but for some reason they still haven’t made it up on to the wall!
As we had planned to ride roughly 100 miles a day on the LEJOG, I thought it was appropriate to sign us up to a sportive of the same length. I scoured the Internet and found the 2010 Bike Blenheim Palace Sportive and signed us up for the 100-mile route. If anyone rode that particular year, they will remember the horrific weather and torrential downpours. It was one of the most difficult rides I’ve ever done, but it opened our eyes to the world of sportives and below is a brief outline of our experience.
Riding the event…
The first thing I realised on turning up was that you didn’t need a road bike. We saw people hauling hybrids, mountain bikes and sit up and beg bikes out of their car boots. Don’t get me wrong, it helps immensely to have a road bike but don’t let it put you off. Although heavy mountain bikes require A LOT of effort over long distances and you may get uncomfortable on flat bars don’t put off sportives because you can’t afford that road bike – just get on and do it.
It seems ridiculous to think that back then Gavin and I were nervous about sporting our lycra among the cycling fraternity. It wasn’t that we were embarrassed to wear it, we knew the benefits, it was more that we thought people would assume we had achieved a certain level of cycling, that we were all the gear and no idea types. On arrival this was another worry that was soon forgotten, at sportives every kind of rider is there so unless you’re making a tit of yourself, you won’t stand out.
As mentioned earlier we were drawn to sportives because they offered designated routes. When we got to Blenheim Palace we were pleasantly surprised to hear that not only did we get signs (found on trees, road signs and painted on the road) and marshals directing us but also a map of the route to give us a rough idea if we got lost. It is credit to the organisers, volunteers and marshals that I’ve never gone off track, and even when Gav did, there ended up being a bunch of riders who’d done the same who clubbed together and got themselves back on track together.
The other thing that struck me was the camaraderie between riders, those cyclists that passed me (obviously not that many as I was riding so fast ;-)!) would give me words of encouragement, much needed when I was hitting the 80-mile mark. If there was someone struggling to change a tyre, everyone passing would ask whether they needed any help. In fact, I struck up many a conversation with guys that ended up cycling with me, and it really helped the miles pass by.
On the other hand, it was great to have such a range of riders to cycle with as it helped to push me. As the youngest of three, and being the only sister out of the siblings, I have a healthy competitive spirit and having faster folk around me was like dangling a carrot in front of me. As soon as someone passed me, I would churn like mad for as long as possible to keep up with them before I blew a gasket and had to down a gel to stave off the dreaded bonk.
What was most beneficial to Gav and I was that it let us cycle at our respective paces without worrying about the other. I knew that somewhere round the safety of the course Gav would be cursing me for signing him up, but secretly enjoying it (deep down). As he wasn’t that experienced, he really needed to cycle on his own, working out the nuances of his own cycling without me breathing down his neck.
On reaching the finishing line the volunteers cheered every rider like a winner, making you grin like an idiot! Pre-Blenheim Palace, I don’t think I’d ever cycled 100-miles on my own with out my Dad or brothers, so it really felt like a momentous achievement. It was only trumped when I saw Gav cross the finish line, never had I felt so proud of someone. Not only had he battled the distance, he didn’t give up and did it in some of the worst conditions you could possibly cycle in. I think although it was incredibly tough, just knowing that he could cycle 100-miles in one day was such a turning point for him, something changed in his attitude towards biking after that day.
If you are teetering on the edge of signing up to a sportive go do it now – nothing beats that feeling of finishing, trust me! The only thing I would suggest is start off on the shorter distances and build up. Before Gav did the 100-miles he’d only done distances of about 40 miles so it was quite a leap and not the best planning on my part.
Here are a couple of links to sites that offer sportive calendars;