Attention to detail is key to optimal performance but only once you’ve ticked off the big boxes. Nik Cook highlights the main areas that could cost you the most time, energy and enjoyment when tackling a sportive this summer. Read more articles like this in Totally Active magazine.
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Britain’s cyclists took the world by storm. This continued with Mark Cavendish’s World Championships win in 2011, crushing domination at London 2012 and then multiple Tour de France wins for Team Sky. All the talk was of maximising marginal gains and the infamous Secret Squirrel Club tinkering away at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester. The world beating theory was that by paying obsessive detail to every single aspect of performance, the individually minuscule gains would accumulate into tangible amounts.
Revolutionary fabrics were developed for skin suits, helmet vents taped over on the road and even super comfortable mattresses transported from hotel to hotel during stage races. When track medals are sometimes decided by the width of a tyre and with a Tour de France involving up to 90 hours in the saddle for the winner, these small gains can become very significant.
For amateur riders tackling a sportive though, marginal gains aren’t the issue. It’s the big mistakes costing minutes and even hours that you see riders making at every event that you should be looking to eliminate. Tick these ten boxes, minimise your maximal losses and then you can start thinking about marginal gains.
A challenging 100-mile plus sportive is a big undertaking that should be approached with the same attitude to training as running a marathon. You wouldn’t rock up to the start line of the London Marathon without a solid 3-6 months of consistent training, so don’t attempt it with a sportive. Not preparing properly can turn an enjoyable challenge into a drawn out exercise in suffering. As well as building physical fitness, it’s during training that you perfect your fuelling and hydration strategies and develop your riding skills. There are plenty of excellent training resources, including the British Cycling Training Plans, so there’s no excuse not to be properly prepared.
Fail to maintain hydration and your riding performance will suffer. Studies have shown that surprisingly low fluid losses can significantly effect your ability to ride. A 2% drop in body weight due to sweating will impair performance noticeably, 4% will decrease your capacity for muscular work and, at 5%, heat exhaustion can become an issue and your capacity for work will drop by up to 30%. As with fuelling, don’t wait until you get thirsty but get into the habit of taking a good glug from your bottle every 10 minutes right from the start of the ride. Aim to consume 500-1000 ml per hour of isotonic sports drink depending on conditions. An isotonically mixed sports drink will deliver carbohydrates, electrolytes and stimulate you to drink. Water alone or dilute squash can suppress your desire to drink, cause you to feel bloated and won’t give you any calories.
In his book, Bike Fit: Optimise your Bike Position for High Performance and Injury Avoidance, GB and Team Sky physiotherapist Phil Burt highlights the bike fitting priorities for sportive riders as comfort and sustainability. If you’re having to stop pedalling, get off your bike to stretch an aching back, ease off because of hot spots in your feet or constantly wriggling around in your saddle because of discomfort, you can easily lose big chunks of time over the course of a long ride. Pros may be able to hold ultra-aggressive positions but, for us mere mortals, a more relaxed position is necessary. Invest in a professional bike fit, making sure you inform the fitter of your riding goals, or get a copy of Phil’s book.
It’s amazing how many riders conjure a target finish time out of thin air or based on what their mate did when they rode it. It’s essential to pace your sportive on what you achieved in training and that should be objectively measured using either heart rate or power. Set accurate personalised training zones using a threshold test and stick to them. The majority of a sportive should be ridden in the lower endurance zones and you should only be pushing up near your threshold on climbs. Pacing additionally impacts your body’s ability to take on fuel so it’s vitally important to get it right. Also a number of recent studies have shown that poor pacing and not inadequate electrolytes or hydration is the most common cause of cramp in endurance events. Don’t expect a miraculous event day boost and don’t get sucked into a mad dash off the start line.
You can have the most high tech aero frame and wheelset but the most significant contributor to drag is the lump of flesh sat on the bike. You don’t have to go skin-suit but avoid billowing jackets and, tough for mountain bikers to take, baggy shorts are a no-no. Specialized did some tunnel testing and found even slightly baggy kit to be 90 seconds slower over 20 kilometres than closely fitting lycra so, scale that up to a 160 kilometre sportive, and you’re looking at 12 minutes. Also, think about your riding position, especially on the flat. Don’t forget about our bike fit advice and go ultra aggressive but, being able to get down on the drops, or flat on the hoods, holding a flat back, keeping your upper body still and you knees driving slightly in towards the top tube will make a big difference. Work on hamstring flexibility in front of the TV in the evening and focus on the points above on flat sections of your training rides.
Many riders place too much emphasis on building their engine, spending time bolted to the turbo or on epic solo training rides. Not possessing good bike handling skills, especially in a group, will cost you time and energy in a sportive. Hard gained minutes that your fitness has earned you on climbs can easily be lost if you’re a nervous descender. Can you confidently and safely eat and drink on the go? You’d be amazed how many riders can’t replace their bottle without looking. On flat roads, being able to sit comfortably in a group can mean you’re saving up to 50% effort. If you’re not confident to follow a wheel, you’re giving free speed away. Work on your handling skills, mountain biking is excellent for this, and join your local club to learn group riding skills and etiquette.
Your car won’t go if you don’t put petrol in it, so don’t expect your body to perform if you don’t give it adequate fuel. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until you feel hungry but work to the mantra of feeding “little, early and often”. You’re not eating for that moment but 15-30 kilometres down the road. A good guideline is to aim to consume 0.5-1g of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight per hour. You should spread this over 2-3 feeds every hour and should be doing this right from the start of the ride. As an example, 500 ml of typical sports drink mixed at 6% will give you 30 g of carbohydrate and then two gels will deliver another 50 g. This gives 80 g, perfect for an 80-90 kg rider. Work on your fuelling in training and find what foods work best for you.
Before forking out for a super light groupset or titanium bottle cage bolts, take a look at your midriff. If you’re carrying a few extra kilos, especially if your sportive is hilly, you’re giving minutes away. Lets take a 5 kilometre climb that averages 8% and put a 75 kg rider on it who can sustain 250 watts. If he was to lose 2.5 kg, he’d be 38 seconds quicker up the climb. If with his weight loss he also gained 20 watts of power through training, he’d gain a massive 2 minutes. If you’re heading to the Alps or the Pyrenees, where climbs can be well in excess of 20 kilometres and you might be doing several in one ride, you’re looking at big potential gains, or losses. Don’t go for crash or fad diets but simply use an online food log such as MyFitnessPal that also factors in exercise and try to consistently hit a 500 calorie per day deficit. The act of recording what you eat will make you more mindful and less likely to eat rubbish and the sustainable daily deficit should yield 0.5 kilograms per week weight loss.
A well maintained bike is a faster bike and, more importantly, a safer bike. Pay particular attention to your drivetrain and your brakes. Riding an entire sportive with a rubbing brake block or misfiring gears will definitely result in losses measurable in minutes. Incorrect tyre pressure can also result in big losses. Aside from increased rolling resistance, you’ll be more likely to take a spill descending and far more likely to suffer from punctures. Don’t just blindly inflate your tyres until they feel hard, use a track pump with a pressure gauge and put the right pressure in relative to your weight and the road conditions.
If you haven’t ridden the route before or aren’t familiar with the area, a bit of research prior to the event can save you both frustration and minutes on the day. Get details of the key climbs, which towns or villages you’re supposed to ride through and how often and what’ll be available at the feed stations. Despite the best efforts of event organisers way-markings can be blown away or tampered with. Don’t just follow them blindly or assume that the rider in front knows where they’re going. Upload the route onto your GPS device as a back-up and a good old fashioned map in your jersey pocket can be a ride saver if you go off course.
This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.