From Sportives to Racing – tips for a successful transition.

It’s likely that when you started Cycling, a Sportive was your first event. Being non-competitive they are accessible to all riders and are a good place to start. Perhaps you then moved on, longer distances completed in steadily quicker times. For me, there came a point when Sportives stopped being a challenge. I knew I could get round pretty much any course with a gold time as long as wasn’t stupid with the pacing. At that point, I turned to racing. I suspect there are many in a similar position – wanting to take part in more competitive events. Here is how to make it a success.

I’ve said before that sportive times are not a good predictor of Race performance, read that post here if interested. The demands of racing are very different  to those of sportives in an number of ways. Don’t be surprised if your first few races don’t go well, even if you have achieved gold times on tough sportives – to a certain extent you may have to ‘start again’. Take it from me it is truly worth it, doing well in a sportive does not compare to the elation that accompanies a good race result.

Firstly, sportives are completed at a more or less constant pace, taking into account variations in terrain of course. In races it is a different story, the pace very rarely remains the same for any length of time. You’ll need to be-able to respond to surges in pace caused by attacks, sprint out of corners and bridge gaps. Importantly, you need to be-able to recover quickly enough when the pace does (usually briefly) drop in order to do the above multiple times throughout a race.

Secondly, races do not require as much Endurance. You may be in the saddle for 6 hours or more when riding a hilly century, contrastingly closed circuit races tend to last for around 40 minutes and road races just over two hours. Don’t get me wrong – you still need to do the odd long ride, but during the competitive season you will be looking to maintain endurance rather than increase it.

Thirdly, bike handling skills are far more important in racing than in sportives. Anyone who has read any of my other posts will be fed up of this message by now – I still can’t stress it enough. You must be comfortable riding in a group before entering a race – otherwise you will be a danger to yourself and others around you. The best way to learn this skill is simply to join a Cycling Club, that way you can learn group riding skills in a safer (that is to say slower) environment. British Cycling have produced a very useful series of videos on how to race safely, click here to take a look.

Finally, this may sound obvious but it certainly wasn’t to me when I first started racing. Races are not as well supported as sportives. Don’t expect to find mechanics at Closed Circuit races, food isn’t usually provided. Road Races do tend to be more supported but the message still stands. Pack something to eat and make sure your bike is mechanically sounded before heading off to a race, otherwise you may be caught out.

Here are some quick tips on transitioning from sportives to racing, these should all make the process easier. Most of this is covered in more detail in other posts, take a look at the Racing Advice section.

  1. Intervals are key

Races, as I have already mentioned – are shorter than Sportives, ridden at a faster and ever changing pace . You should try to replicate this in training, it’s ok to reduce volume in order to compensate for the increase in intensity. You’ll have far more success in races if you train 6 hours per week at a high intensity than with 12 hours ridden at endurance pace.  I found this article on interval training very useful and informative, it’s the first part of a series – all of which make for good reading.

2. Incorporate skills training

Working on technical skills can make a massive difference – a deficiency that has little effect on sportive performance will likely present a large problem in races. If, for example you tend to ride at a very low cadence (say below 75 rpm on average), work on increasing it. This will make it easier to accelerate quickly so as to respond to changes in pace.Cornering at speed is another common limiter for new racers – though this is difficult to practice safely on open roads. Once again, I’ll mention the virtues of joining a club – a fast group ride is the closest it’s possible to get to a real race, there is no better way to improve bunch riding skills.

3. Follow a plan.

Ultimately races are harder than sportives, in order to do well you may need to follow a more carefully structured training program. It is true that many riders do not have a written training plan and still have very successful racing careers – however they are in a minority. Find 2 or 3 races in which you would like to do particularly well and build a plan around them. My post on training goes over this in more detail.

It is very important to include rest periods within your training. As a rule of thumb, halve your usual weekly volume and leave to any hard interval sessions every fourth week. High intensity training is very fatiguing, especially if you aren’t used to it. Overtraining should be avoided at all costs.

4) Use data – test yourself.

Click here for a post explaining this in more detail. It’s likely that you already record your rides on Strava or similar, but do you take much notice of the information on the screen? You don’t need a power meter to be-able to train ‘scientifically’, nor do you need to spend hours sifting through data after every ride. As outlined in the link above, just paying attention to a few key numbers is enough. Regular testing is important, making it much easier to gauge progress or detect the early signs of overtraining.

To finish with, here is one final word of advice. Don’t lose heart if the first few races go badly. I’ve said many a time that this is the case for most of us. Nothing quite prepares you for taking to the start line for the first time – it will get better from then on. I felt as if I’d taken a big step back when I first started racing, having gone from gold times in 100 mile sportives to being dropped on the start line. I went on to have a successful season, achieving my 3rd Category license. Just be patient.

As always, stay tuned for more.

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