Sportive events offer incredible scenery, a challenging course and the support of thousands of like-minded cyclists. But as you move up event distances, pacing yourself becomes ever more important if you want to enjoy the day, avoid hitting the wall and finish strong.
The longer the distances you ride, the more you'll discover just how amazing your body is at adapting. But even the most experienced cyclists can be caught out by the temptation to go too hard, too early. With that in mind, here are 10 tips for pacing your sportive to help you get the most out of your ride.
1. Start slow, finish strong
Sensible pacing should begin the moment the tape is lifted
There’s always a sense of urgency as your event gets underway. Hundreds or even thousands of riders get out onto the roads in large groups and unless you keep your wits about you, it’ll be too late before you realise you’re working well above your intended pace or heart rate – digging a hole before the going really gets tough.
When there’s a long day ahead, warming up properly is really important. Focus on keeping the intensity low for the first few miles and avoid competitive instincts on the day’s first climbs. Once you’ve settled into your rhythm, you can decide whether or not you feel like pushing on a little harder.
2. Check your data
Even if you’ve not managed to complete the distance of your next sportive in training, it’s well worth looking at data from previous rides to inform your expectations on race day. If you’ve got a GPS cycling computer, look back through training rides building up to your event, focusing on distance covered, elevation climbed and average speed.
If you’ve been unable to break an average speed of 14mph, for example, over a shorter course with less climbing than you’ll have to take on during your big event, there’s little point in setting your sights on averaging 18mph on the day. Be realistic in your expectations and mindful of the terrain you’ll be encountering. Remember that wind and weather conditions can affect any estimation too.
3. Know the route
Take the time to really study all the event information on offer. Knowing when taxing climbs are coming up can help you prepare for them, whether that’s means reducing effort leading up to them or taking food a bit early to avoid missing a feed while spinning up a mountain.
Taping a route profile to your stem or better still, uploading the event route to your Garmin so you can view a real-time profile, can make a massive difference to preparing for climbs and pacing your efforts.
4. Listen to your body
Constantly assessing how you feel and whether you're working at the right intensity is key to sustainable pacing
Becoming attuned to your body’s feedback while riding is crucial to pacing – you don’t want to wait until your body is battering you with bone-deep fatigue or cramp before taking action.
The thump of your heart in your throat; stinging of lactic in the legs; ease of breathing; back muscles that need a stretch; a slight thirst; a craving for salt – all these things and more can help inform your effort levels and nutrition minute to minute. As you ride, ask yourself how you’re feeling right now and question whether you’re working at the right intensity to make it to the finish strong.
A one to 10 scale of perceived rate of exertion can be a great way to simplify this – try to avoid sitting above six out of 10 in terms of effort to save something in the tank for later.
5. Pacing by heart rate
If listening to your body yields only static, it’s not too late to incorporate a heart rate strap for event-day pacing – even if you’ve not been training by heart rate zones.
Completing a 30-minute maximal effort test on a trainer, then taking your average heart rate for the last 20 minutes will give you a good approximation of your lactate threshold heart rate. This is the point at which the muscles are creating lactic acid that it can’t shift. Staying below this heart rate for the majority of the ride can help to avoid going too far into the red.
6. Avoid surging
Don't power up too many hills or you'll run out of steam before the end
Tour de France general classification riders need the ability to accelerate with savage speed, either to make time on rivals or keep up with them. There are only so many times even the best athletes can do this before hitting the wall – sometimes called burning matches because once the matchbook’s empty, there’s nothing left.
Most sportive riders don’t need to cover attacks or break away from a group, so think about managing effort steadily – conserving on the hills, recovering on descents and avoiding sudden spikes in effort. Imagining the whole race as a time trial can help focus attention onto yourself rather than being provoked by those around you.
7. Pacing technique and equipment
If you want to be strong all day, staying in the saddle and spinning is the way to go. You’ll put less stress on your legs by keeping the cadence high and also avoid recruiting the large muscle groups that engage when climbing out the saddle.
To facilitate this, gear selection is really important. A cassette with a 28t sprocket on the back is a must-have for most sportives, along with either a 34t or 36t small chainring at the front – depending on how strong you are. If you’re fairly new to cycling, check your bike’s not sporting a 39t front and 23t rear or you may find you’re walking more than riding during your event.
8. Pace your nutrition
Having a solid nutrition strategy is as important as doing the work in training. Be sure to eat regularly, topping up with food and drink if your mind wanders to either. Make the most of aid stations without risking any untested foods and try to stay one step ahead of thirst or hunger.
Get your nutrition right and it’ll help keep the energy levels constant and allow you to complete you pacing plan.
9. Ride in a group
Riding in a group can aid pacing – so long as abilities are well matched
Aside from the mental boost of riding with others, working within a group of a similar ability will mean you’re regularly shielded from the wind, helping you to recover as well as giving a speed boost.
Of course, it’s important not to try and hold the coattails of a group that’s too fast. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re working too hard, ease back to a comfortable pace and wait for another group – or go it alone and regroup at the next aid station.
10. Mental pacing
As well as thinking about how your legs are going to cope hours into a long day, putting some time into a mental strategy can stop your mind from being detrimental to your performance as the miles wear on.
Breaking the event down into smaller chunks is a great way to do this. Whether it’s 15-mile sections, to the next aid station or the distance to the local shops and back, completing several shorter rides rather than a single massive one is easier to get your head around.