What’s Your Cycling Challenge For 2020?

Lots of us love to take on a cycling challenge and (if you haven’t already made a plan) January is a great time to pick one. But understanding some aspects of road cycling can be like a dark art, especially if you are not involved with a bike club and don’t have other experienced cyclists around you.

In this article I aim to describe the basics of some aspects of cycling where you might find that challenge you’ve been looking for. It does not aim to be comprehensive and is very much road bike focused as that is more my area of expertise. I have not included track cycling, mountain biking or cyclo-cross simply as they are not disciplines I regularly take part in. (Incidentally, if anyone reading this does have experience in those disciplines and would like to write something about it, I would be more than happy to publish it here).

 

Going Faster Or Going Further?

Think carefully about what you want your cycling challenge to be, and about the constraints you need to operate within.

If you are a road cyclist there are really two ways to take on a challenge – ride further or ride faster. These two are not necessarily mutually exclusive but it can be tricky to do well at both in the same year – depending how far you are taking each. The year I decided I wanted to really focus on time trialling, and also ride the Raid Alpine was definitely not my finest year in cycling. I did pretty well in the Time Trials, setting new personal bests for 10, 25 and 50 miles and getting placed in a few races. But when it came to the Raid Alpine I suffered to the point of really not enjoying what should have been an incredible experience.

Personally, as my children are getting older (5 and 7) I am trying to get a bit of distance back in my legs and I do have a couple of sportives in mind for this year. However, going faster is still my thing for the time being. It’s not that I am fantastically fast, it’s that I am really short on training time just now, and it is more realistic right now for me to train for short, fast events. For me, criterium racing is the answer.

Nobody enjoys setting a goal and then failing to reach it so be realistic when you set yours.

 

I’m Not Fast So I Have To Aim For Distance

Take on a cycling challenge to go faster and get yourself to the start lineNot necessarily.

If you have already decided not to read the ‘Going Faster’ options below because you are not a fast cyclist then you need to have a word with yourself! Going faster is, for the vast majority of us, categorically not about going fast enough to win. Just look at the start line of any race, it is simply not feasible that every person on that start line really believes they have a good chance at winning that race.

Going faster is about going faster than you are going just now. It might be about coming last in every race you do this year, but loving the racing in itself and loving the fact that you are faster than you have ever been.

Read the Going Faster options anyway, and if any of them spark that interest for you, make that your cycling challenge this year.

 

Going Faster

If you want a cycling challenge involving going faster on your road bike then racing is for you.

 

Road Racing

The Dunfermline Womens road race in 2018
Photo by Steve Murphy

Road races are bunch start events which take place on the open roads. They often involve a ‘neutralised start’ where riders stay together as a group and must stay behind an event car until a flag is waved and the car moves out of the way to allow the race to start. These races may be over a set course or several laps of a shorter course, and they tend to be 30 miles or longer.

At an amateur level, road races are usually stand-alone single day events. At a professional level road races can be multi-day or multi-week (stage races), such as the Tour De France.

WHAT KIT YOU WILL NEED:

Bike: You must have a road bike with drop handlebars. No tri-bars, although disc brakes are now allowed. You really also need to be confident riding with clip pedals.

Spare Wheel: Road races often have a support vehicle and you may be asked to bring along a spare wheel which the support vehicle may lend to anyone needing one during the race. You will get this back at the end of the race. Sometimes odd numbered riders are asked to bring a front and even numbered riders a back wheel (or vice versa). Personally, I did one road race where I was asked to do this but I simply did not have a spare wheel to bring. I explained this to the organisers and said that, as I hadn’t brought one, I did not expect to be supplied with one if I had a mechanical problem. To be honest this didn’t go down very well, but I really didn’t see what else I could do.

Clothing: If you ride for a club you should wear club kit for races. If you are not a club rider, you should wear plain kit with no writing other than the manufacturer’s mark. Jerseys can be long- or short-sleeved, but the must be ‘sleeved beyond the shoulder‘ (British Cycling Technical Regulations 2020).

Food and water: Depending on the length of the race, you will probably want to take along water and some form of food (such as gels, bars or something easy to consume on the move).

Race License: You need a race license to take part in these events This can be a day license or a full license. To understand what type you might need, read my article on race licenses.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS:

Group Riding: Road races involve riding in close proximity in a bunch. The size of this bunch will depend on the size of the race and whether it splits up quickly or not. You must feel confident riding in a group. Bear in mind that this is not a polite Sunday club run – position is key and there will be jostling for position with riders moving around the group, especially in the early stage of the race.

DEVELOPING YOUR SKILLS WITH ACTIVE CYCLE COACHING:

Whether you are just starting out or have raced before, attending a coached session is a great way to build up your skills.

Active Cycle Coaching runs Group Cycling Skills sessions where you can develop your confidence in riding in close proximity to others.

In 2020 I am running a number of race-focused sessions developing skills applicable to all forms of road racing.

FURTHER READING / VIEWING:

For a discussion on race tactics, try Full Gas! How The Race Was Won: Tactics From Inside The Peloton by Peter Cossins

British Cycling has produced a series of ‘Race Smart’ videos which are free to access and well worth a watch.

You can search for Road Races near you at the British Cycling events page.

 

Australian Pursuit Race (APR)

These are very similar to the Road Races described above, but are handicap races. When you enter, you state your current best race times and positions, and this is used to allocate you to a group of roughly similar abilities.

The race is divided into a number of groups (often three) which are set off at short intervals. If you are just starting out and you have no previous times, you will be allocated to the first group which tends to comprise the least experienced racers. This group gets a head start, and the other groups aim to chase them down.

APR races are a great way to start out as it can avoid the demoralising situation of being dropped by the group in the first mile (most of us have done this at some point!). However, they can be few and far between, especially if you are looking for women-only races.

WHAT KIT YOU WILL NEED:

See Road Races, above.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS:

Group Riding: As described in road races above. It is also really useful to have some experience of working with a group and riding in a chain-gang (also called through-and-off). Whether you are in a group trying to stay ahead or one chasing down, successful groups work together.

DEVELOPING YOUR SKILLS WITH ACTIVE CYCLE COACHING:

See Road Races, above.

FURTHER READING / VIEWING:

Again, the British Cycling ‘Race Smart’ videos are well worth a watch.

You can search for APR events near you at the British Cycling events page.

 

Criterium (crit) Racing

Criterium racing - a cycling challengeCriterium races are run over short, closed (traffic-free) circuits with the race completing laps for a set amount of time (usually 40 – 60 minutes for adult races). Often run on sites such as motor racing circuits, airfields or purpose built cycling tracks, they are best described as fast and furious! Because of the relatively short distance, these races start fast and stay fast.

Personally, I love crit races. Like many of us, I struggle to find the time to train and opportunities to ride my bike for more than a couple of hours are rare. While a lack of ‘base miles’ isn’t ideal, for crit racing speed is more important than distance so I can always manage to train enough. They are also great races for spectators as riders pass you several times. On some circuits you can see the entire race. My husband and children have come along to watch me race a few times and have loved it (although my youngest always questions why I don’t win!)

Crit races are also a great place to start out. I have always found them really friendly and the other riders happy to offer advise to newbies. They often run as a series with races held every week allowing you to keep practising.

WHAT KIT YOU WILL NEED:

Bike: As for road races, you must have a road bike with drop handlebars. No tri-bars, although disc brakes are now allowed. You really also need to be confident riding with clip pedals. There’s no support vehicle as the circuit is short so you will not be asked for spare wheels.

Clothing: The same as for road races – club kit or plain. You will also find more riders wearing skinsuits for the added aerodynamic benefits in crit races – great if you have one but not necessary if you are just starting out.

Food and water: Make sure you are fuelled and hydrated before and after the race but you won’t need anything during. Many riders will strip anything non-essential – such as bottle cages – from their bike to save that bit of weight.

Race License: As with road races, you need a race license to take part in these events.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS:

Group Riding: As described in road races above. It is also really useful to have some experience of working with a group and riding in a chain-gang (also called through-and-off). Whether you are in a group trying to stay ahead or one chasing down, successful groups work together.

Cornering: Crit race circuits tend to twist and turn lots. The ability to corner fast and confidently in a group will save you a huge amount of effort in getting back to a group after every bend.

Clipping in…fast: Clip pedals are a big help as they allow you to put more power through your pedals by pushing and pulling. But….fumbling your pedals on the start line can put you at a big disadvantage with the speed of the start in a crit race.

DEVELOPING YOUR SKILLS WITH ACTIVE CYCLE COACHING:

Whether you are just starting out or have raced before, attending a coached session is a great way to build up your skills. For anyone planning to race criteriums in Scotland, all Active Cycle Coaching sessions currently run at the Fife Cycle Park in Lochgelly where many Scottish Crit races are held. In addition to skills coaching you will get a great chance to practise riding the track before you race.

In 2020 I am running a number of race-focused sessions developing skills applicable to all forms of road racing.

My Confident Cornering sessions will also help keen criterium racers to build their skills and confidence to take corners fast.

Active Cycle Coaching also runs Group Cycling Skills sessions where you can develop your confidence in riding in close proximity to others and in riding in a chain-gang.

FURTHER READING / VIEWING:

Again, the British Cycling ‘Race Smart’ videos are well worth a watch.

You can search for crit races near you at the British Cycling events page.

 

Time Trials

Time Trials are also known as ‘the Race of Truth’…because it all comes down to how fast you can ride. Unlike the previous races described, time trials involve racing on your own and no drafting (following another rider’s back wheel to make it easier) is allowed.

Time trials are run over set distances. They can be any distance, but they tend to be 10 miles, 25 miles, 50 miles or 100 miles. There are also time trials which are run on the same format but over a time rather than a distance – these are the very very long races of 12 hours or 24 hours. Riders are usually set off one minute apart. You will be given a start time and if you miss it, you miss your race as the next rider goes just 60 seconds later.

Time trials are all about flat out speed and the aerodynamics to achieve a fast ride. Keen time triallists are often the kind of cyclists who will spend a lot of money to take a couple of grams off the weight of their bike! The chase for faster and faster times means that courses are often flat, although some are purposely hilly.

Time trials are a great way to start racing if you are not confident riding in a group due to their individual nature. Also, if you are not one of the few who are likely to win the race, you can still get a massive sense of achievement from taking time off your previous personal best over a distance.

WHAT KIT YOU WILL NEED:

If time trials are the cycling challenge for you then it might be time to think about a time trial specific bikeBike: You can buy time trial bikes which have tri-bars (aero-bars) and are all about light weight and aerodynamics. If you are seriously into your time trials they are well worth it, but they are pricey. There is no reason why you cannot race time trials on a normal road bike and this is how most people start out. You can also make your road bike more time trial specific by adding clip-on tri-bars and upgrading your wheels to deep sections or a rear disc wheel. It all depends how seriously you want to get into it. Expect to see some eye-wateringly expensive bikes but do not be embarrassed to race on a ‘standard’ road bike.

Clothing: The same as for road races – club kit or plain. Skinsuits give an aerodynamic advantage so expect to see lots of them. There are also time trial specific helmets which have minimal ventilation and often a pointy end!

Food and water: Make sure you are fuelled and hydrated before and after the race but you won’t need anything during the shorter races. For 50 miles and over you will probably want to think about carrying some food and water – you can even get aero-bottles for this.

Race License: As with road races, you need a race license to take part in these events.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS:

Pacing: In a time trial you want to go as fast as you can for the whole race. This means that practising pacing yourself is really important – you want to end the race with nothing left in your legs – but you want to end the race! Riders will sometimes use power meters to measure this, knowing the power that they are able to sustain for specific distances.

Bike Handling: If you are going to race on a TT bike or on a road bike with clip on tri-bars, you need to feel confident handling your bike in that position. Make sure you practise on the roads. Also remember that the roads are not closed for time trials – you may well need to manage junctions and roundabouts.

Being ‘Pushed Off’: You will be offered a standing start in a time trial. This involves someone holding your bike upright and stationary for you as the seconds to your start are counted down. You do not have to accept this, but it is a great help. A standing start means that you are already clipped on with both feet and are focused on getting as much power through the pedals as fast as you can. Time trial positions come down to seconds or split seconds and you can lose precious time clipping in.

DEVELOPING YOUR SKILLS WITH ACTIVE CYCLE COACHING:

It take practise to handle a time trial bike (TT bike) or riding on aero-bars on a normal road bike. A traffic free environment is a great place to get the hang of this and I have coached a number of clients in handling their bikes, in one-to-one sessions. In just 90 minutes you can go from terrified and twitchy to smooth fast riding. If you are interested in organising such a session, drop me an email at activecyclecoaching@gmail.com

FURTHER READING / VIEWING:

You can find event details at the Cycling Time Trials website.

A great book about Time Trialling, which also has training plans, is Time Trialling: Fly Through The Pain Barrier by Adam Topham. 

 

Going Further

How far is far on a bike?

Going further is about going further than you have in the past. It is not about going further than anyone else. It might be about riding over 5 miles, over 10 miles, over 50 miles or over 100 miles. Pick a distance which is a cycling challenge to you and take pride in it!

For many people, going further is simply about adding a few miles to one of their rides each week, without events and without company. With young children at home, I am a big fan of the zen of the lone long cycle these days. For others, an event gives them the focus to train, the camaraderie they enjoy, the feeling of being a part of something bigger. As always, it’s about finding what’s right for you.

 

Sportives

Take on the cycling challenge to ride a sportiveSportives (or cyclosportives) have grown massively in the past few years. These are challenge events rather than races – although there are always a few out to finish first. Distances range from 20 to 100 miles or even further and many events run more than one distance at the same time.

Sportives are often big events with hundreds or even thousands of riders. Riders are often asked to estimate how long the ride will taken them and from that they are grouped and started in ‘waves’. While this is several riders at once, the lack of a competitive element means that the starts are very relaxed. Routes are signposted and there are usually a number of feed stations along the way.

With the rise in popularity of sportives, some of the popular ones sell out fast. If there is one in particular you are keen to do then make sure you know when entries open. Bear in mind that some of these events are not cheap to enter!

The trickiest part when you are starting out is finding out what sportives are on. Some feature on the British Cycling events page, but not all. If you know keen sportive riders they will be able to tell you about them. Otherwise, Google and Facebook cyclist groups are your friend.

WHAT KIT YOU WILL NEED:

Bike: You can ride most sportives on any (road legal) bike you like. You do not need to have a road bike or any specific equipment for these.

Clothing: Wear what you like! There are no rules, it’s just about comfort. Most sportives will specify that you must wear a helmet.

Food and water: Most sportives have feed stations along the way where you can top up bottles and grab a banana (and quite often cake). You will still need to carry at least one water bottle and it’s always sensible to have some sort of emergency food in your back pocket.

Race License: No license needed.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS:

Pacing: Sportives are usually long events and it’s easy to get carried away at the start. Have a good idea of what you are capable and make sure you eat and drink along the way so you have enough energy to make it all the way to the finish.

Climbing and Descending: Not all sportives are hilly, but many are – after all it’s all about the challenge. You do not need to be a strong climber or a dare-devil descender to take part, but brushing up on your skills on the hills can make your ride more enjoyable.

Group Riding: You don’t need to ride with a group on a sportive, but there are likely to be plenty of others around you for much of the route. Being confident to ride on someone else’s wheel can also be handy of your event day is windy!

DEVELOPING YOUR SKILLS WITH ACTIVE CYCLE COACHING:

When you buy a road bike, you don’t get a manual explaining the most efficient way to ride it. Yet small changes to your technique can make a big difference to your riding. If you are planning to ride a road bike on a sportive, come along to my Road Bike Handling Masterclass to get the most from your riding.

New for 2020 I am running Climbing and Descending Skills sessions. If you are planning a hilly sportive then this is the session for you!

Active Cycle Coaching runs Group Cycling Skills sessions where you can develop your confidence in riding in close proximity to others.

FURTHER READING / VIEWING:

British Cycling have a short video on their ‘Get into Sportives’ page.

 

Audaxes

Audax events take going further to a whole new level! Distances are generally given in kilometres and 100km is a short audax. The ‘classic’ audax distances are 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km.

These events have a time limit and riders must complete the route within that time. The time limits to tend to be fairly generous though.

Audax’s differ from sportives in that they are much more informal events and there tend to be far fewer riders. Some do have feed stations, but the majority are not and riders are expected to be self-sufficient, including following a map to find your way. You will be given a ‘brevet card’ which you must get stamped at checkpoints along the route to show you have completed the event.

Audax events are also much cheaper to enter than most sportives.

WHAT KIT YOU WILL NEED:

Bike: You can ride an audax on any (road legal) bike you like. You do not need to have a road bike or any specific equipment for these. That said, you are likely to feel a real benefit with a road bike because of the distances covered.

Clothing: Wear what you like! There are no rules, it’s just about comfort. You will need to make sure you are carrying everything you need as there is no support.

Food and water: For the majority of audax events you will need to carry all the food and water you need – or money to buy it along the way.

Race License: No license needed.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS:

Skills are the same as for sportive rides.

DEVELOPING YOUR SKILLS WITH ACTIVE CYCLE COACHING:

As with sportives, my Road Bike Handling MasterclassClimbing and Descending Skills and Group Cycling Skills will help develop the skills and confidence to help you complete your challenge.

FURTHER READING / VIEWING:

The Audax UK website is the place to go for lots more information and a calendar of events in the UK.

 

When A Challenge Becomes A Chore

My final words of wisdom on taking on a cycling challenge are these:

Remember it’s meant to be fun!

I love a challenge and a goal and a training plan. But sometimes I have found myself so focused on the plan and the goal, that I have forgotten how much I love to cycle. It becomes all about power levels and heart rate zones and sessions completed and less about the sheer joy of riding a bike. I start to resent family obligations coming between me and my training plan and then I feel guilty that quality time with my children seems to be lacking in quality.

Keep it in perspective. You are unlikely to make the next Olympics so missing the odd training session really doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of things.

Remember the joy, and if it’s a beautiful day, bin the turbo session and get out in the sunshine.

 

 

1 thought on “What’s Your Cycling Challenge For 2020?

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