There's no need to suffer from adrenaline withdrawal when the triathlon season draws to a close. There are loads of cycle sportives around at this time of year to tempt you to go long and stay strong on the bike. Sportives are the cycling version of a marathon - with one key difference: there are no fixed distances, making each one a unique blend of breathtaking scenery, great camaraderie and often testing undulations. And since they are officially non-competitive, you'll only be racing yourself. Whether you opt to ride hard or take your time, follow these tips for sportive success.
While your triathlon training should stand you in good stead, you'll need to ramp it up before a sportive. "You could be cycling for five times longer, so make sure you get used to riding at least two-thirds of the sportive distance," says elite triathlon coach Peter Freedman (www.driventotri.com). Train with at least one long ride a week, building mileage by 10 per cent each time. Hill repeats will also help: find a four or five per cent gradient and ride uphill for eight to 10 minutes in a high gear. Recover by riding slowly back down in an easy, lower gear to loosen up your legs.
Wear it well
Endurance cyclist Markus Neuert, director of www.cyclefilm.com, reckons that you don't need to dress like Lance Armstrong to enjoy sportives. "For entry-level sportives, mountain-bike shorts with a padded Lycra inlay are much more comfortable than full-on Lycra. You can always 'upgrade' to streamline kit as you progress."
Pay attention to your hands - their position should change as the sportive gets steeper. Mike Cotty, the first British finisher of L'Etape du Tour 2006, rides most of the event with his hands on the tops of the handlebars: "This puts less stress on the back and opens up the lungs." But on a climb, "especially if you stand up out of the saddle, you may prefer to ride with hands on the brake hoods. You gain leverage by pulling on the hoods through each pedal stroke."
Keep your legs spinning even on easier downward stretches. A cadence lower than around 60 revolutions per minute will allow too much cramp-causing lactate acid to build up, according to 29-time Ironman finisher Mark Kleanthous (www.ironmate.co.uk). "Pushing on in higher gears results in these low cadences - opt instead for an easy gear at a higher cadence," he says. Hold the drops, the lower part of the bars, to increase stability as you descend.
An Allen key costs a couple of pounds but could save you a lot of face, especially if transporting your bike safely means removing the saddle or loosening handlebars. Hilly sportives put bolts under serious pressure, as Kleanthous warns. "If the seat pin bolt goes, the saddle might drop, and handlebars that come loose can twist round with disastrous results. Listen for creaking noises, then grease and tighten bolts carefully." Four-, five- or six-millimetre keys are the most common sizes and can easily be stashed in a pocket.
Keep it simple, says 20-year-old triathlete Philip Graves, who became the youngest ever Ironman champion, thanks to a stunning bike split - 112 miles in 4:57:22 - at Ironman UK 2009. During sportives Graves drinks most of his calories, packing a selection of flavoured isotonic drinks. Salt tablets help prevent cramps. And Graves' secret mid-race weapon? Marmalade sandwiches: "The marmalade gives you a sugar kick and bread supplies carbs."
Round the bends
"When it comes to corners, better safe than sorry," cautions Graves. "Ideally, all your braking should be done before you get into the turn." Then keep your centre of gravity low by leaning forward, hands on the drops of your handlebars. Graves balances himself by putting out his knees "like a Moto GP rider." Ideally, you could sweep through onto the other side of the road to soften your arc, but don't take a chance if there's traffic around. Instead, slow down and turn tightly around the apex of the corner.
Check the route for tunnels and wooded sections beforehand, and make sure you adjust your shades in plenty of time to cope with daylight changes. "You need to move your sunglasses forward so you're looking past the lenses, but your eyes take a few minutes to adapt to the light," says Cotty.
"Sometimes, cyclists reach the end of a sportive with their back and arms hurting more than their legs, just because they've been so tensed up while riding," says Freedman. Avoid this by prioritising muscle stretches like you prioritise fuel: every 15 minutes or so, rotate your shoulders, flex your wrists and shake out your arms.
Autumn is a great time to hit the road for a sportive. Whether you want to test your pins in the Pennines or come over all Keats and celebrate the season at the scenic Ride of the Falling Leaves, there's a great sportive out there to tempt you - and after the excesses of the triathlon season, the modest fees will come as a nice surprise, too.
Check out these websites to find out more about sportives: