People are going bananas for cyclosportives – also known variously as Audaxes, Étapes or Gran Fondos –at the moment. But exactly what are they? Put simply, they're group rides over long distances. Otherwise known as 'reliability rides', the main aim is to make it to the finish. They're officially non-competitive but, with some rides being timed, an element of competition can creep in.
The key words to remember are 'group' and 'long distances'. On rides like the London to Canterbury the group will be thousands strong, and distances go all the way up to 1,200km for the famed Paris-Brest-Paris Audax (which takes place once every four years - the next is in 2011).
These sorts of rides happen all year round, all over the world. And while the Étape du Tour may be the most famous, they're not just limited to the summer months in France. There's a calendar full of events, some of which are stand-alone events - like Italy's Gran Fondos and South Africa's Cape Argus - and others that are tied in with the biggest races of the professional cycling season - the Tour de France, Belgium's Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold in Holland...
But while they may be a great way to test yourself over long, challenging courses, you don't have to travel abroad to take advantage of these events. Britain has plenty of Audaxes, sportives and rides that will push you to your limits, and bring your riding on in leaps and bounds.
Spice up your training
As much fun as riding your bike is, ploughing a lonely furrow round the same old routes can get pretty dull - especially if you're training to for an Ironman and spending five, six or more hours in the saddle.
Going out with a group helps as you can have a chat and a laugh as you go but you can add extra spice by signing up for a sportive. Not only do you get the benefit of group riding, but the group and the ride will be new.
You still notch up that all-important time in the saddle but you get to test yourself over some routes and topography you wouldn't otherwise have tried. Your leg strength, pedalling technique, bike handling, and aerobic and anaerobic systems get the workout they need, while you get to take in some new sights and ride some new roads. Staying mentally fresh keeps you motivated to train. Giving your mind a break from the same old ride routines is a great way to do it, and these events allow you to do just that.
As a coach, the triathletes and duathletes I've advised to try these types of rides have found they have a huge impact on their training. See the Big ride benefits (above) for exactly what training improvements you can expect. Ian O'Neil has been using sportives as training for a tilt at Ironman Switzerland this year and the effects are already starting to pay dividends.
"I notched up a very pleasantly surprising win in our club's sprint tri," says O'Neil. "To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, for me 'It was all about the bike' as I took 1:20mins out of my nearest rival and overturned the unfair advantage that the swimmers have over us landlubbers. It just goes to prove that going long helps you go short."
Mike Gorman also thinks they're great training and is using them as part of his build-up for his bid at a fifth successful Ironman. "Its fun, non-elitist and you get the miles in without realising it. It's not easy but riding on my own for the same mileage is a lot harder on the mind. Audaxes are always cheap and are just as fulfilling to complete."
Riding long distances in a group presents its own challenges, the main one being to keep things safe for yourself and those around you. If one person goes down, chances are they'll bring plenty more with them,
It's difficult to see potholes, parked cars, drain covers and other obstacles when you're in a tightly packed bunch, so calling or pointing out hazards to your fellow riders is imperative. Bunch pile-ups are nasty and do as much damage to you as they do to bikes, so do everything you can to prevent them.
Aerobars are not banned but you'd be unwise to use them in a group - not only because they take your hands away from the brakes, but because they make coping with the sometimes subtle/sometimes sharp way a bunch moves on the road very tricky.
Mudguards are the traditional bone of contention on Audaxes. You're supposed to have them and, while many organisers are flexible about the matter, it's definitely the polite thing to do during the winter months. You won't be very popular if you're spraying everyone riding around you with the water and dirt thrown up from your wheels.
The rules regarding speed also catch people out on Audaxes. Like other types of event, there's a minimum average speed - 12km/ph (7.5mph) - but unlike other events there's also a maximum average speed - 30km/ph (18mph). This helps to underline the fact that it's not a race and discourages any 'heroics' from over-enthusiastic riders
Don't worry: it doesn't mean you have to keep your brakes on when you're descending. You can go as fast as you like because the easiest way to bring your average down is by taking advantage of the various planned stops along the way. They're generally at a café of some sort, so usually make quite a pleasant and welcome break from riding. They're also places where riders can get their brevet card stamped.
The organisers will have had to convince the café owners that having hundreds of sweaty cyclists stopping to have their cards marked will be good for business, so do the decent thing and fill up on tea and cakes.
Go the extra mile
Whatever names they go by, long group rides give a great training stimulus and a new challenge for multisport riders to overcome. They work as both a refreshing break from your usual training and help you renew your enthusiasm for it. You get to work on your endurance and bike handling skills, and learn about how well you recover from such a large undertaking.
Purist multisporters may pooh-pooh such rides but they're missing a biking bonanza that's getting lots of people from all sorts of backgrounds out on their bikes. Can all those people be wrong when they're taking so much time off their bike splits?
Joe Beer is a multisport coach who has also finished three Étape du Tours, two London-to-Paris rides and the 111-mile Pru Tour Red Ride in '99.