Your first Sportive - part 14: Pacing and staying in a fast group - Road Cycling UK

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Your first Sportive – part 14: Pacing and staying in a fast group

Being strong enough to ride with various groups as the pace picks up is an essential skill for sportive success Pic: British Cycling

If you’ve been following this series on a regular basis, you’ll be aware that we’ve been looking at combining various training elements into a 12-week preparation programme designed to get you into shape for your first 100mile – or “Century” – sportive. In part 5 we identified the various training zones based on heart rate and the intensities they represent, and focussed predominantly on work done in Zones 2, 3 and 4 in order to meet the demands a typical event of this nature might place on the rider.

We’ve seen that Zone 2 is the kind of training intensity required to improve your efficiency at aerobic endurance events of this nature and that Zone 3 and Zone 4 efforts should be included in order to take into account some of the sustained, harder efforts required to ride the numerous hills that are a feature of all good sportives.

If you look at your heart rate data from an event of several hours, you’ll almost always find that it averages out at high end Zone 2 (based on our 6-zone system and dependant on the fact that you’ve accurately set up your training zones). This is because you can only sustain this kind of intensity for such long periods. Any harder and you’d ‘blow up,’ and seriously compromise your speed in the latter stages of the event and in more serious cases, risk not finishing at all.

Early stages

You can use this information to pace yourself in the early stages of a sportive and will genuinely be amazed at how strongly you can finish the ride if you adhere to it as opposed to going harder at the start and just ‘hanging on’ as the ride progresses. It sounds like common sense and it is, but you’ll be surprised at how much mental strength is required to achieve it and most experienced sportive riders still get it wrong when they get carried away by the excitement of the early pace.

At this point you might consider that an average pace of zone 2 intensity riding on a hilly course is going to be pretty slow and you’d have a point. But there is one element to sportives that can greatly increase your speed without your having to dig very deeply into your energy reserves, and that element is the number of other riders on the road at the same time, all of whom, whether they like it or not, can contribute greatly to getting you round the course much quicker for less effort.

In the early part of the programme you practiced the technical element of riding safely in a group and doing so in the event itself will make your ride far more enjoyable and much, much quicker. A sportive can be looked at as a time trial that allows ‘drafting’, so do so as often as you can. The potential energy savings are massive, since your speed goes up but the average heart rate stays low as you get the benefits of the ‘draft’ from the other riders.

Too fast or too slow

There is obviously a caveat to this and it’s the risk of joining groups which are either too fast or too slow, so you’ll need to ride your judgement in identifying groups of riders that can be of use to you. You might also need to amend your pacing strategy in the short term to get the benefits. For example if you’re with a group of riders and rolling along at a mostly comfortable high pace but you’re struggling to stay in the group as it crests a short hill, you might be better going much harder than you’re comfortable with for short periods in order to keep benefiting from the group on the flatter sections on the other side of the hills.

So, in order to be able to achieve this, we’re going to introduce an element of higher intensity Zone 5 intervals into your training. For the great majority of riders participating in sportives, this is an area where it’s not comfortable to go and indeed you wouldn’t want to go there too often in the course of the event as you risk a serious ‘blow-up’ as you dig too deep into your energy reserves. But as we’ve seen from the above, going this hard occasionally in a controlled manner can pay great dividends.

Improved resistance

So look at our training zones chart in part 5 of this series and, in the right hand column, you’ll see the words “improved resistance to short term fatigue.” And that is exactly what you need, the ability to occasionally go hard enough to stay with a fast moving group and not blow up when doing so. It’s a highly desirable component of fitness for any sportive rider. Treat the protocol for this kind of training interval the same as any other, by gradually introducing, short, hard efforts onto your training sessions and building on them. A good progression on this kind of session might be;

Week 1: 1 hour Zone 2 riding including 6 x 1 minute intervals @ Zone 5, recover for 2 minutes easy spinning between intervals.

Week 2: 1 hour Zone 2 riding including 8 x 1 minute intervals @ Zone 5, recover for 2 minutes easy spinning between intervals.

And so on. This will condition you to making the kind of repeated harder efforts on hills you sometimes need in order to cover the changes of pace when riding in a group, where the difference in ability of the various riders makes the pace inconsistent. Progress the intervals even further by lengthening the time of the hard efforts to a few minutes and you’ll soon be comfortably staying with the group when the speed picks up over the hills.

Discuss this week’s training guide in this forum thread.
Part 1: Going for Centuries
Part 2: Breaking down the barriers
Part 3: Goal setting
Part 4: Intensity
Part 5: Get in the Zone
Part 6: Performance Testing
Part 7: Creating a training plan
Part 8: Weekly training plans
Part 9: Be a better climber
Part 10: Improve your pedalling
Part 11: Become a better descender
Part 12: More descending skills
Part 13: Upping the pace
About the author:

Huw Williams is a British Cycling Level 3 road and time trial coach. He has raced on and off road all over the world and completed all the major European sportives. He has written training and fitness articles for a wide number of UK and international cycling publications and websites and as head of La Fuga Performance, coaches a number of riders from enthusiastic novices to national standard racers.
Contact: [email protected]


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