Rapha Festive 500: eight tips to conquer the challenge
The Rapha Festive 500 challenge is becoming more and more popular - here’s some expert advice to help you succeed
The Rapha Festive 500. Since 2010, when the challenge to ride 500km between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve was first setup after a lightbulb moment from Rapha designer Graeme Raeburn, it’s become an annual rallying call to cyclists around the world to stay on the bike throughout the festive period.
Raeburn himself rode 1,000km - twice that of the challenge - during the magic period in 2009, using the bike as a way of getting around to see his friends and family during the holidays, while logging the miles as part of his base training for the following year.
“Curiosity got the better of me," says Raeburn of the inspiration behind the Festive 500. “Working at Rapha as a designer means the best thing I can do is be out on the bike, testing kit. At the time, we were designing pro-level kit, so I decided to live a week in the winter of a pro rider."
The Festive 500 was born from there and has grown in popularity ever since. Last year saw 82,420 people take on the challenge - up from 72,000 in 2015.
But it’s not easy by any stretch - in 2015 only 13,311 of the 72,000 riders completed 500km in the eight-day period, while last year's total finishers numbered 17,373 - and that includes riders in the currently summery southern hemisphere, who naturally have an advantage with warm weather and long days in which to ride.
For those with the classic wintry weather conditions to tackle, like us Brits, we need to take a more pragmatic and realistic approach in order to get ourselves over the line. We’ve spoken to the instigator of this now-classic challenge, and an everyday rider (and successful Festive 500 participant) to uncover the top tips that could help you.
Plan your assault
“If you’re going to have a go at the 500, I fully recommend planning your rides now," says Raeburn. “We’re just beginning to get long range forecasts of the Festive 500 period, so you can start penciling in a schedule for your rides."
Planning the ballpark mileage you want to cover each day will help break the overall challenge down into smaller, bite-size chunks, says Velo Club Walcot rider and multiple finisher of the Festive 500, Paula Sage.
“It’s really important to see the 500 not as 500km, but as a series of shorter rides. If you think of it as a simple 45 miles per day, allowing for a day off on Christmas Day, then it doesn’t quite seem so bad.
“It’s also important not to get hung up on completing the 500 from the outset. It sounds backwards, but I find if you try to enjoy the process of getting out on your bike for 2-3 hours each ride, rather than watching the odometer tick over, you’ll find it much easier come the end."
Raeburn takes his planning even further, making sure everything is ready the night before. “Make sure everything from your bike and kit is checked and laid out. Have your food ready and bidons in the kitchen. If you see it ready, it makes it harder to find an excuse!"
Getting out early doors could be key to success – keeping the family happy in the process. Obviously, this depends a lot on your commitments during the festive period, but as a general rule you should look to get rides in before the activities of the day really start.
“I try to get out by around 8.30am, which gives time for at least a couple of hours around my local stomping ground around the city of Bath," says Sage. “That way you avoid the worst of the traffic and are back late morning, leaving most of the day for family stuff anyway.
“If you don’t have plans and the weather isn’t too grotty, then you can extend it and get a longer ride in instead. Although, I never take the risk for an early ride if it’s icy. Personally I struggle a bit in the cold, and ice just compounds the issue. Don’t risk it!"
Have a motivational route
Having a target in mind – a coffee stop you like to visit, or like Raeburn and his epic 2009 adventure, perhaps a family member’s house as you do your rounds – can be vital for motivation.
If it’s likely to be a one-way trip, take the opportunity to organise riding to your destination, with the support of your family or friends. Simply pack a change of clothes in the car with your fellow travellers, check that it’s ok to have a shower on arrival, and no one will be the wiser.
Alternatively, make a beeline for some café stops you don’t normally visit – exploring new roads should help keep things fresh while at the same giving a sneak preview of a route that might be perfect during the summer months.
“Try to see new places and ride new roads every now and then. Exploring keeps things interesting, while making sure you have a reward in the form of a great meal or a treat can work wonders," says Raeburn. “A treat can mean different things to different people – sometimes simply riding in some new winter socks can be enough to motivate you.
Give yourself a buffer
Assuming you follow Sage’s advice of breaking the challenge down into smaller chunks, you can plan your rides to meet this minimum day-to-day goal. However, if you have the opportunity, it’s often a smart idea to get a couple of longer rides in in the first few days to give you a buffer against days when you simply can’t get out.
“Get miles in the bank early on – that way I think you’ll enjoy it more... and the process. Imagine getting to the final two days and needing to cover more than 200km in the rain! Having one 50k ride to cover is going to be far more preferable," says Raeburn.
Sage agrees, pointing out that if you can, riding two out the first three days is key to success. “On the one hand you’ve got the 24th as the first day of the challenge, so it’s good to get a flying start under your belt with a solid 60 miler," says Sage.
“This gives you the time to have Christmas Day off, especially if you then plan another longer ride on the 26th – think of it as burning the turkey off to make more room for the other festive excesses that inevitably will come!"
The type of terrain you’re surrounded by will naturally have an impact on how long you’ll need to be on the bike.
“Most of my routes tend to avoid the worst of the hills during the 500, although that doesn’t mean I don’t go for a bit of a challenge from time to time," says Sage. “We’ve got the Mendips on our doorstep here, with Cheddar Gorge dropping down onto the Somerset Levels."
However, seeking out predominantly flat terrain is the clever choice, especially if you know you’ll need to save your legs for the days to come. You’ll ride faster, and therefore might be tempted to extend your ride for longer than you originally planned, bringing you closer to your distance target – which, at the end of the day, is the point.
Integrate it (into your plan)
Some riders like to use the Festive 500 as a motivational training block towards next year’s goals, especially if they’ve been off the bike for a while as an end-of-season break. It can be a great tool for kick-starting the following year’s riding, knowing you’ve put miles in the legs before the new year has even come in.
“There are two ways of looking at it," says Sage. “You can either see it as a platform for next year, or think of it as a final flourish for the year end. I’ve always looked at it as the latter, but I can definitely see why using the 500 simultaneously as a builder for the following year is as motivating for some."
This means you could indeed look to give yourself additional goals, like improving your climbing ability, by choosing hilly routes instead. Raeburn offers this word of caution, however: “500km is a long distance – I’ve failed myself on a couple of occasions when things have conspired against me. Within the 500, try to set a personal goal or target on route – which could be performance-based or as simple as delivering a Christmas present.
So far we’ve looked at the Festive 500 as a solo endeavour, but it doesn’t have to be. Riding in a group has well-known benefits and the 500 is a great opportunity to maximise them.
“When I did my 1,000km in 2009, I tried to organise rides with people," says Raeburn. “I was lucky enough to ride a bit with Kristian House and Dominique Gabellini, but riding with anyone can be a good motivator. Maybe you could also try riding with people you don’t normally ride with?"
“The camaraderie and group mentality of riding is one of the best parts of it, no question," agrees Sage. “If you can get a group of you invested in doing the 500, it can be great for motivation, especially if the weather’s rainy and you’d rather stay in. You can help each other through it.
“You’ll also find you can ride at a higher average speed, which will help pass the miles quicker, which naturally has a knock-on effect of increasing your distance covered each ride. You don’t need to chaingang it, but the company and taking turns at the front can really make a big difference, especially if the wind isn’t favourable."
Record the memories
The Festive 500 has become more than a ride – it’s also a story, if you want to tell it. Doing so can be a real motivator, because you get the feeling you’re creating an event, rather than going on a simple ride, says Raeburn.
“The first year round, I took lots of photos and uploaded blog posts about the experience. At the time it didn’t mean a whole lot, but now I’m grateful I did that and documented it. I think that, if not now, in years to come you’ll be grateful if you record aspects of it too.
“Each year I’m blown away by the submissions we get in the Rapha office. We receive notebooks, sketchbooks, amazing photography, as well as the usual social media submissions," he says.
Rapha offer prizes to those riders who best document their adventures - previous winners include Justyna and Arek Cebula from Poland, who rode the entire Festive 500 in 2015 with their 12-month-old daughter in tow (check out the video above). Last year's winners, meanwhile, are all documented here.
Meanwhile, every participant who rides the full 500km receives a woven badge from Rapha - but the greatest prize comes purely in the pride of completing the challenge.