So, you want to ride in your first mass participation event? Excellent, it is a wonderful and addictive experience. Nothing is better than pedalling around the countryside with a large group of like-minded people. However, it is imperative to prepare correctly if you really want to maximize your enjoyment. Here are some of the things you need to consider before you ride.
It sounds obvious, but it is surprising how many people over estimate their abilities. There is nothing wrong in having confidence, but there is a difference between feeling good about your chances of finishing and being totally unrealistic in your goals.
If you only ever go out for 20 mile rides, it’s probably best not to enter a 125 mile epic through the mountains. Not yet anyway. Do yourself a favour and build up to those longer events. Start small and see how you go. There is no shame in entering a 40 mile option. You’ll enjoy it more, trust me!
You must consider the type of terrain that the ride will pass through as well. If it is a mountainous route, then some training beforehand on similar types of roads will be of benefit. Not only will such training improve your overall fitness (and confidence), it will ensure that you aren’t demoralized (or left behind) when the road kicks up for the first time.
Once you have your own fitness under control, it is time to turn your attention to your bicycle. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen riders on the side of the road with mechanical problems that could have been prevented through proper maintenance and a bit of TLC. Don’t be one of them. Some of these rides are expensive to enter and the last thing you want to happen is for your bike to break down half way through.
Get your bike serviced a couple of weeks out from the event, not the day before. That allows time for further adjustment should it be needed. Make sure your bike is fitted properly, gears are shifting smoothly and that your brakes are firm. Check your chain and cogs for wear. Check all your cables. Replace your brake pads if needed. Check your tires for nicks and consider putting on a fresh set if they’re looking a bit ragged. Make sure your wheels are true and the spokes are correctly tensioned.
Give your bike a good clean as well. Get the grit out of your cogs. Remove the grime from your derailleur pulleys. Get that chain shining! Lubricate! Nothing runs smoother than a freshly cleaned, well-adjusted bike.
Your bike is ready. You’re ready. But hold on. Don’t go pedalling away just yet. Do you have the necessary equipment and skills to deal with a mechanical issue out on the road? Yes, yes, I know, you’ve just had your bike serviced and it is rolling along like a dream, but unfortunately things can still go wrong.
The most likely mishap is a flat tire, or perhaps a dropped chain. But anything can happen. Although most mass participation rides have some sort of mechanical support that you can access while on the roads, it is handy to have at least a basic idea of how to fix things yourself. And to do things yourself, you’ll also need to carry a basic tool kit and spares.
At a bare minimum carry a couple of spare tubes, a pump and a set of tire levers. And make sure you know how to use them. Practice removing tires and changing tubes at home. There is a knack to it, so make sure you get the kinks out of your technique well before the event. Google it if you’re not sure how.
Carry a multi-tool or a set of hex-keys that fit your bike’s components. Take a phone so that you can call for help if things turn into a total disaster (and remember – and this is mainly for the male readers – unlike asking for directions, there is no shame in seeking mechanical assistance).
Also, make sure that your bike is kitted out with bottle holders. Preferably two of them. And make sure that you start out with both of your bottles filled! But more on that in the next section.
Obviously cycling burns energy and that energy needs to be replaced. If it isn’t, you bonk. Simple as that! And a hunger flat with 60 miles to go is not something you want to experience.
The longer the ride, the more you need to eat and drink. While most events will have several refreshment stations along the route, they can be some distance apart, so refuelling while on the road is important.
This means you’ll have to carry your own food and drink. Energy bars or gels that can be easily slipped into your jersey pockets and bidons filled with sports drinks are the usual cycling fare. But beware. Some energy bars are almost impossible to swallow, and sports drinks can upset your stomach.
Try a few different combinations on your training rides and find out what works best for you. If you have trouble forcing down dry, crumbly bars while riding, try some gels. Don’t expect to enjoy them though. Despite living in a world of technological wonder, we still can’t get our energy supplements to taste good!
I’ve actually given up on bars and sports drinks altogether and gone back to bananas and plain water. It’s a cheaper, tastier option that’s easier on the stomach, and honestly, I’ve noticed no drop off in energy levels because of it.
Bananas (and cake) are usually readily available at the refreshment stations as well, so you can always stay stocked up!
The Day of The Event
As these rides almost always have early starts, get all your stuff ready the night before. Lay out your cycling kit and make sure it is complete. Don’t be the one furiously searching for that missing glove as the group rolls away!
Arrive early and make your way to the start line with time to spare. Some of the larger rides can have several thousand participants, so they send the riders away in waves based on self-nominated finishing times. Be realistic when nominating yours. If you know it takes you six hours to ride 60 miles, don’t jump in with the four hour group.
Once your wave does roll away you may find things quite crowded. It can be daunting riding among hundreds of other cyclists if you are not used to group rides but there are a couple of things you can do to make things safer.
Firstly, don’t overlap wheels. Keep your front wheel behind the back wheel of the rider in front of you. That way if there is a sudden change in direction you avoid being brought down, and trust me, it is always the rider at the back (i.e. you) who is brought down. Always!
The second thing you can do is lay off the brakes. There is nothing that causes more problems in a large group than someone who continually pumps their brakes. Obviously there will be times when you need to use them – everyone has to – but try not to make any violent stops or decelerations.
After a few miles the group will begin to split up. Smaller groups will be formed and road space will be easier to find. Try to take advantage of these smaller groups though. If you can find one that travels at a similar pace to you, jump in. You’ll save a lot of energy riding in the slipstream of other riders and probably make some new friends as well.
Finally, make sure to pace yourself. Don’t get sucked into riding faster than you normally would by those around you. While it is often tempting to jump on the back of a well-functioning group that has just overtaken you, if you have difficulty hanging on, you’re going to pay for it later.
The Last Word
Enjoy yourself. Look around as you ride. Soak in the atmosphere. Chat to other riders. Remember, preparation is the key. Being well prepared makes it easier to achieve your goals. Believe me, once you’ve finished your first mass participation ride, you’ll want to do a second! Welcome to the wonderful world of road cycling.
Good luck and have fun!