After months, even years of hard training, steady improvement and increased self-belief, pinning on a number and racing for the first time is, for many cyclists, the ultimate goal. The chance to test ourselves against others is hugely motivating and keeps us coming back for more, race after race, season after season.
But what about those of us who — for whatever reason — cannot or do not cycle competitively? How can we stay motivated to keep enjoying ourselves while also developing our fitness?
There are hundreds of thousands of road riders in the UK — only a small minority officially compete. This doesn’t mean they’re not competitive; don’t be fooled. Many such riders have race-ready fitness levels, riding many times per week, including intense intervals, group rides and long days on the bike.
Whether you’re taking a break from competition, building towards your race debut or simply not inclined to race, there are plenty of ways to stay motivated and even get that competitive fix. Maybe you are training for an epic sportive, gunning for a Strava KOM, sprinting against your friends for a town sign or simply riding for fitness. So here goes: how to stay hungry without racing.
1. Take on your hardest ever sportive
Whether you’re a seasoned event rider or a newbie, completing a long-distance sportive is always an achievement; doing your best requires motivation and hard training.
While most sportives are tough, the hardest ones raise the difficulty stakes to stratospheric levels, dishing out punishment over epic distances, multiple mountain passes and bone-jarring cobbles. Here are two of the toughest events, with memories from riders who have completed them.
The Fred Whitton Challenge
Though it takes in beautiful Lake District scenery in May, this 112-mile event includes 3,900m of climbing and some wall-like slopes such as Hardknott Pass with its 25-30 per cent gradients. The weather is often poor and road surfaces can be rough. Cycling blogger Charlie Woodall rode ‘Fred’ in 2017.
“Before Hardknott, I shoved in a couple of caffeine gels and prepared for impact,” he remembers. “I’d not done anything this steep before and I was apprehensive. I rode as easily as possible on the shallower bits to help my legs recover and ground out the stupidly steep parts as best as I could. The 25-30 per cent section was bloody tough, but the fear of being photographed walking made me press on!”
The Paris-Roubaix Challenge
At 172km and taking on 55km of the fearsome cobbled sections ridden by the pros in Paris-Roubaix itself, this April sportive represents an intimidating challenge. Ultra cyclist and road racer Darren Franks rode the 2017 edition and recalls taking on the infamous Trouée d’Arenberg.
“Riding into Arenberg has got to be one of cycling’s bucket list experiences,” he tells me. “The approach is downhill and you see the entire length of the cobbled trench laid out ahead of you. I hit it at as fast as I could. Then the world went blurry and my eyeballs rattled in their sockets. Nothing prepares you for this.”
With many of the enormous stones laid during the Napoleonic era, the pavé is energy-sapping and bike-busting but the prospect of finishing in the Roubaix velodrome provides ample motivation.
“Near the end of Arenberg, my seatpost clamp sheared off and my saddle dropped sharply. My heart sank but I was desperate to reach the velodrome so I channelled my inner Flandrien and rode the remaining 55km out of the saddle,” recalls Franks.
Alternatively, try these…
La Marmotte Granfondo Alps
This 174km monster ride takes place at the start of July each year and features 5,100m of climbing including the Col du Glandon (1,916m) and finishes with the mighty and iconic Alpe d’Huez, a 13km, 8.1 per cent beast of a mountain.
What this 151km June sportive in Lombardy, northern Italy, lacks in distance it makes up for in sheer difficulty. Taking on 4,058m of climbing, there are a number of painful ascents, but the brutal Passo Mortirolo (12km, averaging 10.5 per cent), and the mighty Passo dello Stelvio (24.3km, averaging 7.1 per cent) with its 27 hairpins make this granfondo a monumental challenge.
2. Target a competitive Strava segment
Before Strava, how did we convince friends we had beaten their time on a climb? Perhaps more trust existed among riders, or more head-to-head climbing. From famous mountain passes to remote gravel paths, not many rideable roads are without Strava segments. Attempting strong times or QOM/KOMs provides an almost endless source of motivation for amateurs, pros and former pros alike.
Strava holds detailed records of every attempt made by riders on specific segments: time, average speed, heart rate and power. The ‘Live Segments’ feature gives users updates on when specific segments begin and how they are faring in real time against others. There are countless ways to use the app both as a training and motivational tool. It is not an exact science — glitches and cheating do happen — but Strava’s analysis provides the motivation to give maximum effort.
One of the most famous Strava users is former Cannondale-Garmin pro Phil Gaimon. After retiring, Gaimon realised he still loved training and suffering, so began attempting KOMs on climbs throughout the world, from the USA to Australia.
“To me Strava is a great way to give a little extra push during a workout,” he says. “When I was racing, my coach would have me do intervals pretty much every day. I didn’t use Strava then, but for all-out efforts, I bet I would have found a little more power if I had had a finish line and a PR to chase.”
Not content with only destroying Strava KOMs, Gaimon’s competitive nature recently led him to the world of track racing — although things didn’t exactly go to plan. Filming at a velodrome in Pennsylvania for his ‘Worst Retirement Ever’ YouTube series, Gaimon crashed hard, breaking five ribs, his collarbone, scapula and suffered a partially collapsed lung. A reminder, if it were needed, that racing can be dangerous.
3. Join a club or ride in a group
There are advantages to training alone: you choose the route, distance, how and where you do efforts. However, solo rides can become boring without the variation, camaraderie and competitiveness that group riding offers. Like racing, group rides give riders the chance to test themselves alongside like-minded people in a bunch environment. The thought of beating the fastest riders in your local group up a climb or putting in hard turns at the front should be motivation enough.
Phil Gaimon believes fast group riding, the type he kept up post-retirement, provide intensity and motivation. “Group rides show you definitely don’t just need a race target to be fitter or motivated; I love riding in them. Regular group rides can put intense training cycles into your riding and give you a way to chart progress and improvements. In LA, I know a lot of fast guys who don’t race but live for the group ride and making me hurt!”
4. Don’t sweat not wanting to race
What if you love riding but feel turned off by competition? In a sport where so much attention is paid to speed, numbers and equipment, not to mention how one rider’s performance stacks up against another’s, it can be easy to become disillusioned. Dr Josephine Perry, sport psychologist, tells me: “Whether you enjoy the competitive elements of cycling entirely depends on your personality. Some of us need to have these competitive elements to keep us riding, so may spend lots of time on Strava or social media. Others feel this competitiveness sucks the joy out of riding and actively avoid comparisons or overly competitive riders.”
For those struggling with motivation outside of racing or competition, Perry recommends focusing on what she calls a ‘ment goal’: “Instead of races or PBs or power goals, you instead focus on achievement, environment, enjoyment, fulfilment, development or movement. If the environment is your goal, aim to ride in places you’ve never ventured to before. If it is about achievement, try mastering skills in an area you’ve previously avoided. You may feel you don’t move enough so your goal becomes to ride for active travel or join a club to get more enjoyment out of your riding.”
5. Ride in sunnier climes
We have some excellent roads and climbs in the UK, many with stingingly steep gradients. However, many of our roads are poorly surfaced, and we’ve none of the long mountain passes found in France, Italy and Spain — UK riders rarely get the opportunity to do long, steady climbs. Cycling trips abroad, whether training camps or touring holidays, allow UK riders to emulate their heroes, tackling the epic mountains featured in Grand Tours while also experiencing different cycling cultures.
6. Go exploring
Riding the same local loops will eventually become stale, even for the most self-motivated rider, so why not freshen things up and expand your horizons with some exploring? Cycling is often focused on competition and fast riding, but it is worth remembering how much freedom a bike gives you to simply discover new roads and regions. Next time you see a road or path you don’t recognise, ride down it and see where it takes you. In an era of online route-builders and Strava segments, it can be refreshing to go off the beaten track into the unknown.
7. Try something different
The dangers of overtraining and burnout are well documented. Aside from risking illness or injury, riding when you should be resting or away from cycling damages motivation. Dips in performance owing to injury or fatigue can lead to depression or a loss of desire to ride. “Time off is really valuable,” says Dr Josephine Perry. “It helps us reflect, recover and rest so when we start again we are energised and motivated.”
When it’s sunny or you see your friends uploading rides on Strava, you may feel envious, even resentful you are not riding. But if you feel like you need a break, take one. To add variation, you could try other types of cycling or cross-training.
“To me, motivation issues mean you should mix up your activities,” Phil Gaimon says. “Try other sports or find something that doesn’t feel like a chore. If you live somewhere with bad weather half the year, rather than chasing cycling success with miserable hours on a stationary trainer, just pick a different sport for a few months and enjoy mixing things up.”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.