Picture the scene: you spent much of November and December in the pub or at the very least just chilling out. Christmas has been and gone, yet the first road races are still a good couple of months off. There's always cyclo-cross but the mud is no place for a roadgoing type such as yourself. So what do you do? The answer could be a reliability ride.
If that sounds a bit fusty and old-fashioned – or just plain odd – don't be put off. These non-competitive group rides, also known as reliability trials, could be considered the precursor to the modern sportive, and have a lot going for them. They tend to be friendly, for starters. They're a great way to motivate yourself to get out in the cold for a proper challenging ride; and they're cheap. A fraction of the price of the average sportive in fact, with entry fees from around £5.
British Cycling describes 'reliabilities' as "long-distance rides which emphasise fitness, self-reliance and navigational skills". As such they are not signposted or marshalled, unlike sportives for example. Traditionally riders would follow the route from a printed cue-sheet in the back pocket, although don't let that put you off; most reliabilities have GPX files available so you can use your GPS computer, or go by the other traditional method which is just to follow everyone else.
Traditionally, reliabilities are not just a test of the rider, says Seacroft Wheelers reliability ride organiser Ian Hirst: "They've always been in the early part of the year, as a test of not only yourself – had you been looking after yourself as it were, but also was your bike ready for the for the new season?"
Modern equipment means that doesn't really come into it these days, he points out. While we're on that subject, there are no hard and fast rules about what bike to ride. If you think you can get round the course on it, you can ride it. Your usual winter road bike will usually the best tool for the job though.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the traditional reliability – and one that still endures – is that you set your own average speed, based on miles and hours. There are likely to be a few options available, with traditional ones being '50 in 4', or '100 in 8'. The idea is to ride to that pace – another example of the 'reliability' test – and those finishing outside their limit might have been judged unsuccessful.
Things are generally more relaxed these days though says Hirst, whose Seacroft Wheelers ride is 50 miles long and gets a healthy three-figure turnout of riders.
"It's a bit less formal. That's what we aim to do, put it like that. But getting cyclists to take notice, it can be a bit like herding cats," he chuckles.
The fact it's not too strict is perhaps part of the charm of the modern reliability.
With the advent of winter-long circuit series, cyclo-sportives and the accessibility of cyclo-cross, plus a general slackening off of cycling club life, reliabilities are perhaps not as popular as they used to be. They seem to exist in pockets, with Yorkshire, the Chilterns and Kent being a few examples. They can also be found available to enter online on the British Cycling website calendar, though a quick glance did not turn up many.
If there isn't one near you, that's where the simple, stripped-back nature of reliabilties also comes in handy – it's easy to organise one yourself.
"You don't need any marshals, and you don't have to sign the route, so that makes it easier," Hirst says. "It's not like a sportive or a road race. It's much simpler to organise, and it's a bit more low key."
If you're looking for cheap cycling-based thrills this winter, check out your local reliability. It'll challenge your fitness, help you burn off some of that Christmas pud, and you might even find some new riding buddies or some new lanes you'd not explored before.
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