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Our top choice cycling challenges you should try in 2020

Cyclist magazine
12 Mar 2020

Brilliant ideas to make sure 2020 is a cycling year to remember…

If you ever find yourself grinding up a hill on a bike and asking the question, ‘Why on earth am I doing this?’, you’d better have a good answer. Because unfocussed training isn’t only inefficient, it often leads to chronic bike neglect.

You may well have scribbled down your cycling challenges for the coming year, but if you’re still undecided or don’t know where to start, here are a score of suggestions to kickstart your cycling year and make 2020 the best yet.

There's something here to suit every level of ability, too – whether you’re a newbie cyclist or already have thousands of miles in those legs…

20 cycling challenges you should try in 2020

1. Sign up for a cycling club

OK, this may not seem like much of a challenge but a lot of people are intimidated by the idea of joining their local band of wheelers.

The most commonly heard reason is that others at the club will be so much better than them. Well, if you’re relatively new to cycling or you’ve never ridden in a group before, then that’s probably true.

But that’s also why we’re suggesting it. Good clubs (and most clubs are good) are great places to learn how to become a truly accomplished cyclist.

In many ways, they’re like a support group, a place to take your cycling problems and learn from others how best to solve them.

And it won’t just be your ability to ride in a group that will improve, you’ll see your cycling and bike mechanic skills blossom, too, all while getting to hang out with people who share and understand your passion for riding.

You don’t even have to sign up with a club to ride with one, as most of them will let you join them for a taster session or two. 

Other benefits of joining a club include structured training, coaching sessions, and being introduced to new routes.

And don’t worry about not being able to keep up with the pack, since most clubs have a number of groups to suit a range of abilities from super-fast racers to those who ride at a gentler pace – usually with a ‘nobody gets left behind’ rule.

British Cycling has more than 1,700 clubs affiliated to it, while Cycling UK has around 1,500 more clubs and groups, so finding one near you won’t be a problem even if you live in the Outer Hebrides.

Go to britishcycling.org.uk or see cyclinguk.org to find your nearest.

 

2. Conquer a famous climb

The UK may not be blessed with any mountain ranges to rival the Alps or the Pyrenees, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many killer climbs all over the country within easy access for you to target.

And climbs aren’t just a good test of fitness, they’re also a true test of character.

Whether you pit yourself against a brutal short wall like 0.6km-long York’s Hill near Churchill’s old home Chartwell in Kent (it’s got an average gradient of 14% and maximum of 25%) or a monster like Porlock in Somerset (4.9km long, average gradient 12% and a maximum gradient of 25%) you’re giving yourself a proper leg-testing challenge.

You’d also be ticking off two of the ascents in Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs (Frances Lincoln Ltd, £7.99) which is also now available as an app (£5.99, for iOS and Android devices).

This collection of all the steepest, most spiteful and most spectacular climbs in Britain will provide you with plenty more inspiration.

You could even set yourself the test of ticking off as many of the 100 as you can in 2020. Now that really would be an uphill challenge!

 

3. Ride a century

As anyone who’s been riding for a while will tell you, completing your first 100-mile ride is a true initiation into the cycling tribe and if you haven’t done it yet, make it your aim for 2020.

Training will be key to making the step up. If you are already regularly riding 50-60miles, gradually increase that to 70-80 miles and you should make the magical 100 an achievable target when the time comes.

Try riding at a lower intensity when you train for it, too. If you’re hitting average speeds of 15mph and can maintain that for 3.5 hours, try increasing the time to 4.5 hours and then 5.5 hours.

You’ll need to be pedalling at that speed for about 6.5 hours to complete a century, so make sure you’ve built the endurance base required.

Add some solid, off-the-bike core exercise work to help strengthen your back and you’ll be able to crack your first 100-miler this year.

Just remember to take a GPS with you or at least a map to keep you on track, regardless of whether you plan your own route or take part in an organised event.

That may sound like stating the bleedin’ obvious, but your first century ride is going to be a serious test of your mettle and getting lost can deliver an ambition-flattening, morale-draining, energy-sapping blow.

4. Complete at least one British sportive

For most road cyclists, riding a sportive (a non-competitive organised cycling event) should be something that’s already on your to-do list for 2020.

Not least because you won’t need to travel far – there are plenty of real corkers across the length and breadth of Britain, and throughout the year.

Finding one to set your sights on should be your first priority, to ensure you secure a place, since some are so popular – the Dartmoor Classic or the Fred Whitton Challenge, for example – that they sell out almost immediately.

In fact, by the time you read this those two may have already sold out for 2020 – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty more to choose from!

Facilities and services provided at sportives can vary hugely, ranging from the basic right up to pro-level standards of support. Accordingly, the prices can vary, too.

Sportives run by Evans Cycles are as good a place to start as any (see evanscycles.com) with prices starting at around £25, and distances and difficulty levels to suit all abilities, along with medical and mechanical support, food and drink stations, route marking, and a medal if you finish – or a ride in a broom wagon if you don’t.

See britishcycling.org.uk for dozens of other events nationwide. 

5. Do the Dunwich Dynamo

Sometimes known as the D Run (or more simply the DD) the Dunwich Dynamo is a semi-organised ride with a twist – you ride the 120-mile course at night.

Traditionally starting at London Fields, in Hackney, East London, rider numbers are usually around the 2,000 mark and entry is free.

You’ll set off in the evening, riding through the North London suburbs and out into the Essex countryside, with the aim of arriving at the beach at Dunwich on the Suffolk coast in time to see the sunrise.

A feeding stop awaits at the 60-mile mark at the local fire station in Sudbury. The ride takes place each year on the Saturday night in July closest to the full moon – because it’s easier to ride by moonlight.

This is a challenge with a decent dose of built-in magic, especially if you’ve never ridden through the night until dawn before, as country lanes in particular take on an entirely ethereal quality, soundtracked by hooting owls and made all the more memorable by sightings of rarely seen nocturnal creatures.

See londonschoolofcycling.co.uk for more details.

6. Cycle coast-to-coast in the UK

Like all great challenges, this one has an easy-to-get aim that also just happens to sound great when you’re trying to talk your mates into it at the cafe stop or perhaps recalling your endeavours afterwards down the pub.

Thankfully, Britain – being a long, narrow island nation – a coast-to-coast excursion from east to west, or vice versa, can be a highly achievable (and memorable) goal to set yourself.

One particularly awesome place to cross is between Whitehaven in the Lake District and Tynemouth near Newcastle.

This 150-odd mile route snakes its way through the Lake District and across the Pennines, giving you not just some of the greatest views the British Isles has to offer, but also some great climbs.

In fact, if you include Hartside Fell in your traverse of the country you’ll also get to tick off at least one of the climbs listed in 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs (see point 2.).

You can even choose to do this challenge with the added incentive of raising cash for your chosen charity, spreading it out over one, two or three days. See charitychallenge.com for details. 

7. Compete in a race

If you’re a seasoned sportive rider looking for something a little more intense, taking part in a race will definitely get the blood up.

Whether you opt to do your competitive cycling on the road, a cyclocross course or on a mountain bike, you’ll get an adrenaline kick that’ll put the passion back into your pedalling.

You’ll need to obtain a race licence to participate in any organised races in the UK, which you can get from britishcycling.org.uk (prices vary from free to a tenner depending on the event and your status, with some events allowing provisional one-day licences).

The same website can also point you in the direction of a multitude of race events all over the UK right throughout the year.

It’s never too late (or early) to start either. The League International (or more commonly the TLI) is a cycling organisation that caters for all ages, often featuring handicap road races with riders allocated to a group according to their experience, see tlicycling.org.uk for more.

The League of Veteran Racing Cyclists meanwhile, is for specifically for riders over 40. Go to lvrc.org to find out about membership and to check out their race calendar.

8. Tackle a long-distance trail

If you’re wondering which bike to buy next, investing in an adventure or gravel bike will introduce you to a whole new world of cycling – one that allows you to keep on pedalling when the tarmac runs out.

And thanks to organisations like Sustrans and the establishment of the National Cycle Network, there are now over 14,000 miles of safe, mostly traffic-free paths that you can explore on two wheels – including bridleways, green roads, and unmetalled roads).

Sustrans’ website (sustrans.org.uk) is rammed with information about the network and even suggests routes you might like to try.

One that caught our eye was the so-called Hadrian’s Cycleway, a 174-mile ride (again coast-to-coast) through some of England’s most dramatic and wild countryside, starting at Glannaventa Roman Bath House in Ravenglass, Cumbria, and ending at Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum at South Shields, effectively following the length of Hadrian’s Wall – hence the name.

If you fancy something similar in weather that’s a bit warmer, head to Northern Spain.

Las Via Verdes (the Green Ways) are a similar collection of trails that follow the routes of disused railway lines which have been converted into largely flat, traffic-free cycle paths. See viasverdes.com for more.

9. Plan an S24O trip

If you’ve never tried bikepacking (think backpacking but on a bike) but fancy sampling the delights of disappearing into the wilderness without having to commit to the full beard-growing, wolf-wrestling, drink-your-own-wee side of things, consider planning an S24O trip.

S24O is shorthand for sub-24 overnighter and typically involves packing enough camping kit for an overnight stay on your bike, plotting a route that takes you to a campsite not too far from home, pitching your tent, having a night under the stars and then riding home the next morning.

As a way to spend a chunk of your weekend, it beats queueing at Ikea or guzzling a takeaway in front of the National Lottery Live as your numbers fail to come up again. 

And if you get the taste for it, it might open the magic doorway marked ‘Further Adventures’ that could lead you to literally anywhere in the world.

Bikepacking as an option for longer trips can be as cheap or pricey as you choose – although for any of this, you will need a bike that can handle trails as well as tarmac.

At the more expensive end, holiday companies offer full-scale supported tours which will see you cycling a pre-arranged route, usually with a guide and a backup vehicle to carry your luggage from hotel to hotel.

You’ve then got what’s known as credit-card touring when you take a minimum of kit, buy what you need on the way round and spend the night in hostels.

And then finally there’s the full self-supported trip which involves taking everything you need with you (including a copy of the SAS Survival Handbook) and vanishing into the wild blue yonder.

See bearbonesbikepacking.co.uk to find out more.

10. Treat yourself to a training camp

Pro cyclists use training camps to hone their form and fitness ahead of races, but they’re something the dedicated amateur can try, too.

Typically run by qualified coaches, they give you the opportunity to ride somewhere warm and possibly exotic usually during the colder winter months.

Many will also take care of all your nutritional and bike-maintenance needs, as well as offer post-ride massages. A good camp will improve your fitness, technique and confidence dramatically, often in a relatively short space of time.

And you don’t need to spend a fortune, either, as there are some spectacular deals around – for example, Veloperformance (veloperformance.cc), run by ex-pro Iúri Jorge, offers seven nights’ in a luxury 4-star hotel in the Algarve from just £550 per person.

Mallorca is the choice of professionals and amateurs alike, so have a look at Velusso's packages (velusso.co.uk) for a trip to cycling's ideal location.

For that, you get just about everything you’d want from a training camp except flights (which start at around £40 return from Stansted or Gatwick).

Go with a couple of mates or your partner and you’ll not just get a bargain winter-sun break but you’ll also set your cycling up for the year, too, rather than finding yourself struggling for fitness come spring.  

11. Cycle from London to Paris

This is another one of those bucket-list rides that every cyclist should be looking to put a tick against, and if you haven’t already tried it, make it your goal for 2020.

At around 200-250 miles (depending on your route), it’s a highly achievable one, too, especially if you elect to ride it in two or three days – although if you really want to turn the difficulty levels up, aim to do it inside 24 hours.

The London to Paris Sportive (londontoparissportive.com) is a fully supported event that takes place between 5-7 May, costs £455, and challenges riders to complete the journey in that time period.

If you’d like to go under your own steam, however, there’s nothing stopping you, and the website london2paris.co.uk is a fantastic resource should you want to plan a trip with your family or mates.

It offers advice about everything from routes (including 24-hour, two-day, three-day and four-day options), tips about training, nutrition, the type of equipment you’ll need, as well as offering advice about where to stay.

Alternatively, buy yourself a copy of Avenue Verte – London to Paris by Bike by Richard Peace.

It’s £12.99 and you can get it at sustrans.org.uk, It offers two different routes along traffic-free paths and quiet roads, along with detailed maps, directions, route profiles, as well as information about where to stay, when to stop, and what to see.

 

12. Take to the track

OK, now here’s a thing: According to the historian Bernard Thompson, ‘British cycling events were first organised by clubs in the 1880s.

Despite taking place on quiet country roads, they were constantly interrupted by often horse-mounted policemen who charged at racers and threw sticks into their wheels.’

In fact, if you were involved in a road race on a bicycle back in late-Victorian Britain, you risked fines and worse just for taking part.

Which is why the National Cyclists’ Union, British cycling’s original governing body, insisted its members raced in velodromes rather than on the roads, so they’d avoid prosecution.

The result of that policy has seen a rich heritage in this country of world-class track cyclists from Reg Harris to Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny.

It’s also meant that when it comes to velodromes, we’re better equipped than many, with 23 scattered throughout the UK, including six indoor tracks in Newport, Glasgow, Derby, Manchester, Southampton, and at Lee Valley in London, all of which run taster sessions.

If you’ve never experienced whooshing around a 250m purpose-built track while negotiating steep banks you’ve got one of cycling’s greatest thrills still ahead of you – you lucky, lucky thing!

It’s not just a buzz either, it’s great for improving speed, stamina, technique, and confidence, too. See britishcycling.org.uk/getintotrackcycling to discover out more.

13. Try a triathlon

If you really want to test yourself this year, how about adding a splash of swimming and some long-distance running to your cycling?

Triathlon is growing in popularity in the UK, and with good reason, as BikesEtc cycling guru and pro coach Pav Bryan points out, ‘If you’re ready for the triathlon challenge, then welcome to a new world of supreme fitness.

‘On the physical side, you’ll grow muscles in new places while on the mental side, the variety will complement your wellbeing on many levels, from meeting new people to learning new skills and keeping things fresh.’

Not that you’ll feel too fresh after completing your first triathlon – especially if you go in for a long-distance (aka Ironman) event which consists of a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle ride and a 42km run!

If that sounds a bit daunting, you can always start off by trying out a shorter sprint distance triathlon, which is usually comprised of an altogether more manageable 750m swim, 25km cycle, and 5km run. 

See britishtriathlon.org for more.

14. Sign up for the WOW Cyclothon

If you’re looking for a cycling challenge that’s a bit special, how about this? The WOW Cyclothon is Iceland’s biggest cycling event and sees cyclists from around the world compete in a 72-hour long endurance race.

Taking place between 24th to 26th June 2020, it has riders circumnavigate this magical island by riding its famous Ring Road, a 1,358km route that weaves around its entire perimeter.

If that sounds like an impossible distance to cover in the time available don’t worry, this is a relay race with teams of 4-10 cyclists taking on the challenge.

The race begins in Reykjavik, gliding past glaciers, waterfalls, coastline, fjords, national parks, and volcanos.

And just to spice things up further, on the eastern side of the route, for 29km, there’s a gravel section that’ll require the kind of bike handling skills you can’t develop simply by riding on the road.

Open to cyclists of all abilities and a range of bike types, registration closes on 1 May and costs around £512 for teams of four, rising to £915 for teams of 10.

Pop it into the conversation next time you’re out with your riding buddies and see who’s up for doing something truly life-affirming. See wowcyclothon.com for more details.

15. Do battle on the beach

Billed as the most unique cycling event in the UK, and organised by BikesEtc’s own Matt Page, Battle on the Beach has become an international hit since it was first held in 2014, and now attracts nearly 1,000 riders.

Held in the spectacular Pembrey Country Park in South West Wales, it takes place on the weekend of 14-15 April.

Competitors ride three laps of a course that comprises of a tricksy 100 metres of soft sand at the beach entrance, followed by a 5km ride on the beach (all hard sand), followed by 5km of singletrack and 5km doubletrack through forest roads.

There are seven races altogether including various veteran categories, and on the Saturday night a 10km-time trial race called the Lezyne Battle in the Dark allows riders to have a crack at part of the course before the main event on Sunday.

You can use any bike that’s capable of tackling the course, so expect to see MTBs, cyclocross bikes and even tough-looking tandems – we kid you not! Prices are to be confirmed (they started at £30 in 2017) but as entry opens on 1st January and sells out super fast, you’ll need to get on the internet almost as soon as you’ve finished reading this – see battleonthebeach.co.uk

16. Conquer Alpe d'Huez and Mont Ventoux

Every Tour de France aficionado dreams of one day riding these iconic slopes, and if that sounds like you, why not make 2020 the year that you finally toil your way to the top of one or both of these famous climbs?

Drenched in cycling folklore, they’ve become places of pilgrimage for many who come to place a bidon at the foot of the Simpson memorial on Mont Ventoux, or to marvel at bends on Alpe d’Huez where the likes of Coppi, LeMond, Hinault and Froome have made cycling history.

Of the two, Ventoux is the longer climb, with the southern ascent covering 21.8km on a gradient that averages 7.43% (the last 16km actually average 8.9%!).

At 13.8km, Alpe d’Huez may be a fair bit shorter but is no less relentless with an average gradient of 7.9% and has 21 hairpin bends to navigate!

Although Ventoux is in Provence and Alpe d’Huez in the central Alps, only about half a day’s drive separates these two epic challenges - or you could ride the distance between as well if you fancy yourself as double plus tough. 

17. The Three Peaks cycle challenge

If you fancy climbing some mountains a little closer to home, how about having a crack at the Three Peaks Cycle Challenge?

This sees you consecutively trek up the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales respectively. Start by walking up Ben Nevis (the summit is at 1,344m); then cycle 264 miles south to the foot of Scafell Pike in the Lake District and climb 978m to its summit.

Finally, hop back on your bike again and cycle another 205 miles south to Mount Snowdon in Wales and finish off your adventure by clambering to its summit at 1,085m.

Either organise the trip yourself or sign up with a company such as More Adventure who organise this exact challenge.

The package includes cycle and mountain guides, seven nights’ bed and breakfast, full mechanical and medical support, plus luggage transfer between hotels. See moreadventure.co.uk for further details.

1.8 Ride across Britain

The deputy editor of sister-magazine BikeEtc's rode from Cornwall to Caithness as part of the DeLoitte Ride Across Britain in 2016 and came home a changed man.

Svelter, happier, and with a distinct twinkle in his eye having realised his ambition of cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

You don’t need to sign up for an official event to tackle the 969-mile route, but if you do you’ll find yourself part of a travelling bike-centric circus.

As well as providing the chance to ride alongside hundreds of other cyclists, the organisers pick up the camp you’ll be staying in – complete with shower blocks, catering and medical facilities – moving it on ahead of you in lorries, so that it’s all set up and waiting for you when you finish each stage.

Taking place over nine days, the RAB sees you tackle nine consecutive rides of around 100 miles or more, which may sound bonkers but the fact that so many finish the event each year is testament to how well organised the event is – not to mention how incredible the human body is at adapting to a challenge.

Prices start at £449 (a reduced rate for riders who raise money for charity), and corporate packages are also available. See rideacrossbritain.com for more.

19. Notch up the North Coast 500

The North Coast 500 (or NC500) is a 500-mile bike ride that snakes its way in a loop around the spectacular, wild and powerful landscape of mainland Scotland’s most northerly reaches.

Originally conceived as a route for driving, its remoteness and terrain make it ideal for adventurous cycling types,

Starting and finishing in Inverness, it heads through the counties of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire, taking in plenty of hairpin bends, views that leave you claiming you’ve got something in your eye, and climbs aplenty, not least the famous Bealach Na Ba.

World record-breaking endurance cyclist Mark Beaumont completed the NC500 in just under 38 hours back in 2015, although nobody’s suggesting you need to do it at that pace!

Understandably, most people who have a crack at it, split the ride up into a 5-7 day adventure either spending the night wild camping or staying in one of the region’s many B&Bs.

Mark, who holds the record for riding around the world reckons the NC500 is as fantastic a place to cycle as any he’s yet seen. ‘As soon as I saw the route I knew I wanted to ride it,’ he revealed.

‘Having cycled all over the world, I still believe Scotland has some of the best cycling. No one should underestimate this route.’

Contact visitscotland.com to find out more.

20. The Tour du Mont Blanc

Organisers declare this as ‘the toughest sportive in the world’ and they may just be right.

This 330km beast takes you through France, Italy and Switzerland, over 8,000 metres of climbing, up eight climbs and through some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet in a loop around Western Europe’s highest mountain – the mighty Mont Blanc.

Oh yeah, and you have to complete it in a single day! Obviously, this is not one for beginners. If you’re serious about taking this on you’ll need to be in the condition of your life, with a good level of technique and experience to lean on.

This is a ride that is intended to break you, or at the very least push you beyond anything you’ve experienced before, so whether you decide to ride solo or as part of a two-person relay team, you’d be well advised – as with most of the challenges we’ve listed here – to go for a check-up with your GP before attempting it.

The Sportive takes place on 16th July, so you’ve got a while to get in superhero shape. You can apply directly at letourdemontblack.fr with entry costing from approximately £130.

As the ride is pitched as more of a ‘randonnée’ than a sportive, this is more of an expeditionary event with entrants riding unsupported.

Velocamp, however, is a cycle touring company which offers the only fully supported trip to this event.

Based locally, it escorts its customers with a support vehicle throughout the route, supplying food, mechanical assistant, encouragement, and advice as needed.

Their package, which costs £995, also includes event entry, three days’ bed and breakfast in a four-star chalet, three evening meals, airport transfers from Geneva, a finishers’ pack and Tour de Mont Blanc T-shirt to show off when you get home.

With their intimate knowledge about everything from the course terrain to the likely weather conditions, it’s no surprise that they claim to get 85% of their customers over the finishing line.

See velocamps.com for details.

• For information on how the Wattbike Atom can help you achieve your training goals, visit wattbike.com/gb

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