Picture this. It’s 2°C on a Sunday morning. The sun is rising slowly over the horizon while you and a group of club riders all huddle in a car park watching your own breath wisp out while you mentally prepare for riding for a couple of hours in the freezing cold. Why? Because it’s reliability ride season and you’re a sadistic road cyclist. Just kidding, but us roadies are an odd breed sometimes. We’d rather head out at an ungodly hour to ‘prove’ we can ride 100 miles in under six hours in January than stay in bed an hour longer? Madness.
But reliability rides are an important part of the British road cyclist’s season. Beginning in January, clubs across the country organise these informal reliability trials as a way of testing your ‘reliability’, or your fitness and navigational skills during winter. They used to be used widely by professional riders or racers to test where their fitness was before the spring season began. Nowadays, there’s a lot more amateurs and local clubs at a reliability ride, but they’re just as challenging (particularly if you’ve neglected your bike lately).
In the early 1900s when the safety bicycle was being developed, the technology was somewhat crude and a lot less safe than it is now. Additionally, the roads were in an even worse state than they are now, with horse and carriages still largely popular, the roads were largely dirt tracks. Add in the lack of signposts and street lamps, and telephones to ring your partner when you need rescuing, and a safety bicycle was quite difficult to ride, and so cyclists would use these rides in the early years to prove the reliability of their machines. Riders would also sometimes use these reliability trials as a way to show police officers that these mass rides, as it were, were not actually races and they needn’t be concerned. In these days, the first reliability rides were also known as reliability trials, a term that’s somewhat interchangeable although most often used by motorsport fans.
The modern day reliability ride is based on the same principles. You pay a small fee to enter, and you’re given a set route and a time limit to ride it in. Unlike sportives or other mass participation events with professional event organisers, a reliability ride is not signposted, there are no marshalls, feed stations, or even mechanical assistance. The idea is that you get round these reliability trials under your own steam, with only your legs and map-reading (or cycle computer reading) skills to guide you. These cycling events are also held on open roads so it’s important riders treat them with respect, and not like a race.
As we mentioned before, reliability rides are a great way of benchmarking where your fitness is at in a real world scenario - particularly if you've been working hard to maintain winter fitness. You might have recently performed an FTP, but that will have been on your own and maybe even indoors. These reliability trials give you a good inclination of where you’re at, especially compared to other people you ride with.
They’re also great for scouting out the local clubs before joining. See who you like riding with, what sort of level everyone is at, and even make new club cycling friends in your area. Naturally, there are some people and cycling clubs who will treat it as a race (although they shouldn’t) but there is a place for all abilities at these rides. It is, after all, a test against yourself, not a positional thing.
Depending on where you are in the country and what club you’re a member of, the distance and difficulty of these rides will vary drastically. Some cycling clubs offer choices on route lengths, for example a 30 mile and a 50 mile option. They're not particularly rather long distance rides like an audax, but usually between 30 and 100 miles is a good benchmark for a reliability trial. This opens them up to more riders, especially if you’re new to riding in a group or don’t know how far you can manage just yet.
A reliability trial is also typically on a weekend, so can take the place of your long ride. Of course, long rides in winter should be done at a lower intensity than shorter rides, but it’s easy to get sucked into the momentum of the group - if you’re bothered about your time then sure, go for it. But otherwise, just try and hold back a bit and focus on your own long term training goals ahead of the racing season rather than burying yourself with other competitive cyclists trying to beat a set average speed, for example.
Reliability rides are often run throughout January and into early spring, so there will be plenty of opportunities for you to ride them. If you’re not sure where to find any, try your local club’s Facebook page or website and they should be able to provide you with a list of what’s on.
If you use Spoked, it’s easy to incorporate these types of rides into your training, either as a free ride or as a planned session (depending on your goals). And if you’re not using Spoked, why not give it a go? It’s free for 14 days with no card information required. Download the app from the App Store or on Google Play to give it a try.