Old school. A village hall in the middle of nowhere marks the start of most Reliability Trials. Instant coffee in a polystyrene cup. Bottomless, for an extra 50p. Pre-ride cake. Mid-ride cake. Post-ride cake.
There’s no gel handouts on a reliability ride, no electrolytes, no timing chip, just a piece of paper and a home printed certificate to acknowledge your ride. Pah, it’s almost as if Strava doesn’t exist. Come the end there’s no medal to hang around your neck. I know, it was news to me that I’m no hero for riding a bike.
Reliability Trials flirt with a certain romance of days gone by, a chance to revel in nostalgia, for this is club cycling’s heritage, when men were men and bikes were steel. Roar! Yet a Reliability Trial is far removed from the machismo and competitive nature of many cycling events. It’s refreshing to be a part of something that’s very much, well, nothing, more so in this sportive filled age of epic bike rides and boutique cycling festivals.
What is a reliability ride?A Reliability Trial is most definitely not a sportive despite many similarities. The only race is against yourself as you’re asked to name an estimated completion time. It’s a good time of year to be generous with such estimates! Some Trials even have a minimum finish time to make sure you don’t go too quickly! Needless to say the day is very relaxed and treated as a social training ride rather than a race, although a few find it hard to suppress their innerchimp!
Reliability rides are usually held in winter, between January and April, preparation for the season ahead. Similar to an Audax, only less focused on distance. There is no training for months in advance. Just a few like-minded souls out for a winter spin. Glorious.
Trials are usually organised by a local cycling club. There’s a small fee, usually less than £10, and some can be entered on the day, ideal when trying to predict winter weather. Most have a choice of two routes, long and medium, with courses ranging from 50-100k.
Back in the day the emphasis was on ‘reliability’, when you were expected to navigate your own way using a route sheet and ensure you were self-sufficient. Nowadays GPS routes are easy to find for most Reliability Trials and bikes a lot more reliable than they used to be. That only leaves the reliability of your legs!
Why pay to ride when you could ride these unsigned routes any time you wish? It’s not like you get any good freebies like in a Sportive right? No bloody medal! You’re paying to ride with like-minded others, to support the club who organised the ride and the charity they usually donate much of the profit to.
The cycling club is sharing with you some of its special roads, a beautiful route, and even though the onus is very much on you to navigate and support yourself, there’s still a large amount of organisation putting a ride together, be it volunteers at the HQ, the mid-ride cake stop and the marketing or admin of the event.
A reliability ride is what a sportive used to be. Back before the cycling world learnt the art of marketing and some would say, customer service. Cycling Weekly has a great article looking at the difference between a reliability ride and a sportive, comparing the Old Portlians Reliability Trial to the Hell of the Ashdown Sportive, two events sharing similar routes but very different ideals.
Is a reliability ride better than a Sportive? Not necessarily. I can appreciate why some love Sportives even if they’re personally not my thing. Many riders at my club love a good Sportive or Gran Fondo. Organised, sign-posted, decent freebies and good food, everything is taken care of. Riding in new places with the masses, with your friends, Sportives are social occasions, they are challenges that motivate many to get out and ride a bike. Sure, it helps that Sportives have names like dragon, hell and etape. We all want to feel special, right?
Reliability or Sportive, it matters not. They’re all just rides. Whatever gets you on your bike. Some may be harder than others, for sure. Yet they’re all a challenge for somebody, the first timer, the club rider, the part-timer. These rides provide motivation, they are milestones, something to aim for, something to help us feel alive in this increasingly isolated and mundane world of screens, inactivity and nothingness. In a world of fake news, of fake votes, of fake politicians, of faux outrage, these rides are very much real, especially come that very big hill at the end. Bah!
The death or rebirth of the Reliability Trial?Some Reliability Trials have become full-blown sportives like the Hell of the Ashdown or are edging towards such mass market events. Is this good or bad? Neither, it’s simply progress. Many people don’t want to pay to ride unsigned routes with nothing more than a few pieces of cake to fuel them. It’s just a big group ride whereas a sportive is an event, something to build to, to look forward to, to brag about.
That said, I really do hope Reliability Trials stand the test of the time. They’re a part of cycling heritage here in the UK and the relaxed, old school approach is something to be celebrated not avoided.
Reliability rides are perfect for me, giving me the large group ride and challenge of a Sportive but without the fanfare, the Tanoys, the queuing, the chemical toilets, the poor bike handling skills of inexperienced riders, the extortionate entry fees, the hype, the aggressive commercialism. Yeah, I’m not really a Sportive fan, but like I say, I can see why many enjoy them.
Reliability Trials in London and the South East
Here’s a list of London Reliability Trials to get your season started. Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.
- Sydenham Wheelers Reliability Ride | Late Jan
Christmas is but a blurred a memory but your belly tells you otherwise. A rewarding ride through Kent, avoiding most of the big hills to ensure this early season leg opener doesn’t put you off riding for the rest of the year! Website
- Old Portlians Reliability Trial | Early Feb
A great route through some of the most beautiful and bumpy lanes in Kent, especially the first half. Early February, so the weather can be changeable. Fortunately the route sticks to quiet but well surfaced country lanes so you can ride without fear of gravel, potholes or cars speeding towards you on single track roads. A real early season tester with 1,500 metres of climbing, climaxing with a cursed slog up Toys Hill. Eugh! Website
- Finsbury Park Reliability Trial | Mid Feb
Hertfordshire’s bumps and lumps await the brave who venture out to join Finsbury Park in the sunshine, snow, wind or rain. Or a combination of all of these! As with most of these early season rides, mudguards are a must to protect your backside, your feet and your fellow rider’s faces. Website
- Willesden CC Trials | Late Feb
The Chiltern Hills await those setting off from west London, a stiff test at this time of year especially if taking on the 100k route with 1,500 metres of climbing. Ouch. A more modest 50k route is also on offer depending on where you are with your early season fitness. Website
- London Pheonix Easter Classic | Easter weekend
Stuff your jersey pockets full of chocolate eggs and enjoy some of Essex’s most scenic lanes and villages as this Easter Monday ride takes you to the aptly named villages of High Easter and Good Easter. The route is signposted although most will download the GPX since this ride is one of Strava’s top ten London cycling routes. This is my club’s annual ride, so look out for me, I’ll be wheelsucking somewhere or other. Website
- Islington CC Great Escape | Mid May
Late in the year for a Reliability Trial, it’s more of a London Audax with 200km of country lanes looping through the Essex flatlands. A big day out so be sure to fill up at the start point of Look Mum No Hands! cycling cafe and schedule a pit stop at the cycling friendly Blue Egg cafe near the mid-way point. This one’s popular with over 300 riders turning out last year. Website