Consisting of 500 cold, overcast kilometres over an 8 day period, the Festive 500 has been a talking point at cafes around this time of year for about 9 years now. The challenge is gruelling and is the culprit for a large portion of the cycling community getting ill over the Christmas period, but with great risk comes great reward and if completed can bring a well-earned pat on the back, a shiny badge on your Strava profile and a high five from your cycling buddies.
Rapha have always had their fans and critics. Perhaps you have a soft spot for the brand’s pared-back aesthetic, its premium products and the work it’s done to boost the popularity of road cycling all over the world. Or maybe you’re a little put off by the price point and yearn for the days when cycling was less about fashion and more about pedalling.
Your answer will probably provide a clue as to how you feel about the Rapha Festive 500, an annual challenge that sees thousands of riders all over the planet attempt to chalk up 500km during the eight days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Signup to the Rapha Festive 500 with Strava
Is it a wholesome celebration of cycling that builds community spirit and supplies much-needed motivation in the bleak midwinter? Or, is it a commercial exercise designed to sell a few extra cycling jerseys in January? Feel free to let us know what you think in the comments.
Whatever you think, it is growing. The first edition took place in 2009 and was attempted by just one person, a former Rapha designer called Graeme Raeburn who took it upon himself to rack up 1,000km — double the current distance — over the festive period. The following year, 94 people tried to cover a more sensible 500km and, every year since then, the number taking part has risen. Last Christmas 82,376 intrepid souls put their name forward on Strava.
I was one of them. Back then, I saw it as a way of pushing myself to discover some of the roads around where I grew up, in Bristol. (Like many British cyclists, I only took up the sport relatively recently — as Brits started winning, and Rapha started booming.) I devised a route that took me up Cheddar Gorge, the 5km climb with an average gradient of 4% that featured in the third stage of the Tour of Britain this year.
If you were out around the same time, you might remember the snow. I’ll never forget the wind. On one crossing of the Severn Bridge, on my way into Wales, I was very nearly blown off the walkway and into the murky waters below.
I survived, as you’ll have deduced, but the Rapha Festive 500 was tough going.
Family commitments were a hurdle, of course. It’s hard to explain to your nearest and dearest that even though you’ve barely seen them all year, you’d rather go out into the cold on your own and get lashed by wintry rain for six hours than spend another moment in their company. It was difficult to motivate myself to ride alone, too. I managed to hook up with an old school friend for one foray out into Somerset, but other than that, I was going solo. And, while riding in filthy weather is difficult enough, the prospect of getting home and then immediately going into the garden to sponge unmentionable grime off of your frame and drivetrain is hardly an enticing one. So, in the end, I failed — just like 65,003 of the people who took part.
But the 300km or so that I did manage to complete were, I reckon, worth their weight in gold. Not only (I told myself) must they have each been worth about 1.5 summer kilometres; they also came with double the satisfaction, kept the usual Christmas paunch at bay, and, best of all, helped me enter a new year in better form than I’d ever done before.
So this year, I’m going to give the Festive 500 another try. And, if I complete it, maybe I’ll even buy some of Rapha’s limited edition merch to celebrate — maybe.
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