You don't have to be Lance to get high on the great amateur cycle rides in the UK, says Richard Lofthouse

I looked down in disbelief to see the whole rear derailleur hanging uselessly on the chain. I had ridden just 96km of a 210km cycling marathon, and this looked terminal.

But a fellow cyclist produced a chain-breaking tool, a man from a nearby house provided some Swarfega wipes, and we got the whole gear assembly off, reattaching a shortened chain to allow for single-speed riding.

Six hours later, I arrived back at Oakley village hall, near Basingstoke, having bounced across most of Wiltshire, and from despair to elation. That was the Victor Ludorum 200km Audax. The following weekend, I took part in the White Horse Challenge Sportive, Wiltshire, and now, before me, is a feast of 57 such rides between May and October, spread across the UK.

Variously referred to as étapes, sportives and "audax" rides, not forgetting the Italian title, gran fondo ("great ride"), these long-distance epics are exploding in popularity among riders and non-riders alike.

The defining annual event is the Etape du Tour, when 8,000 cyclists tackle a gruelling mountain stage of the Tour de France. This year's is on 16 July in the Pyrenees, and it has been fully booked for months. What's remarkable about these rides is the "Continentalisation" of the UK when it comes to cycling, a process that predates the announcement that a Tour de France stage would come to London this July.

Take the Etape Caledonia on 24 June. It uses a French term for a Scottish event, and will be held this year on closed public roads, a novelty in the UK, where local authorities and the police have traditionally declined such extravagant requests. Or how about the Gran Fondo Cymru on Sunday?

There is a century-old tradition of theoretically non-competitive audax riding in the UK (the term comes from the Latin for "bold"), which involves route finding and control points, and where reliability is more important than speed.

On the other hand, the sportive concept takes advantage of new technology. Each rider wears a tiny transponder on their wrist. They insert it into a hand-held unit at the start and finish, and at feeding stations in between, allowing for accurate classification of a large field of riders without the dangers of a mass start. In other words, it's not a race but it is definitely competitive, as any participant will confirm. And you don't have to bother with route-finding instructions because sportives are clearly signposted and marshalled

There are many of us out there with more than one bike who audax it one week and sportive it the next. We can all play at being Lance Armstrong these days, and bike shops have benefited hugely from the halo effect of the Texan superstar, regularly selling fully blown race bikes for the same price as a small car, every penny spent on increasing stiffness but reducing weight. (In case you're wondering, the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio frame on sale today is the Cervélo R3, while the lightest is the Scott Addict, at 790g.)

Every ride has its unforgettable bits – whether sheer pain and exhaustion, mechanical mishap, or, worst of all, a crash – balanced by a wonderful sense of achievement. For me, the magic comes with riding in a group. You concentrate so hard on the wheel inches in front that you hardly notice the scenery at all. Because the collective progress made by a peloton far exceeds a solo effort, you rapidly knock up the kilometres.

Cycling alone can be a great thing, too. On any long ride you're likely to be alone for some of it, a welcome chance to find your own pace and take in the countryside. That's the wonder of cycling – it's a sport as much for loners as for team players.

A few hard-earned tips. Professional Tour riders are as likely to eat "real food" like sandwiches or a brioche as they are those slightly repulsive sports bars. On the other hand, having a carbohydrate powder mixed into your water has become de rigueur.

A tiny reduction in tyre pressure could save you spending thousands on a "sportive special" frameset that supposedly offers race-bike sharpness with comfort for long rides. And, don't spend a fortune on an expensive saddle when the money could be better invested in a fine pair of Assos padded shorts.

Next, the vast majority of race bikes come with tyres that will rupture at the first sign of a stone. I advise getting one of the tougher "all season" tyres rather than the ultra-lightweight ones – the Continental GP Four Season, for example.

Finally, don't leave it until your first big hill to find out if you have a low enough gear. Many Etape riders have learnt to their cost that a triple chain ring would have allowed them a better gear for brutal climbs. As with any other sporting event, don't get hung up on vanity projects. The point is to garner precious memories, not to become a pro-athlete on a part-time training regime.

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