Nowadays, I use energy products very specifically and with nowhere near the frequency that I used to, I've learned when you need to use them and when you don't.
The decision to use energy products is primarily driven by how hard you are working when exercising. As your heart rate drives up towards the intensive zones over sustained periods it switches to your carbohydrate stores to fuel itself and you need to replace them - hence needing additional carbohydrate in the form of fast absorbing sports nutrition mid-ride.
I'm not a medical expert and this article is written to give you the basics, so to find out a little more about carbohydrates and the difference between complex and simple carbs, read this article on netdoctors or consult a sports performance coach if you want to do a deep dive.
Keeping it Simple
Particularly on long sportives or very hilly rides, you will be pushing your body much harder and it's important to keep on top of your carbs, or you'll end up 'bonking' (cycling term for the runners equivalent of 'hitting the wall'). However, unless you know what intensity you're working at, it becomes a bit of a guessing game.
Those that visit this blog regularly know that I do all my training using a heart rate monitor. This means that you control your ride intensity and effectively your need for additional carbohydrates. Long 'base mile' rides rarely need carbohydrate topping up, a good breakfast or a cafe stop will be enough to give you the fuel you need to keep going. Natural foods like bananas and porridge before setting off, give you the slow release energy you need.
If you're doing an intense sportive, then you will definitely need to look at your fuelling strategy. I would be looking at the route profile to see where big efforts are needed (like climbs), where the official food stops are to re-fuel with more natural carbs where possible and then figuring out what additional top-ups I'll need mid-ride either in the form of liquids, bars or gels. I prefer things like flapjacks wherever possible, simply because energy products can taste a little sickly after a while. Former hour record holder Graeme Obree, swears by marzipan!
During a long sportive, I'd be keeping an eye on my average heart rate and adjusting my fuelling based upon the pre-planning above. To ride long distances, you need energy, the trick is figuring out how much you need from refined sports supplements by keeping an eye on your intensity levels using a heart rate monitor.
I always carry a gel with me when I'm out, whatever the circumstances, there's always changing conditions. Sometimes, a long ride with heavy rain or wind can just sap your energy unexpectedly. You may have forgotten to eat or drink regularly whist riding and then all of a sudden - BOOM!
The trick is to find a brand that you like, some gels can upset your stomach, some are organic, some with caffeine, there are lots to choose from. Try not to mix and match and always test them on a ride, before you do anything big or long distance in case they don't agree with you.