Best sportives and gran fondos

Our picks from around the globe

Mass participation cycling has never been more popular than right now. Not a week goes by without news of a sportive or Gran Fondo popping up somewhere around the globe, but there are some that stand out from the crowd.

These have typically being running for many years, often building themselves up slowly and growing bigger year after year. They usually have an out of the ordinary route, perhaps set in a stunning part of the world or simply famed for being lung-bustingly tough.

Maybe they accompany a professional race on the same weekend, giving punters the chance to take in some elite racing on the same trip, or traverse the same mythical mountains that you've seen on TV. Whatever the reason, they are unquestionably the rides to do before you die.

Etape du Tour, France

Where and when: Alps/Pyrenees, July, 139.5km/196.5km (2012)

Arguably the daddy of them all and certainly the event above the rest that is known beyond the cycling community, the Etape du Tour takes place during the Tour de France on the same Alpine and Pyrenean climbs the pros will tackle later that week. It's been run since 1993, and has since been taken over by the organisers of the Tour, ASO. In recent years, two separate events have been run to capitalise on the interest it attracts from riders around the world. It's run on closed roads too, which gives a rare opportunity to descend your favourite mountains without the threat of oncoming traffic.

Cape Argus Cycle Tour, South Africa

Hout bay, cape argus:
Hout bay, cape argus:

The majestic coastline around Hout Bay is typical of what you can expect during the Cape Argus

Where and when: Cape Town, March, 109km

While no way near as painful as the Etape du Tour, Cape Town's 109km, 35-year-old Cape Argus can certainly lay claim to being one of the oldest and perhaps largest amateur cycling event. Over 35,000 lined up for the traffic-free gallop around the Cape Peninsula in 2012, including cycling luminaries such as Miguel Indurain, Stephen Roche and Eddy Merckx. Lance Armstrong even pitched up for the 2010 edition, finishing up in ninth position. While it doesn't have the climbing of similar events, its coastal roads certainly provide an unmatched beauty. With international entries hard to come by (only 2,000 riders in 2012), it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many outside South Africa.

Dragon Ride, UK

Where and when: Port Talbot, South Wales, June, 206/125/37km

Along with several others on this list (Tour of Flanders,Quebrantahuesos & Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge), the Dragon Ride is part of the UCI Golden Bike series, events selected on the basis of their strong organisation and sporting value. The initial 3,000 tickets for the 2012 edition sold out in under three hours, which goes some way to demonstrating its popularity. At 206km, its one of the longest events of its kind in the UK and with around 3,350m of climbing over the Cimla, Rhigos and Black Mountain passes, it should be on the to do list of all amateurs.

Maratona dles Dolomites, Italy

Where and when: Dolomites, July, 138/106/55km

25 years old this year, Italy's biggest Gran Fondo takes place every July on closed-roads across the mountainous terrain of the Dolomites, including climbs of the Passos Pordoi and Giau. Over 9,000 riders from almost 50 countries lined up last year. Teams will be looking to knock the event's dominant team, Radteam Aichach, off their perch in 2012 - they've reigned supreme since 2004.

La Marmotte, France

France's la marmotte is one of the original sportives: france's la marmotte is one of the original sportives
France's la marmotte is one of the original sportives: france's la marmotte is one of the original sportives

Where and when: Bourg d'Oisans-Alpe d'Huez, July, 174km

If the Etape du Tour is the daddy, this can certainly claim to be the mother of cyclosportives having being on the calendar since 1982. It tackles roughly the same Alpine route each year and its vital statistics make either fantastic or terrifying reading; 174km, 5,000m elevation over mountains such as the Cols du Télégraphe, Glandon and Galibier, and the legendary Alpe d'Huez.

Quebrantahuesos, Spain

Where and when: Sabinanigo, Northern Spain, June, 205km

Translating to osprey in English, Spain's Quebrantahuesos starts and ends on the edge of the Pyrenees in Sabinanigo, but spends a good chunk of its marathon 205km route in the mountain range itself and includes a climb of the Col de Marie-Blanque.

Fred Whitton Challenge, UK

Fred whitton challenge: fred whitton challenge
Fred whitton challenge: fred whitton challenge

Where and when: Lake District, May, 180km

Though it doesn't pass over mountains the size of an Alpe d'Huez, BikeRadar can attest to the enormity of the task at hand when you take up the challenge of the Fred Whitton. It was first held back in 1999 in memory of the secretary of the local Lake Road Club and has grown in both stature and legend ever since. Riders have to negotiate some 4,000m of climbing over vicious climbs including Kirkstone, Honister, Wrynose and, with 100 miles on the clock, the 30 percent Hardknott Pass. The early May Lake District weather is notoriously fickle and can often make or break your day. You'll also need to act quickly to get a place - entry opens on New Year's Day each year, fills out the same day with a ballot used to decide the 1,400 places.

Vätternrundan, Sweden

Where and when: Motala, Sweden, June, 300km

With a claim as the largest recreational bike event in the world, this mammoth 300km ride starts and finishes in Motala, Sweden and traverses the coastline of the huge Lake Vättern. It has a long history, and the 15,000 cyclists who took part in 2008 were a far cry from its humble beginnings in 1966, when Sten-Otto Liljedahl, a professor and medical advisor in sports, wanted to test some ideas he had about the relationship between hard training and the need for food and water.

The most unusual aspect of the Vätternrundan is that it takes places throughout the night, with riders departing at 7.30pm on the Friday evening and arriving back in Motala at around 5am the next day. But with a late sunset and early sunrise in this part of the world, don't expect to ride for too long with your lights on.


Tour of Flanders, Belgium

Tour of flanders: tour of flanders
Tour of flanders: tour of flanders

The cobbles approaching the Oude Kwarement, on the hill in the background, is a frighteningly tough section of the Tour of Flanders route

Where and when: Oudenaarde, late March/early April, 244/138/87km

Another of the sportives to sit alongside a professional race, the Tour of Flanders takes place the day before the pros depart Bruges. It's gruelling for a different reason to all the rest - the bone-shuddering cobble stones. Over 15,000 entered in 2012 and with a much looser organisation than events of a similar size (riders just depart as and when they arrive on the start line), the congestion when you reach a cobbled climb can be chaotic.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen

Hotter'N Hell Hundred, USA

Hotter 'n hell hundred:
Hotter 'n hell hundred:

Where and when: Wichata Falls, Texas, August, 100 miles

31 years old this year and with over 10,000 riders, the Hotter'N Hell Hundred is one of the oldest and largest events in the US. It grew from efforts to find a way for Wichita Falls to celebrate its centennial in 1982, with a bike ride - 100 miles in 100 degree heat - the most popular. Three decades on and it's grown to include USA Cycling Criterium and Road Races, plus a mountain bike race, over a weekend festival of cycling.

Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, New Zealand

Where and when: Lake Taupo, North Island, November, 160km

Since the first event with 26 participants in 1977, the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge has steadily grown into one of New Zealand's most popular sporting events and is now part of the UCI Golden Bike Series. The main event involves a single 160km loop of Lake Taupo, but more ambitious types can attempt varying degrees of enduro madness (the Extreme Enduro involves a staggering eight laps of the lake).

After early cycling flirtations with the Tour de France on childhood holidays, John Whitney fell for it hook, line and sinker in his mid-20s as an escape from the more sedate sports of his youth. As a classically trained news reporter, he snagged his dream job as a cycling writer straight out of college and is now fully immersed in the industry and wouldn't have it any other way.
  • Discipline: Road

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