Best sportives and gran fondos: 14 to consider

Our picks from around the globe

Mass participation cycling has never been more popular. Not a week goes by without news of a new event popping up somewhere around the globe, but there are some that stand out from the crowd. Here's a selection of the best sportives and gran fondos for you to enter in 2017.

These events 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 are 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.

Best UK sportives

The UK has a large number of sportives to get you out into the beautiful British countryside, from small ones organised by the local cycling club to enormous ones that swamp the UK capital. The list below is by no means an exhaustive one, but each one will take you through stunning countryside, and leave you with a smile on your face at the end.

Dragon Ride, UK

The Dragon Ride has a number of distances available, including the fearsome Dragon Devil at 305km
The Dragon Ride has a number of distances available, including the fearsome Dragon Devil at 305km

  • Where: Port Talbot, South Wales
  • When: June
  • Distances: 100km / 153km / 230km / 305km
  • More info:www.humanrace.co.uk

At 305km for the longest route, this is one of the toughest events in the UK. With climbs that include the Cimla, Rhigos and Black Mountain passes, it should be on the to-do list of all amateurs. There are also shorter routes available, plus a multi-day event called the Dragon Tour.

Fred Whitton Challenge, UK

Honister Pass is just one of the many highlights of the Fred Whitton Challenge
Honister Pass is just one of the many highlights of the Fred Whitton Challenge

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 160km miles already 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 and fills out the same day, with a ballot used to decide the 1,400 places.

RideLondon

RideLondon takes in Surrey's Box Hill and finishes on the Mall, in front of Buckingham Palace
RideLondon takes in Surrey's Box Hill and finishes on the Mall, in front of Buckingham Palace

The UK's largest mass participation cycling event, RideLondon is an enormous event that completely takes over the capital and its surrounding countryside. Various other events are also part of the weekend of cycling, including the Brompton World Champs, and pro race the RideLondon Classic. The RideLondon 100 takes riders out into the Surrey hills and back, finishing in front of Buckingham Palace. 

Bealach Mor

The Scottish sportive of Bealach Mor crosses the infamous road of Bealach-na-Ba
The Scottish sportive of Bealach Mor crosses the infamous road of Bealach-na-Ba

If you want to ride an organised event across what is arguably the UK's biggest road climb, check out Bealach Mor. It takes place on the Applecross Peninsula in the north of Scotland, and includes an ascent of the infamous Bealach-na-Ba mountain road.

  • Where: Applecross Peninsula, northern Scotland
  • When: September
  • Distances: 145km
  • More info: www.handsonevents.co.uk

Velothon Wales

Velothon Wales has two routes – the full 140km, or a slightly shorter 110km
Velothon Wales has two routes – the full 140km, or a slightly shorter 110km

With 16,000 riders expected for the 2017 Velothon Wales, this has become a major event on the UK calendar. There are two distances available (140km and 110km), taking riders out of Cardiff city centre and over to the Brecon Beacons and back. Despite the modest distance compared to others on this list, the longer route still features 1,822m of climbing.

Best European sportives and gran fondos

If you're looking for incredible mountain climbs, centuries of cycling tradition and plenty of like-minded souls, Europe is the place to go. The selection below covers some of the biggest and most challenging sportives to be found anywhere in the world, each of which will create the memories of a lifetime.

Etape du Tour, France

Etape du Tour is probably the biggest and best-known sportive in the world
Etape du Tour is probably the biggest and best-known sportive in the world

Arguably the daddy of them all and certainly the event most often 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. It's run on closed roads too, which gives rider a rare opportunity to descend their favourite mountains without the threat of oncoming traffic.

Maratona dles Dolomites, Italy

Maratona dles Dolomites is definitely a bucket-list sportive, held in the Italian Alps
Maratona dles Dolomites is definitely a bucket-list sportive, held in the Italian Alps

  • Where: Dolomites, northern Italy
  • When: July
  • Distances: 138/106/55km
  • More info:www.maratona.it

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 line up every year, and in 2016 we chose the 'easy' option – and still found it tough…

La Marmotte Gran Fondo Series

France's La Marmotte is one of the original sportives
France's La Marmotte is one of the original sportives

If the Etape du Tour is the daddy, this can certainly claim to be the mother of cyclosportives, having been on the calendar since 1982. In recent years it has been expanded to three events, all equally fearsome: Marmotte Alpes, Marmotte Pyrenees, and Marmotte Hochkönig in the Austrian Alps.

Quebrantahuesos, Spain

Spain's Quebrantahuesos – literally meaning 'bone crusher' in Spanish – covers great swathes of the Pyrenees
Spain's Quebrantahuesos – literally meaning 'bone crusher' in Spanish – covers great swathes of the Pyrenees

Translated literally as 'bonecrusher'' in English, Spain's Quebrantahuesos sportive starts and ends on the edge of the Pyrenees in Sabiñanigo, but spends a good chunk of its marathon 200km route in the mountain range itself, and includes a climb of the Col de Marie-Blanque.

Vätternrundan, Sweden

Sweden's Vatternrundan is claimed to be the world's largest mass participation sportive
Sweden's Vatternrundan is claimed to be the world's largest mass participation sportive

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 began 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

The Tour of Flanders sportive lets you tackle the world-famous cobbles for yourself
The Tour of Flanders sportive lets you tackle the world-famous cobbles for yourself

  • Where: Oudenaarde
  • When: April
  • Distances: 180km / 130km / 75km
  • More info: www.sport.be

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 riders take part, 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.

Best sportives outside Europe

There is, of course, a long list of sportives and gran fondos that take place outside Europe, and listing each one here would take too long. The below is simply a selection of some of the best, hardest and most famous ones to be found in the USA, Australia and Africa.

Cape Town Cycle Tour, South Africa

The Cape Town Cycle Tour is one of the oldest in the world
The Cape Town Cycle Tour is one of the oldest in the world

While no way near as painful as the Etape du Tour, Cape Town's 109km Cape Argus sportive can certainly lay claim to being one of the oldest and perhaps largest amateur cycling events in the world. Over 35,000 line up for the traffic-free gallop around the Cape Peninsula, including cycling luminaries such as Miguel Indurain, Stephen Roche and Eddy Merckx. 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, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many outside South Africa.

Hotter'N Hell Hundred, USA

The Hotter'N Hell Hundred takes place in Texas, USA every August
The Hotter'N Hell Hundred takes place in Texas, USA every August

  • Where and when: Wichata Falls, Texas, August, 100 miles
  • When: August
  • Distances: 160km / 120km / 100km / 80km / 40km / 10km
  • More info: www.hh100.org

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

The Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge involves a single 160km loop on New Zealand's North Island
The Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge involves a single 160km loop on New Zealand's North Island

  • Where and when: Lake Taupo, North Island, November, 160km
  • When: November
  • Distances: various
  • More info: www.cyclechallenge.com

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. 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).

Jamie Beach

Deputy Editor, UK
Jamie's been addicted to bikes from the moment his stabilisers came off. Earliest cycling memory is the chipboard-ramp-on-bricks, but happiest one is bombing down a Mallorcan mountain pass that seemed it might never end. Always on the hunt for the perfect rain jacket, a keen collector of hats.
  • Discipline: Road, gravel
  • Preferred Terrain: Big mountains with long climbs, equally long and fast descents, the chance to get above the treeline.
  • Current Bikes: Genesis Croix de Fer, Kona Cindercone
  • Dream Bike: BMC TeamMachine SLR01
  • Beer of Choice: Augustiner
  • Location: Bath, Somerset, UK

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