Cyclosportives – commonly referred to as sportives – and gran fondos have become a firm fixture on the the worldwide cycling calendar in recent years, offering both seasoned racers and newcomers to the sport a challenge that can be as gruelling or straighforward as they wish.
Inspired by events such as the Etape du Tour and La Marmotte in France, and the Cape Argus in South Africa, their growth can be explained by several factors, including the increase of people using bikes for commuting and a drive towards healthier, more active, lifestyles.
A cyclosportive is characterised by being a mass participation cycling event. In several countries, including the UK and Australia and parts of the USA, they're billed as non-competitive events. However in Europe in particular, there is more of a competitive element with categories and prizes awarded to the fastest finishers.
Most, if not all, sportives use timing chips ensuring a healthy level of competitiveness is always present no matter what. Results are usually published in detail on the event website and often have gold, silver or bronze time standards, and nobody wants to see their name languishing at the tail end of the table.
Sportives appeal to riders of any experience or fitness level. Some riders will be looking for an element of competition, perhaps by signing up with a bunch of mates for a burn up, or trying to be in the first or fastest group to finish. Others, who might find road racing a little strenuous or elitist, can ride at a steadier pace and still enjoy the benefits of a ride with marked directions, feed stops and mechanical support.
Well stocked feed stations are high on the list of priorities of any sportive rider
Where to find a cyclosportive
Finding the event that's right for you has never been easier. Like the professional scene, the sportive season doesn't seem to have a beginning or end these days, so whether you enjoy warm weather rides in the height of summer or bone-chilling slogs in the depths of winter, somewhere there'll be a ride for you. Websites such as Cyclosport carry an excellent worldwide events calendar, while British Cycling's sportive section is the go-to place to scout out a UK event.
Once you've found one, sign up through the event website as soon as you can. The biggest events - the Fred Whittons, La Marmottes and Cape Arguses of this world - regularly oversubscribe and only offer a brief period for you to register interest. They often select entries by ballot, so it can become a bit of a lottery whether you secure a place or not.
Why, with climbs like this, the Fred Whitton sells out instantly, is anyone's guess
Basic preparation and training
Once you've got your place, all you have to worry about is getting through the ride. Newcomers shouldn't underestimate the physical demands of a long 100km or 100-mile sportive, so the hours you spend in the saddle beforehand will have a major impact on how much fun you have on the day. Try and get as close to, if not beyond, the distance of your intended event during your training. Keep your training specific too; don't ride long miles on flat roads if you've signed up to a hilly ride.
Neither should you doubt their difficulty, particularly some of Britain's sportives. While they lack the mountains of their Alpine counterparts, they tend to have more sharper, steeper climbs that can sap your strength as much, perhaps more so, than any mountain can over a seven-hour ride.
The morning prior to setting off is similar no matter which event you sign up to. Expect an early start, a battle to find a parking space and a queue to sign on. Last minute carbo-loading, pinning your number to your bike, getting your machine in good working order, and fitting your timing chip will become second nature after a few events.
At the majority of events, riders will set off in a staggered fashion in small groups in order to avoid large bunches clogging up open roads, but expect to depart in large groups in closed-road events such as the Etape du Tour or Cape Argus.
The start of Cape Town's Cape Argus is like no other on the planet
On the day, pacing is vital. If you're new to cycling and sportives, and riding your first 100km event, don’t be tempted to chase faster riders early on. Take it at your own pace, preferably with a group of friends. Smaller events can occasionally turn into lonely time trials if you're short of company, and can become demoralising after hours of solo riding.
Be aware that some sportives make helmets compulsory, so make sure you take one. Also, make sure you're fully tooled up and well versed in the basics of bike mechanics. Spare inner tubes, a pump, a puncture repair kit, a mobile phone, money, medication and appropriate attire are the absolute essentials. While many sportives have mechanics out on the course, you should treat them like you would a solo training ride and leave nothing to chance. Make sure you know how to change a tyre - it sounds simple but you'd be surprised how many people can't.
And be sure to eat and drink steadily throughout the ride and don’t be tempted to skip a feed stop to save time - speaking from experience, you'll pay for it down the line!
Above all, enjoy it. While some sportives, such as the ones mentioned above, have become de facto races, the majority are there to be enjoyed at your own pace and give you a taste of things to come further down the line should you wish to progress into racing.
And should you complete a few sportives then you may wish to eventually progress on to an audax – long distance rides within a pre-defined time limit.
Training for a sportive in 2014? Then check out Cycling Plus Weekenders – a series of exclusive training weekends at luxury hotels in stunning locations throughout the UK. Join us for brilliant rides in stunning countryside, expert advice on training, nutrition, injury prevention, bike maintenance and much more.
If you're a newcomer to riding sportives then check out our videos on how to prepare yourself for one.