Sportives (or gran fondos) have grown massively over the last decade. Now a new trend for multi-day events, such as the Dragon Tour, is starting to take hold with riders wanting to get closer to the pro tour experience.
We chat to event ambassador – and cycling legend – Stephen Roche about the ever-broadening sportive scene, the draw of multi-day events and why he’s looking forward to the Dragon Tour in 2015. Winner of the 1987 Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and world championships, Roche reflects on the astounding growth of sportives over the last few years.
“It's a natural knock-on effect,” he says. “People want to exert themselves more and more and they want a challenge. Years ago in Ireland, we used to have one sportive in the year – the Wicklow 200 – and that was a one-day, 200km event throughout the Wicklow mountains, which might have had 200 or 300 participants. Now in Ireland, you can have four, five six sportives on any given weekend with well over 1,000 people taking part in each one and it's the same thing in the UK.
“Now I see the demand for going further. People are enjoying the cycling, they've been there and done that, they ride to work, they've joined a club, they've ridden a sportive, taken on a cycling holiday, now what's next? They can't officially ride a Tour de France, but there are some organisations now offering multi-day sportives and now of course Human Race organising the Dragon Tour over three days.”
Emulating the pros by riding up mountains in a bunch really gives a buzz
As someone who knows all there is to putting together great performances in the saddle day after day, Roche thinks the allure of multi-day sportives is down to the riders being able to relate to the world’s biggest professional races.
“We all know what it's like now to do a Sunday sportive, come back totally shattered and go to work on a Monday morning. So now, what's it going to be like riding a multi-stage, three-day one? People then can relate the experience to the guys in the Tour de France. If a guy does 3,000km a year, a professional does 33,000km a year, so one guy does three days, one does 20 days. Everything is relative really. The guy doing three days will suffer as much as the guy doing 20 days.
“Everyone's overwhelmed with the response from the cyclists. It's amazing the numbers that are turning up, signing up months and months and months in advance for the event to make sure they get a place. It's the challenge that brings people along to it. All these events – or the majority – are filling up and they're filling up a long, long time in advance. For the Dragon Ride the bookings started coming in in September for next June, so it's absolutely amazing to think that people will be already planning so far ahead and people just don't want to be left out.”
With a growing number of multi-day sportives cropping up on the calendar, the Dragon Tour is going to have stiff competition both within the UK and Europe, but Roche says quality will out.
“There are a lot of events on the calendar and the strong ones will survive – the ones that are well organised, well marshalled, where security is priority, with good feed stations, good camaraderie and good timing. Because even if they're doing it for fun, people go out there and they're all secretly looking for a personal best.”
On the merits of the Dragon Tour itself, an event for which he is an ambassador, Roche says: “First of all the itinerary is fairly selective. There's an awful lot of climbing in it, but at the same time it's all doable. I think that the level of organisation in the Human Race events speaks for itself now, but I think that people are looking to see what it'll be like over a three-day event because people are coming for the multi-day experience but they want to be looked after. I think that riding an event with the level of experience and level of commitment from Human Race towards the athletes, I think people will come out of it feeling like a pro and already putting it on their to-do box for 2016 because of the experience itself.”
Dragon Tour riders will be enjoying incredible scenery, but the three-day event will be a tough challenge
Roche will be giving competitors an insight into the professional race at dinner the night before the final stage – the Dragon Ride itself – but that doesn’t mean he’s not intending to get on his bike too. “Generally when I do something like this, I try to get involved because it's OK talking and meeting and greeting, and being in the hospitality, but I don't burn off any calories doing that! I've haven't yet decided what I'm going to do on it, but as we get closer to the date, I’ll be looking at putting some miles in myself.”
Aside from keeping fit, one of Roche’s biggest motivations to ride is the same as for hundreds of cyclists each year – to raise money for worthy causes.
“I'm delighted that Human Race do so much for the sport and the knock on effect for different charities that are involved with the different sportives and other events they organise.
“The whole charity aspect of Dragon Tour will attract a lot of people and that's very, very important. All the money raised for all these organisations is great. Hopefully we'll have many, many people taking part and there'll be a lot of awareness coming from it and a lot of funds generated for very good causes.
“It can also give riders themselves an extra bit of motivation to train for the event when they knew there’s a charity aspect to it, because we all know someone or have someone close to us that's been affected by illnesses, especially cancer, so to feel that we can physically do something by getting on our bikes, training and riding these events, and making a difference. That's what it's about at the end of the day – making a difference. So when a charity is attached to it, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Keep your eyes peeled for our guide to riding multi-day sportives, which will be published next week.
Stephen Roche is an ambassador for the Dragon Tour. Entries for the Wiggle Dragon Ride are available now as well as more information on Stephen’s Dragon training camp in Majorca