Cycle sportives are a relatively new phenomenon to grace the cycling scene They sit somewhere between a “challenge” ride and a race. Their burgeoning popularity means that the big sportives are often soldout months in advance and you need to get your entry in early to be assured of your place on the start line. Here I offer some answers to would be “sportivisites” as to what they might expect from such an event.

Riding the cobbles on the Cheshire Cat

How fit do I need to be?

Sportives come in all shapes and sizes, and many offer short route options for beginners or those who don’t have time for a long day out in the saddle. At the top end sportives take long and challenging routes. For example, the Fred Whitton covers 112 miles of the Lake District over 5 major passes. It’s not a route for the unfit cyclist! Even some of the shorter rides such as the 50 mile 3 Shires covers some very hilly and challenging terrain. The answer is to look at the route of any prospective sportive that you want to do and way up the difficulty in relation to your fitness. Rides like the Fred Whitton, the Etape du Dales and the Dave Lloyd Mega Challenge will sap the legs of the fittest riders, so be realistic.

How much does it cost to enter?

This varies, but entry fees are usually between ?15 for the smaller local rides up to around ?40 for the biggest and best known. The exception to this is the Etape Caledonia which this year costs ?56 but does have the distinction of taking place over a closed road circuit. It’s worth noting that the motivation of organisers can vary widely. Many rides such as the Spud Riley are put on as charity fundraisers and therefore will minimise spend on rider facilities. It’s worth checking websites to find out exactly what the event you are entering offers as there is no guarantee of sustenance at the end of rides. The more expensive rides will tend to offer features like online entry and electronic timing systems, and most will have GPS tracks of the route for those with GPS computers to download.

How sporting are these events?

In most cases, sportive organisers will give you an individual finishing time for your ride, and sometimes the will be banded i.e. a 1st class time, 2nd class time, 3rd class etc. Results will usually be published on the organiser’s website, but always in alphabetical order: it’s not a race. While it’s certainly the case that many riders will enter sportives with a view to setting a time, because everyone leaves the start at a different time conditions can vary for different riders so it’s entirely up to you whether a time is important or not. For most, sportives are just a great day out on challenging terrain on your bicycle.

Mass start - unusual for a sportive?ride?

What happens if I have a mechanical or physical problem?

The short answer is that you need to sort it out yourself. On very few events will there be any kind of mechanical backup provided except maybe a local bikeshop stand at the start. Similarly, organisers rarely put on a “sag” wagon to pick up the sick, injured or just plain exhausted. ?A few years ago I tried the Etape du Dales while in the aftermath of a stomach bug – I had to phone my wife to come out and rescue me after about 60 miles. In short, sportive riders are expected to be pretty much self-sufficient, and although riders will frequently help each other out, you will be expected to make it back to HQ under your own steam.

What sort of bike do I need?

Although some people do ride sportives on commuter bikes or mountain bikes, by far the best choice is to use a proper road bike – the thin tyres and relative light weight make them much more suitable for travelling long distances. On the start line you will see the latest and most expensive Italian carbon fibre racing bikes as well as old steel frames with just about everything in between. The main concern is that your bike functions properly and is safe to ride. Typically, the longer and more challenging the ride, the better your bike should be, principally because you’ll be logging up a lot of training miles to achieve the distance chosen and this will be a much more pleasant experience on a better bike.

The best place to get advice about bikes will undoubtedly be your local bike shop.

Should I have a double or triple chainset?

When choosing a bike it’s worth thinking about gears. There are now many dedicated sportive bikes on the market and many of these sport a “compact” chainset. This means that the 2 front rings on the bike are smaller than you would normally expect to find on a full racing machine. This gives you lower gears that will help you get over those steep hills. But, if you really are worried about the strength required to get up Mow Cop on the Cheshire Cat, Hardknott Pass on the Fred Whitton or the Coal Road on the Etape du Dales, then you can always opt for a triple chainring at the front giving you some super low gears for “twiddling” your way up the steepest hills. For most cyclists a compact chainset makes the most sense.

Is 10 or 11 speed really necessary?

Most top racing bikes are fitted with either 10 or 11 speed rear cassettes giving the rider plenty of choice of gear ratios to select. Crucially, so many cassettes mean that the jump between each gear is relatively small making it easy to find the ideal gear for any stretch of road. However, all that flexibility comes at a price and virtually all bikes with 10 or 11 speed gears will start from close to ?1,000. Moreover, spares and servicing on such machines will also tend to be more expensive. At the more budget end of the spectrum, you’ll find 9 or even 8 speed bikes, and although you’ll lose a little flexibility, you might well be prepared to give that up for the money saved.

Should I wear a helmet?

Generally, it’s up to you. Sportives take place on open roads and are therefore, subject to UK law. As such, it’s perfectly legal to ride on the road without a helmet if you so wish. Most organisers will strongly suggest that you do wear a helmet and bearing in mind that you’ll probably be riding down some pretty fast hills and in close proximity to other cyclists, it’s probably a good idea.

Spud Riley - before the deluge

I’m not used to group riding.

As a triathlete, neither was I. In most cases riders start a sportive in small groups staggered over a period of time so it’s fairly unusual for large pelotons to form. Ultimately it’s up to you whether to ride in a group or not, and if you prefer to ride as a pair, or even singly you can. Just bear in mind that group riding is much more efficient and you can travel much more quickly. Sportives are quite a good way to try a bit of group riding for yourself as you go along. Just drop out of the group if you find it uncomfortable.

Do I have to wear lycra?

Of course not, but it’s no accident that the vast majority of cyclists riding a sportive will be wearing lycra cycling shorts: a well designed and padded pair of cycling shorts are by far the best piece of clothing available to make riding 100 miles even vaguely comfortable!

OK, I’m in. How do I find out more?

I’ve put some links to the sportives I’ve done in the right hand sidebar of this blog, but for the most comprehensive information, a calendar of events and a forum to discuss training, equipment etc the best place on the web is undoubtedly Cyclosport. This website has been running for a few years now and is the recognised hub of the cyclo sportive scene in the UK.

What about sportives abroad?

There are lots of classic rides around the world that now form part of the sportive family. Pre-eminent among these is the annual Etape du Tour which follows the full route of a Tour de France stage every year. Other iconic rides include La Marmotte which rides over the Galibier and finishes up the legendary Alpe d’Huez; the Quebranthuesos in the Spanish Pyrenees (literally, the bonebreaker named after the local Lammergeier vultures); and the Maratona dles Dolomites in Italy. There are loads more listed on Cyclosport.

Hopefully from the above you’ll see that cyclo sportives are an enjoyable and rewarding branch of cycle sport that are accessible to practically any cyclist from whatever background or experience.