Cycling Weekly’s guide to cyclo-sportives

The cyclo-sportive scene is booming. There are now hundreds of events in Britain, some attracting a thousand riders or more.

It could be argued that the big European events, such as the Etape du Tour, started the boom. First held in 1993, the Etape offered the chance to ride the exact route of one of the key stages of the Tour de France.

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By the late 1990s, hundreds of British riders were taking part. Now the Brits and the Americans make up the bulk of the foreign entry.

Other great races also added cyclo-sportive events – notably the Tour of Flanders in Belgium and the Amstel Gold Race in Holland.

The Gran Fondo events in Italy grew in number and stature, while La Marmotte on a classic course in the French Alps, already an established randonée ride, gained a new lease of life.

And British organisers began to get in on the act, holding rides on challenging courses throughout the country. Quickly an elite band of events gained recognition as being the best organised and most prestigious in the country – attracting riders in their own right, not just as training for the Etape.

Now it’s possible to ride every weekend throughout the season. Even some of the faithful old Reliability Trials, traditional winter rides designed to build fitness for the racing season, have enjoyed a revamp and have been rebranded as cyclo-sportives.

So, if you’re relatively new to cycling and want to get involved, read on to find out all you need to know about cyclo-sportives.

What is a cyclo-sportive?
A cyclo-sportive is an organised mass-participation ride typically held on challenging terrain. Although timed, they are not races. Instead the challenge is to complete the course.

Are the roads closed?
No – apart from a few notable exceptions. The Etape Calendonia at Pitlochry, Perthshire, has closed roads, meaning riders have to average at least 12 miles per hour. The Etape du Tour in France is also run on closed roads. But generally, the roads are open and even though quieter roads are favoured, there could be traffic. It’s also important to observe the rules of the road. Take care at junctions, don’t jump any traffic lights.

How do I know where to go?
Most sportives are very well marked with arrow signs along the route. There are often marshals at difficult or dangerous points. To an extent it means you can’t switch off your map-reading brain and focus on the ride, whereas Audax and reliability rides require an element of map and route card reading.

How is it different to a reliability trial or an Audax ride?
The big difference is the signposting. Audax events usually have checkpoints at various points along the route where you must get your entry card stamped. Reliability Trials are traditional winter events where you must select a target finishing time and finish within a certain number of minutes either side of that time.

How do I find out what’s on?
A comprehensive list of the major British cyclo-sportives is published on the Cycling Weekly website, complete with dates, links to each event’s website and entry prices. Also try the UCI’s Cycling For All site which has details of the Golden Bike series of sportives.

What makes a good sportive?
Clear route signage, good marshalling, a simple, effective and streamlined entry system and sign-on.

As for the ride, different people enjoy different aspects. Some want the toughest challenges available, others want to follow in the wheel tracks of their heroes in the world of professional cycling, some just want a great day out amid some beautiful scenery. An inspiring route, top-notch organisation and back-up, a relatively safe course and a memorable climb or two. In short, you want to reach the finish line saying to yourself: “That was an excellent day’s riding.”

A good sportive will arm you with all the info you need to complete your ride without going off course. There should be good signage and marshals out on the roads too.

How do I enter?
Each event’s website will have details of how to enter. The big events sell out quickly, though, so keep your eyes and ears open.

How fit do I need to be?
It depends which sort of event you are entering but it goes without saying that it would be foolish to enter a 100-mile cyclo-sportive if the furthest you’ve ever ridden is 30 miles, or if you’ve been off the bike a while. It’s sensible to train for the event you’re taking part in and although it’s not necessary to ride the full distance in advance, it’s a good idea to be comfortable over at least three-quarters of the ride length – particularly if there are challenging mountains on the route.

What sort of bike do I need?
Almost all riders have reasonably lightweight road bikes with drop handlebars. That’s not to say you need to shell out two or three grand on a bike to ride a sportive.

Reliability is the key. Make sure everything is in good working order – get a mechanic in a bike shop to give it a full service before your event. Nothing is more disappointing than a major mechanical failure curtailing your ride.

Make sure the bike offers a comfortable ride even when you are in your fifth or sixth hour of riding. Think about lifting the handlebars a touch to ease the strain on the lower back. It’s a good idea to get an expert bike fitter to assess your position on the bike and make any adjustments.

How do I pace myself?
Hopefully you’ll have done enough riding beforehand to get an idea of your limitations. It pays to be cautious at the start. Getting caught up in the excitement of the ride, allowing adrenaline to take over and setting off fast has led many a rider to endure a painful last hour in the saddle. By all means tag along with a group but don’t try to ride above your comfort zone because you’ll pay for it later. Far better to keep some in reserve for the final col and finish strongly. You can always empty yourself by going hard in the last hour.

If you’re lucky you can slip into a nice group and share the pace-making. But don’t be tempted to tag on with a group that’s going too fast for your ability – you’ll pay for it in the end.

Do I need to be a member of a club or organisation to ride?
No. Cyclo-sportives are open to all. However, certain skills that are learned by riding with a group can be invaluable when you are in an event with lots of riders. Consider asking a club if you can join them on a club run to get some experience before riding your first sportive. If you like it, join the club. There are a number of advantages.

Do I have to wear a helmet?
Almost all cyclo-sportive organisers insist on it.

Do I need insurance?
It may be a good idea. Getting a British Cycling licence is an excellent idea because it offers insurance cover. Having a BC licence also means you don’t have to get a separate doctor’s certificate for overseas sportives as the licence is usually accepted by the organiser as demonstration the rider is fit and healthy for the event. Companies such as Cyclosure also offer one-off insurance policies for cycling events.

How should I ride? Are there any dos and don’ts?
Always consider the riders around you. Riding an event like the Etape du Tour, with more than 8,500 other riders, can be daunting. It sounds like idiot-proof advice but look ahead, watch where you’re going, keep riding in a straight line, don’t make any sudden movements and check over your shoulder before you make a manoeuvre. Good rules to follow are never to move up on the inside of someone, always give a friendly word of warning as you go past, signal potential obstacles in the road either with a hand signal or a shout.

If you are riding in a group and intend to help share the pace-making don’t be tempted to accelerate when you reach the front. The idea is to increase your effort just enough to maintain the same speed without letting it drop or lifting it and forcing the riders behind you to accelerate.

What should I eat, and is food provided?
Eat little and often. Don’t wait until you are hungry to feed because by then it could be too late.

Drink plenty too. Water is fine but for most rides over an hour, a carbohydrate drink is recommended. One of the things that undoes the inexperienced rider is forgetting to pay enough attention to their refuelling during the ride. It’s easy for half an hour to pass by without eating or drinking, and that can cause cramp or hunger knock later on. Novice riders struggle to eat and digest on the move comfortably too, so energy drinks can be invaluable.

Most of the well-organised cyclo-sportives will have at least one feed station offering food and fresh water.

As for food, eat whatever you feel comfortable with. If you’re going to be out there for six ore more hours food that is easy and appealing wins. It all comes down to personal preference. Some like energy bars or gels. Others prefer cakes and pieces of fruit. A mix of the two is a good idea. Personally speaking a few dried apricots go down well. Easy to eat, sweet but not sickly and packed with energy and sugars.

Take two bottles too, 750ml ones if you have them. You will empty them quickly and there’s not been a sportive yet where you can take too much liquid.

Riders on La Marmotte in the French Alps stop to fuel up en route.

What should I take with me?
Spare inner tubes, tyre levers, pump, mini-tool. It may not look glamorous but a little pack that fits under the saddle is great as it means you don’t have to carry all that gubbins in your rear pockets, freeing space for your food.

I’m worried it might be too tough/too easy
If it’s too easy you haven’t ridden hard enough! No 100-mile sportive should be too easy. If you’ve got reserves to spare, press a bit harder on the pedals and push on for a better time. If it’s too tough, there should be a get-out clause…

Is there mechanical support or a broomwagon to climb into if it’s too difficult?
Most sportives offer basic mechanical support and a rescue and medical service for riders who get into difficulty. But essentially the key is to be properly prepared, well-equipped and with a bike that’s not going to break down.

Hills. They make you tough. They hurt your legs. And your back. And every good sportive has them. Long ones, steep ones. When you reach the top, push on.

Related links

Cycling Weekly’s routes section includes cyclo-sportive reviews