What is Sportive Cycling?

In Cycling, Events

According to Sport England’s active people survey, more than 100,000 more cyclists are getting on their bikes at least once a week, than compared with four years ago. Between April 2015 and March 2016, alone, the number of people cycling every week shot up to 2 million, even beating the number of people who incorporate football into their weekly routine. And, it is now the third most popular sport in England, just behind swimming and athletics.

Sportive Cycling HeroThe British Cycling Federation is certainly on track to meet the participation targets set by Sport England at the beginning of the 2013 - 2017 Whole Sport Plan, with a little help, no doubt, from Sir Bradley ‘Wiggo’ Wiggins' astonishing 2012 triumph, when he became the first – and currently only – person in history to win the Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine and Tour de France in a single season.

One particular type of cycling that has taken off like a rocket is the ‘sportive’ event. Think Prudential Ride London’s traffic-free cycling circuit through the capital and Surrey countryside during July. First set up in 2013, as part of the London 2012 Olympic legacy, the event organiser expect more than 100,000 cyclists to take part in 2017. It’s fair to say that most people ‘get’ cycling, but what’s a cycling sportive really all about? Here’s our definitive guide.

What is a sportive?

Also known as a ‘cyclosportive’ it’s a non-competitive, long-distance cycling event. Think of it as the cyclist’s marathon: the focus is on the personal challenge, rather than competing against other cyclists. Some sportive events are huge, with hundreds or even thousands of cyclists meeting up to complete one huge, organised course. They tend to be on-road events tailored to road bikes, but off-road sportive events are popular, too, and cater for mountain and cyclo-cross bikes.

What does sportive cycling involve?

Average full-length courses typically vary between 30 and 160 kilometres in length, but there’s no set figure, like its marathon counterpart. Think early starts, hundreds of likeminded cyclists, the clattering of bikes, cheery volunteers manning snack zones and everyone psyching themselves up to complete the grand distance ahead of them.

What level of cyclist is it aimed at?

Sportives are designed for everyone. They attract riders of every experience and fitness level, from the seasoned cyclist to the enthusiastic newcomer. In fact, most sportives offer varying intensity options to their standard course, meaning that you can choose from short, standard or epic route options. Remember, it’s not a race so there’s no reason to feel intimidated.

Does this type of cycling have a specific season?

The UK sportive season tends to fall within the spring and summer months, starting in March through to October. To find an event in your area, check out British Cycling’s list of UK sportive events, or to book a place on a road sportive, take a look at UK Cycling’s comprehensive calendar.

What’s the difference between a Gran Fondo and a sportive?

Gran Fondos and sportives are similar. Literally translated, ‘Gran Fondo’ means ‘big floor’ in Italian, but it loosely means ‘personal challenge’. A Gran Fondo tends to be more competitive, serious and scaled up in its turnout. They are also more popular outside of the UK and tend to attract the more experienced rider, with added emphasis on competitive chip times. Sportives, by contrast, are often smaller, less formal affairs.

What are things to consider before I start?

  • Choose your course wisely – consider the distance, severity, how much hill climbing is involved, along with time of year and how long you’ll have to prepare before the start date. Also, take time to consider the amount of elevation involved. The Tour de France has around four kilometres of climbing – use this as a yard stick to evaluate the difficulty of the course.
  • Signing up – popular sportives sell out quickly, so you will need to register months beforehand and there is usually an entry fee.
  • Get a helmet – this is compulsory for many sportives.
  • Make sure that you are appropriately kitted up with some basic bike mechanics. It will save you a lot of grief when it comes to the crunch.
  • Emergency repairs – it’s wise to carry puncture repair kits, a pump and spare inner tubes. Knowledge of how to change a tyre is only going to put you at ease.
  • Make a nutrition plan – have plenty of high energy snacks prepared to help you last between feed stations.
  • Pack kit for all climates – always take a spare layer, something light, like our Reflect360+ men’s gilet, something reflective, like our Reflect360+ women’s jacket, and, preferably, something waterproof, like our Reflect360 waterproof trousers, in case a surprise shower catches you out.

How do I train for this specific type of cycling?

The best way is to build a training plan that suits your chosen route. If you know you’ll be encountering a lot of hills, then avoid training just on flat roads. A good rule of thumb is to work towards completing two-thirds of the end goal distance.

If you have chosen a large event, or if you’re a sportive newcomer, then perhaps try entering a smaller one first, to put you at ease. It will also help you get comfortable with cycling in groups.

Cheddar Gorge Sportive Cyclist

Can you highlight any sportive events?

For beginners, the Wiggle New Forest Spring sportive is a great option, the smallest route is a still an impressive 48 kilometres and, for the more experienced, the longest epic is 130 kilometres. The event takes place over a whole weekend and provides a welcome start-of-season ride through Hampshire’s beautiful New Forest.

The Dragon Ride is by far one of the UK’s most prestigious ‘bucket-list’ sportives. The event takes place in South Wales and is returning for its 14th year in 2017. It boasts a choice of four distances through the picturesque Brecon Beacons. But be warned: this beautiful scenery comes at a cost. Watch out for the ‘Devil’s Elbow’ – the sportive’s signature climb with a gruelling 600-metre stretch of hairpin bends and a 15 to 20% incline throughout. Cyclists who complete the event get to say that they “slayed the dragon”, so that’s reason enough to sign up, surely?

For events that little bit farther afield, Cape Town’s Cape Argus sportive is like no other. Attracting 35,000 cyclists every year in a 109-kilometre circuit that boasts the iconic Table Mountain for scenery, it’s quite simply the largest timed cycling event in the world.

Do I need insurance?

In short, yes, though some sportives provide insurance with their entry fee. With the number of cyclists riding in close proximity, accidents can easily happen. Even simple punctures can result in a crash that takes down 20 cyclists. It’s best to get insurance that covers personal injury, accidental damage to your bike, public liability – should you accidentally knock into another cyclist – and cover against other road users, i.e. cars sharing the road.

What are the benefits of taking part?

Around 70% of non-cyclists, and 51% of those who do cycle in the UK, feel it’s too dangerous to cycle on British roads. A huge benefit to sportive cycling is having the opportunity to make the most of signposted routes in a supported environment.

It’s also a fantastic way to enjoy unfamiliar surroundings by bike, without the hassle of organising the route yourself, or checking a map at every junction. Sharing the experience with hundreds of other cyclists carries an infectious energy and comes with another warning: it’s addictive.

Repeat participants are often drawn to the sense of achievement that comes with the race but, depending on the organiser, most will offer the following perks:

  • chip timing;
  • well-stocked feed stations;
  • safely-marshalled routes;
  • participation medals, goody bags and a certificate after you’ve completed the race;
  • medical and mechanical support;
  • rider public liability insurance;
  • free snacks or energy drinks from sponsors;
  • massage tents.

What are the biggest challenges of this kind of sport?

Pacing yourself mentally is part of the test of the sportive. Breaking the event down into 25-kilometre sections will help, as well as riding in a small group, which may provide a windbreak.

Varying from route to route, long distances, incessant climbs, steep gradients and awful weather are all challenges a sportive cyclist must face at some point. Maintaining your stamina is where the sustained challenge comes in.

How can I pace myself during a sportive?

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the start pen and begin too fast, but like its running counterpart, it’s important to remember that you have a long, stamina-dependent journey ahead. With sportives, it’s best to keep your pace in check by starting slow and finishing fast. Going too-hard-too-early means that you’re likely to be working well above your intended pace or heart rate. Here are some tips to help:

  • focus on low intensity at the start, establish a rhythm and try to quieten your competitive instinct in the first climbs;
  • develop a one to 10 scale of perceived rate of exertion. Try to remain at a six or below in terms of effort, so that you have enough to last the entire stretch;
  • ride in small groups as this can also aid pacing, as long as you’re comfortable with the cycling ability of the group;
  • use a heart rate monitor as an indicator of your energy exertion;
  • save your high energy rate for the last 15 kilometres;
  • Bike Radar recommends at least one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of your bodyweight for every hour that you’re riding (1g/kg/hour), as well as 500ml of water in that same hour.

If you’re interested in taking on a new challenge then be sure to check out sportive events near you, kit up, start planning and get excited.