First of all, let’s get things into the open – I am utterly addicted to European Sportives. They have dominated my goals and training focus for years. Cycling on the Continent is very different and through a series of articles I’ll try and take you to that world and not only plan some events, but help you ride them too, sharing my experiences and passion.
The starting point is to explain the different types of European events that we blandly call a ‘sportive’ in the UK.
- Sportives are mass start events with prizes (often substantial) for the overall placings and by age/sex categories. They are timed and are officially a race, often with fully closed roads or at least a rolling road closure for the front of the event. They are most common in France, Germany, Italy (where they are called Gran Fondos), there are only two in Belgium and a few in Holland and Luxembourg. The best continental definition is to call them open or public races in the same way people run marathons. Most events have gold, silver and bronze standards, although the average speed can often be much higher than UK events and there are events with gold standards requiring an average speed of nearly 38 km/h! There was even a Sportive World Championship for a few years that proved to be so successful it lead to the UCI reinstating the Amateur World Championships.
- Major continental events like l’Etape du Tour and La Marmotte are very commercial and so large they are run on a hybrid system (similar to a very large Gran Fondo) with the very best riders in the first start grid with a clear road to race and then following riders in start boxes of 500-1,000 riders. With a massive range of abilities, bike handling skills and experience, the bunches can be very daunting to say the least! This will also hinder your ability to race for a top place. If this is your introduction to continental sportive riding it could easily paint a very different picture to the reality of a normal European sportive.
- Cyclos are very popular in Belgium and Holland and these are the closest thing to the UK version of a sportive. They are frequently timed (or with timed sections) but are not mass start event, allowing riders to depart within a start window of a couple of hours, just as you would at home. Just as in a UK sportive, there are no prizes or placings in cyclos and they can be great social events with mini races developing between feed stations. The most famous cyclos (all of which we refer to as a sportive in the UK) would include the Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Roubaix Challenge and Amstel Gold, all of which attract thousands of participants. In Germany and Austria this type of event is known as a Rad Marathon, the only difference being that they sometimes have a mass start with rolling road closure which gives a great sense of occasion. Similar events are run in Switzerland.
- Lastly, there is the French Cyclo Touriste and Italian Cyclo Tourista. These frequently leave with the main sportive bunch and ride the same courses, but without placings or prizes. The pace is slower and there is often no time limit.
Our focus will be on sportives and these obviously differ greatly from our home events. The main difference being that they are officially a mass start race with the initial km or so (usually) neutralised by the lead car. Large pelotons quickly develop, with the front bunch(s) dominated by teams and often very tactical. Placings are vital for lots of riders, not just for personal satisfaction, but to ensure rankings in the various ‘trophees’ or event series and to qualify for a start at the front of the bunch in the next event, which makes a massive difference.
For a lot of novice riders a huge bunch can be a shock, as can the speed at the start and it may be best to avoid this and begin at the back of the peloton, focusing on your own event objectives. Ride it in the same way as you would at home and you will have a great event giving you fantastic new experiences often over iconic terrain. You can soon progress to competitive sportive racing and we will cover how to do this, and why you will want to, in the next articles.
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