How popular are cyclo-sportives?

Online entry forms for the Fred Whitton Challenge went live at midnight on Tuesday. By 12.45am, ride organiser Paul Loftus heard something being posted through his door: it was the first entry.

A few hours later and lots more hand-delivered entries had arrived. By mid-afternoon, enough PDF entry forms had been downloaded from riders across the UK to make sure the event would be over-subscribed so online entry was closed.

The event has a ceiling of 1000 riders, with lots more riders unable to bag a place. And this is no picnic in the park, it’s 112 miles over six of the Lake District’s major passes.

To be held on Sunday 11th May, the route includes the climbs of Kirkstone Pass, Honister Pass, Newlands Pass, Whinlatter Pass, Cold Fell, Irton Pike, and, at 90 miles gone, there’s the brutal Hardknott and Wrynose Passes.

The Fred Whitton Challenge is one of Britain’s oldest – and toughest – cyclo-sportive rides. It costs £30 to enter yet, like all other sportives except Etape Caledonia, it takes place on public roads so anybody could turn up and ride, no need for an entry. Riders get RFID tags to monitor their total and split times, and food at check points, but that’s it. So why cough thirty quid?

"It’s a group thing, we all want to feel as though we’re part of the same event at the same time," said Andy Stevenson, owner of Bike Treks of Ambleside, title sponsor of the event.

Bike Treks provides tech support for riders at the start of the ride. After fettling bikes for a few hours, Stevenson heads out and does the ride himself.

"Once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes a little easier," he said.

Bike Treks has been involved with the event since it started in 1999 but this year is the first as overall sponsor. The event sponsorship cash pays for all the ride expenses, enabling every penny of the entry fees to go to charity.

The Fred Whitton Challenge has raised a total of £115,000 for the Macmillan Nurses and the Dave Rayner Fund. The Dave Rayner Fund is the memorial pot of cash which supports up and coming youth roadies: in 1996, two of the first beneficiaries were David Millar and Charly Wegelius.

The Fred Whitton Challenge was the first major sportive in the UK but it’s spawned lots of others, such as the Gran Fondo Cymru, Circuit of the Cotswolds, Etape du Dales, and the new Northern Rock Cyclone Challenge.

Details of all these one-day rides can be found on the online hub for UK cyclo-sportives,

Founder Mark Harding said: "What amazes me is the overwhelming increase in popularity of these types of events. The cameraderie of fellow riders is something I can’t describe in words." has 9,500 registered members.

With 75 UK sportives now being staged each year, the organisers of the top events have created the Independent Association of Cyclosportive Organisers.

Businesses are also being built around the growing popularity of cyclosportives. Businesses such as Cyclefilm, which sells DVDs of the biggest rides, including overseas classics such as the Etape du Tour and the Marmotte.

One of the stars of the Cyclefilm DVDs is Mike Cotty, Cannondale UK’s brand manager and the top British finisher at L’Etape in 2006.

Cotty said: "It’s refreshing and exciting to see how the UK cyclo-sportive calendar has flourished so quickly.

"The days of having to travel abroad to find a good sportive are behind us and with more quality events being introduced each year it means people will be getting out on their bikes more – always a good thing for the bike trade – and the number of new riders attracted to the sport will undoubtedly increase."

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