Cyclo-sportives are the in-thing, selling out in seconds. No longer just for the hard-core, they’re reaching out to the masses. Carlton Reid asks whether sportives could do for cycling what marathons did for jogging?

Rise and rise of the sportive

Paul Vincent, former tech editor on Cycling Plus and, says: “Specialized virtually invented the Sportive bike with the Roubaix range.” The Specialized Roubaix is noted for being a perfect bike for ‘sportif’ riders: cyclists who want to do long challenge rides, but want comfort, too. They sport slacker angles than pro bikes, with a bit more padding in the main contact areas.

Capitalising on this specialisation on sportives, it makes sound commercial sense for Specialized to sponsor its own event. The Specialized Silverstone Sportive is to take place at the Porsche Experience Centre, Silverstone, Northamptonshire on July 4th.

Specialized MD Richard Hemington says: “Sportives are increasingly popular and we wanted to give riders a great landmark for a new endurance challenge.”

But what are sportives? Some are rebadged existing rides, often with a charity element. The earliest – and still the quickest to sell out – is the Fred Whitton Challenge in the Lake District. Started in 1999 it is still the most challenging of the nation’s sportives, costing £40 to enter. Sportives such as the Etape Caledonia cost £56.

This event made mainstream news last year when it suffered from tack attacks. It’s on closed roads, hence the steep fee.

The features of a sportive now include a signposted route, often with GPX files for downloading to navigation devices; feedstations; broom waggon and other tech support; timing chips; and, of course, a challenging route – usually hilly –in a scenic location.

Some have more trade support than others. The Fred Whitton used to be sponsored by Biketreks of Ambleside and is now supported by Saddleback, distributor of Felt bicycles, Zipp wheels, SRAM and Castelli clothing. The Northern Rock Cyclone in Northumberland is organised by Peter ‘Shimanoman’ Harrison, owner of Cyclelogical Cycles.

Also known as Gran Fondos on the continent (and now in the US, too), cycle sportives are ostensibly group challenge rides, but a lead group is often out to ‘win’ the event. Winning the Etape du Tour of the Tour de France gains an amateur rider a year’s worth of bragging rights (and possibly even a life-time’s worth).

Sportive riders often get virtual –or sometimes real – medals for fast times, but not every rider is interested in speed. Maurice Burton, Britain’s first black cycling champion (1973) and owner of De Ver Cycles of London, comments: “The guys in the shop thought I was mad ordering compact chainsets, instead of 53/39. But there are more sportive riders than racers.”

This is a view echoed by Martin Harrison of holiday company Trail Break. He is helping to organise the Great Western Sportive in Swindon on June 20th. He believes that, handled correctly, sportives could do wonders for the bike trade.

“The Great Western Sportive is one of the headline events of a full weekend called the Great Swindon Bike Ride, which we are organising with support from the Nationwide Building Society and Swindon Borough Council. It’s a new project and a very conscious direction for us, not to move away from the traditional enthusiast markets in cycling, but to bring them together with grass roots and community cycling.

“We have long thought that, however strong cycling is becoming, it is still far too fragmented. Road biking, mountain biking, family and leisure cycling, touring and BMX still very much pigeon-hole themselves away into their own structures and consider themselves quite separate from other cycling disciplines.

“While the sportive market has undoubtedly boomed and created a huge new activity in cycling, we’re spotting some disturbing trends in the format. It’s being claimed and controlled by enthusiasts who want to see it grow, but in a way that suits themselves and as such, are unwittingly limiting its potential. Too many sportives have concentrated on appearing bigger, harder and more race-like year-on-year, to appeal to the tastes of those who stage them, and to grab the easy and identifiable market.

“In the process, they risk moving their appeal out of reach of the grass roots leisure market and, we believe, missing out on a boom that could dwarf what is happening at the moment. The parallel we draw is with marathon running in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Prior to this period, running a marathon was a byword for a superhuman activity, out of reach of mere mortals. With the launch of the London Marathon and the running craze that followed, a marathon become an inspirational but achievable goal for anyone who wanted to put in the training, whether they had run before or not.

“Sportives are the best shot that cycling has had in giving itself an equivalent appeal since the MTB boom of the ‘90s failed to keep going. We think there is a great risk of sportives settling into an elitist form and the cycle industry will find itself looking back on a big missed opportunity. The challenge sportives face is to present that much more accessible appeal without losing their ‘big challenge’ inspirational value.”

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