What's so hard about cyclo-sportives?

Shouldn't they be racing?

It must be coming up to winter time. Not that you would know it, with this mild weather we’re having at the moment. But about now is when every year I start to ponder on what the next year’s cycling will entail, and to be honest I feel the need for a change. New goals and new horizons are needed; in short, a new challenge. I think I have had enough of sportives.

Back in the good old days the organized riding choices were simple: competition or audax. Unless you were past it, racing in one form or another was what you did. Time trialling, criteriums, road, track, even cyclo-cross racing were simply facets of the sport you had to apply yourself too. There were winners, whom we all aspired to be, and, sadly, losers. Striving to attain the status of the former made a man of you and, for those that couldn’t take a battering every week, there was always… golf

Then, about 15 years ago, small groups of UK riders were enticed abroad to ride what the Continentals called a cyclosportive or GranFondo. I have to admit to having been included in one of the first groups of journalists invited out to sample a European take on organised cycling. In those days you could barely fill a coach with participants from this country; now, sportive organisers in France are devising ways in which to restrict what they see as an invasion by hordes of ‘cyclistes anglaises’ clogging up the start pens. You’d have thought, with the euro’s present financial crisis, they’d be grateful for our money.

Of course it wasn’t long before people over here in the UK and keen on making a fast buck realised the potential of these cyclo-sportive rides. At first, no-one really knew what to make of them; they weren’t a race and they were open to anyone, whether a cycling club member or not. There, I’m afraid, lay the problem.

As a youngster starting out in racing, you soon learnt that there was peloton etiquette and a hierarchy that demanded obedience. Unless you were exceptionally strong you had no choice but to serve your time and learn the ropes before earning a chance of winning anything. It was a tough school. Not so in the world of sportive riding, where anything goes in terms of riding etiquette.

Now look at the state of cycling in this country. If the word “Sportive” isn’t included somewhere on your promotion, no one will turn up. My local Reliability Trial (yes that’s what we used to call it) could muster, in a good year, maybe 150 riders. Until, that is, the organiser hit on the idea of calling it The Hell of the Something Classic Sportive and it’s now sold out weeks in advance with 1000 participants. Go out anywhere at the weekend over summer and the roads are clogged with cyclosportifs riding events on bikes supposedly built for the purpose, wearing clothing specifically tailored for the purpose and bought as recommended by a publication that fills its pages with sportive “results” and reports to the detriment of all else.

I’ve tried to like them; given them a good go, as it happens. My competitive nature was able to manifest itself in top-20 times in a couple of major events but they never really satisfied me. Although I wouldn’t call myself elitist, far from it, it’s just that they are so easy that everyone does them.

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About the author

Mitch Romney has  ridden and raced alongside some of the best this country has produced; Chris Boardman, Sean Yates, and Jeremy Hunt to name a few [and, for all we know,  Tom Simpson – ed.]. He now lives alone in a small rented cottage with his three bicycles and a small dog.

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