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 to take you to that world and, by sharing my experiences and passion, not only help you plan some events but help you ride them too.
The starting point is to explain the different types of European events that we lump under umbrella term ‘sportive’ in the UK.
“Sportives” are mass-start events with prizes (often substantial) for the top overall placings and for leading finishers 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 and Italy (where they are called Gran Fondos). There are half a dozen or so in Belgium and a few in Holland and Luxembourg. The best definition of these Continental sportives 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!
“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 but are not mass-start events, allowing riders to depart within a start window of a couple of hours, just as you would at home here in the UK. 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 would include the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold, both 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 in this series 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 kilometre or so neutralised by the lead car. The front of the bunch, which soon after the start becomes the front bunch, is dominated by teams and is 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 to finishing position.
For a lot of novice sportive riders a huge bunch can be a shock, as can the speed at the start and for your first event it may be best to avoid this and begin at the back of the peloton, focusing on event objectives other than trying to win. 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.
About the author:
Andrew Thompson started racing in 1983 and has competed in road and off-road events, both in the UK and in Europe. He is a director of Cicli di Tomsoni Ltd, the UK importers of A:xus bikes from Germany and Thompson Bikes from Belgium.