Next month the sportive season begins in earnest with some of the biggest events of the calendar arriving as early as mid-March.
For those who’ve spent a winter of solo endurance rides, it can’t come quickly enough: a chance to enjoy the camaraderie of riding in a big group along mile after glorious mile of largely traffic-free roads, through glorious scenery, secure in the knowledge that should fatigue or mechanical failure strike, a team of cheerful volunteers will shepherd you back to HQ for tea and cake.
We’ll be speaking to the organisers of some of the country’s most popular sportives throughout February, and begin our series with Martin Barden, a keen cyclist who founded UK Cycling Events four years ago after wanting more from the sportives he had ridden. His company now organises the events of the Wiggle Super Series, which attract thousands of riders each year. Offering emergency support, mechanical back up, and electronic timing at a host of events, Martin’s company has been in the vanguard of creating a comprehensive experience from the fundamentals of a mass-participation ride.
How many riders will take part in your events this year?
We’ll be doing about 25 events this year. That’s a mixture of road and mountain bike events. We’ve got 18 events running across the Wiggle Super Series. Across all events, we’ll have between 20,000 and 25,000 people taking part. The smallest event has 500 people, and the largest has 2,600 – our two New Forest events.
What makes a great sportive?
I think it starts with the route. That’s the most central part to a sportive: a ride in a scenic area around quiet roads. All of our routes avoid railway crossings and traffic lights so riders can enjoy the route without having to stop. At the top of the climbs they are rewarded with stunning views and vistas.
What is the driving force behind the massive growth in popularity of sportives?
I don’t think there’s any one factor. It’s a number of things. There’s the whole ‘MAMIL’ thing which is driving a new culture to cycling. Then there’s the Olympics, Mark Cavendish, and the success of the athletes. People want to find scenic routes where they can test their new bikes, talk to people and enjoy themselves. It’s a mix of all those things. With road racing, you have to have a license, there are rules and an etiquette. With a sportive, you simply turn up with your bike and everything is put on for you. You don’t have to think about where you’re going. On every turn, there’s at least three signs. If you break down, there’s mechanical support. You can just turn up and enjoy the experience. With racing, it’s more about achievement and winning. Not everyone is focused on that.
What advice do you have for someone riding their first sportive in 2012?
Find a route that is suitable. If it’s your first event, there’s no point choosing a 100-mile, hilly sportive. You would be better off with a route of 30 or 60 miles.
What will be the next stage in the development of sportives?
The bigger and more challenging sportives are becoming more popular with more experienced riders. This will be a great year for cycling with the Olympics. Sportives are definitely going to grow.
What’s the most inspiring comment you’ve heard from a rider taking part in your events?
There are so many. A lot of people ride them to raise money for charities who supported loved ones they have lost, there are mums riding to prove something to their kids; we had one chap who had broken his back and both legs and was riding as part of his recovery. The finish line of a sportive is a great place to be.