“Why are you paying to ride on roads you can ride on all the time for free”?.
This is one of many of the questions, or statements of derision that get thrown at me by ‘proper cyclists’ when I mention that I have done or will be doing a Sportive.
“They are not races and they are killing road racing” is another. “They are dangerous because the people who do them don’t know how to ride in groups or on a wheel, and they are all fat and they all ride really expensive bikes and wear Sky kit” is another quite long one.
“You shouldn’t be on the road, you don’t pay road tax”…whoops, sorry that’s a different topic but is usually trotted out by similar, equally ill-informed and ignorant people. As is “The Smiths are depressing and miserable”.
The topic amongst cyclists seems to be as divisive as David Millar. Why I don’t know. Why should people out riding and enjoying their bikes in beautiful surroundings attract such negative comments and feelings?. Is it fear? Snobbery? Probably a number of reasons. but there are many reasons why Sportives are a good thing. I will hopefully explain why …but with some people I know I’m wasting my breath!
But let me address some of those negative comments. Firstly the one about paying to ride on roads etc. A vast majority of cyclists who utter these words race or have raced. Which means they have probably travelled a fair distance to ride on a dangerous stretch of dual carriageway, that you wouldn’t normally in your right mind, go anywhere near on your bike – and they pay money for the privilege. Guaranteed its not as expensive to enter a time trial as compared to a Sportive, but time trials don’t normally last as long as a Sportive, so without working out the value for money mile for mile (because frankly I can’t be arsed) you tend to get better value for money at a sportive. Some racing cyclists also pay good money and travel distances to ride round and round a taped course resembling a maze on a sports field (which will be usually free to use on most days) making themselves very dizzy and dirty in the process. And they usually need two bikes to do it with. Or travel far and wide to ride flat out for around 4-5 minutes up a hill making themselves sick in the process.
An equal amount of criticism comes from the Sunday café ride/club run gang – the type of cyclist who does the same ride every Sunday to the same café to have the same food and do the same route back. That’s ok, each to their own, some people are just creatures of habit but that doesn’t give you the right to criticise cyclists who like to explore different roads in different areas. Even, god forbid, put the road bike in the back of the car and drive 30-40-50-100+ miles from home to start a ride in different surroundings. MTBers do this all the time, I do it myself and have done it to ride Sportives.
“They are not race’s!” You are right they are not. “They are killing road racing!” No they are not. There are many reasons why road racing is going through a long slow death in this country, but Sportives are not the reason. Some of the reasons in my opinion are increasing policing and running costs, getting police/local authority permission to race on the open road, a lack of volunteer helpers/commissionares etc, Clubs/individuals bemoaning the lack of road racing but not willing to step up and put racers on. Instead they would prefer to accuse sportives and people who do them of killing road racing. Cycling clubs are not trying to engage with the new influx of people coming into the sport, or helping to get them interested in what can be the very intimidating and elitist world of road racing.
“They are dangerous because people who do them cannot ride in groups or on wheels and they are all fat and they all wear Sky kit and they all ride really expensive bikes”. I have done plenty of racers where there are plenty of participants who can’t ride in a straight line (myself included. I once caused quite a big pile up in a race by not looking where I was going)let alone a group and I’m not taking about that often maliged group known as 4th cats. Yes 4th cats these poor people who get blamed for most of the worlds ills. I keep forgetting that the people who criticise the lack of “race craft” and riding skills amongst these beginners were blessed with instant “Sagan esq” riding skills and bunch savvy as soon as they swung a leg over a top tube.
Ok, some of them don’t know how to ride in a group or on a wheel. Probably because they have never done it before. They might have tried, they might have gone along to their nearest clubs Sunday run and found that they were snubbed because they were wearing Sky kit and riding an expensive bike and were then dropped and left to fend for themselves, much to the delight of the members of the cycling club they went along to ride with. (We are back to cycling clubs engaging with the increasing number of new people trying to get into the sport, some clubs do do this, but they tend to be newer clubs, sometimes formed by the very people who are coming into the sport).
So what if they have expensive bikes. so do the vast majority of other cyclists. Myself included.
But people are also ridiculed for having an old or cheap bike and not the right kit or gear. Whilst doing the Cyclone last year my two ride partners and I passed a guy who was doing the long route with a large rucksack on his back astride a cheap “crappy” old bike that can only be described as a gas piped wreck. He was wearing an old pair of Addidas sambas and had a pair of 80s football shorts to protect him from a hard day in the saddle. 101 miles around Northumberland to be precise. How many local “hard men” would attempt that.
Right enough of this negativity, I’m already in a foul mood. Now I’m going to tell you why I think the Sportive is a good thing.
The sport of cycling is going through quite a growth period at the moment. Yes some of these ‘newbies’ may have just purchased a nice new shiny carbon bike from the internet because their mates have. And a vast majority of these bikes will spend most of their life leaning against the cross trainer or weights stand in the garage. But a good number of these bikes will be used by the owner as he or she becomes a ‘serious’ cyclist.
Most people who involve themselves in a sport will entertain the idea of completion and/or seek out challengers that pit themselves against others themselves and the terrain. In the case of many new adult cyclists this takes on the form of a “group ride” with their mates or their recently joined local cycling club( if they have chosen that route and are lucky enough to have a friendly welcoming club in their area). Now as I have said a sportive is not strictly a race in the truest sense but you are timed (so you could say that it is a TT but with less nerds) so you have the option of wanting to “push on” and try and post the fastest time you can, to beat your mates/club mates or qualify for one of the timing standards that a lot of Sportives employ. So an element of completion is there for people who want it. You can approach it how you want. Even completing the distance for a lot of people is challenge enough, and there isn’t the shame of getting “shot out the back” in the first few miles of a Road Race. If the appetite is wetted, then they’ll undertake more Sportives, and perhaps the following year the same ones again with the goal of beating last years time.
For some it might have been their first experience of riding with a group of cyclists or even riding a bike “seriously” . They might be active in another sport or just “sporty” and want another challenge. The Great North Run or London Marathon might have already been ticked off the list and now the fancy having a crack at cycling and if they enjoy the experience it might encourage them to seek out local groups or clubs to ride with. They might even have bumped into some members of a local club from their area. And depending on how the encounter went they might be encouraged to join the club, or avoid it like the plague. Either way after notching up a couple of sportives, thoughts may turn to ‘proper’ racing and entries sent off for Road Races, Time Trials and Cyclo Cross racers – perhaps a future champion may emerge or at least another recruit to the racing fraternity. Win win in my book.
Lets also look at it from another angle. Last year I did the “Winking Sheep Roof of England” Sportive in upper Wear Dale. This is an area I know quite well, but many don’t and a large percentage of the participants had never been to Wear Dale before – but talking to a number of them after they had completed the challenging course, they’ll be back. This is good news for an area much ravaged by unemployment, putting money into the coffers of local business. I had a similiar experience when I first completed the “Ken Laidlaw” up in Hawick, run by Hawick CC – one of the oldest cycling clubs in the country – in honour of one of our greatest cyclists. I was parked next to cyclists from as far and wide as Cambridgeshire and other exotic southern places who had never visited the Boarders before, but have since returned time and time again. As have I, which neatly leads me into why I do sportives and what I get out of them. I have never been a fan of doing the same rides and routes all the time. I used to find it hard keeping to a usual post work training loop, which meant tracking training improvements could be a ball ache. I even move my rollers from room to room to “mix it up a bit”. Doing the same road race circuits can also be a challenge, I like to seek out new roads and ride in places I haven’t been before. Now thanks to taking part in some Sportives I have done just that. My attitude to racing for various reasons has been changing over the last few years, I have been stepping away from racing all season and every weekend. I didn’t even plan to race last year I was happy just to ride my bike after recovering from bouts of illness both mental and physical. I had planned a touring trip to Norway but a couple of broken ribs had put a stop to that. When I was capable of riding a bike again I did just that. I just rode my bike for the pure simple pleasure of riding. But my “competitive spirit” started to get the better of me. A few “half arsed” attempts on the local chain gang encouraged to get fitter but with out the pressure of racing.
I still needed some kind of goal that would keep me inspired and motivated, but wouldn’t completely dominate my life. I decided that doing a couple of Sportives would be perfect. I would need to be fit to get round in a decent time, but wouldn’t need to be “race fit” meaning I could still have a social life (pub). The more relaxed nature of the events were perfect for me but they were hard. Some of the hardest day’s I have had on a bike for a long time. But I was happy I was enjoying riding and pushing myself on my bike again. and most of all I was enjoying not worrying about anything.
Doing these sportives inspired me. They relit the fire, riding hard in beautiful, challenging terrain with other cyclists made me want to carry on doing it. On the back of these, I renewed my race licence and pinned a number on again. There is no reason why this couldn’t happen to someone else like me or someone new to the sport. Making that natural progression from serious cyclist to racing cyclist. I will be racing again this year but that does not mean I will be turning my back on the humble sportive. No, far from it, I have already signed up for some this year and also entered some “proper” races. I will be mixing it up again keeping it fresh and also just riding my bike because I just like riding my bike. Variety is the spice of life, why restrict yourself to always doing the same thing. A good example of this is my older brother. Due to time constraints he has little time for training so a lot of his competitive cycling is spent on dual carridgeway’s, so for a change he joined me on at the Roof of England sportive last year. A lack of mileage in his legs convinced him to do the shorter distance but he loved it. The change was a shot in the arm for him and he has vowed to return this year and do the full distance. And why restrict it to your home shores. There are plenty of Sportives and “Gran Fondo” all over the world. Combine riding your bike with a visit to another country that’s not Majorca. Soak up the local cycling/café/bar culture. It seems to be more acceptable to travel thousands of miles to beast yourself over horrific stretches of pave or drag yourself over Col after Col than traveling a couple of hours or less to ride a sportive in the UK. But if that’s not your thing then fine, I appreciate that not everyone is the same and has the same outlook on cycling as me. I must also concede that due in my line of work I get to meet many types of cyclists from beginners ,family groups right through to racers both on and off road and everything else in between. And in my experience some people are just twats no matter what type of cyclist they are and beyond redemption. But if you are going to slag off Sportives in front of me you better come up with some alternative reasons to the ones I have discussed above.