By Sam Gardner – 15th November 2016
When I entered my first bike race in 1987 there was no such thing as a sportive. I guess the closest thing that existed was the London to Brighton charity bike ride.
As jumped up teenagers who thought we were going to be the next Stephen Roche, Sean Yates or Sean Kelly, we looked down at the London to Brighton crowd. They didn’t shave their legs and only trained (in the loosest sense of the word) for a couple of weeks before the event.
Oh how we thought we knew everything…. Looking back now the cycle industry back then was tiny, and the specialist racing shops selling high end components were especially few and far between. They made little money as their target market was so small, and we were all so tight we expected freebies and sponsorship.
Then Team GB had some Olympic success, cycling became trendy, and events such as the Etape were born. The boom breathed new life in the industry, cyclists didn’t just either race or commute, a new breed arrived and rode for fun and the challenge.
I still wasn’t ready for it.
Until 2 years ago I still proudly proclaimed to anyone who cared (which wasn’t many people) that ‘I have never ridden a Sportive’.
In these first years of BikeBox Online offering the shuttle service, my good friend Jamie Newall drove most of trips be they Sportives or Triathlons, later on, I myself drove to some Maratona’s and Etapes, and I think this is where I finally started to get it.
My original argument was that I’d rather ride the routes with a small group of mates, and not 10,000 other people (with questionable bike handling skills). I had been guiding in the Alp’s for a cycle holiday company and knew the roads well, but for most people this isn’t a serious option. They want to leave the office on Friday afternoon, ride a traffic free route clearly marked with a broom wagon for support, and be home Sunday night. They’d rather throw a few hundred pounds at their hobby, get the experts to organise it and not have the planning and hassle that self guiding involves.
Their 9 ‘til 5 jobs didn’t let them train the 20 hours a week required to win 1st Cat Road races, even if they did have the physiology which only 1% of the population are blessed with.
I finally got my head round the fact that everyday people got a sense of achievement training for and then completing a 100 mile ride through stunning scenery on the continent, instead of using the same training to struggle to hang with a 4th Cat bunch around a circuit in Hillingdon (nothing against Hillingdon, I raced there many times!).
Yes, you do need to be aware that some of the competitors haven’t mastered the fine art of descending or bunch riding. At the same time there’s nothing like a shared challenge and after 100 miles of sharing the pace in a bunch, people you’ve never met before of different nationalities slowly become good friends. A shared water bottle or energy bar can start friendships that last for life. Or else just as often you go your separate ways silently afterwards to recognise the same weather beaten stranger in the bar later and raise a glass across the room to mutual achievements.
Now I can proudly say I do ride Sportives!
The average competitor might be from a different demographic to those competing in the road races which I was brought up on, but at the front of the pack you get ex Tour De France riders. The standard is very high at the front of all the big sportives. The Maratona for instance is televised live in Italy which draws in big sponsors, it is a race in everything but name. The beauty of these events though is the difference in rider ability is also very broad. With such huge numbers there really will be a pack for every standard of rider.
I really do eat my original words and recommend trying one of these amazing events if you haven’t done so already.
If you’ve done the Etape, why not try the Marmotte or Maratona? They all have their own character, both in the route used and the event itself. The Maratona in particular is stunning, and is centred around several gorgeous villages, and where the neighbouring valleys speak totally different languages. It’s a fascinating place and possibly my favourite Sportive.
All the 3 events mentioned are serviced by Bikebox Online’s van delivery service. This takes the stress out of getting to these events. No more worrying if your bike will get on the plane. Bike boxes and bags are regularly left at the UK airports as the planes are full, to be sent on later flights and hopefully arrive before the event starts.
For the same price as renting a bikebox and paying the budget-airlines sports equipment fees, you can have your bike collected from your house or place of work, and it will be waiting fully assembled in your Hotel room a few days later. We can even take a carry on sized bag with gels and CO2 cartridges etc which airlines don’t like you flying with.