real life cycling

The Dubious Pleasure of the Sportive

I used to enjoy a sportive or two; the chance to ride on new roads in big groups of riders, a bit of good natured chat and banter with some new found friends, the challenge and the feeling of taking part in a big communal event…but the sportive scene in the UK is now saturated. As soon as all those would-be event organisers realised that lots of middle aged men and women like to play at racing, and have plenty of money to throw at their new hobby, the sportive became a good way to relieve them of their cash – and hundreds of the things sprung up.

Not too long ago I had the dubious pleasure of paying £25 to take part in a sportive – a small-time local event, I thought I’d support it – with around 40 other people. I barely saw another cyclist all day, and the extent of the organisation seemed to consist of the direction arrows which point you around the route, and a couple of feed stations dishing out energy gels and tap water. It didn’t feel like much of an event.

I’ve since decided I’ll restrict any future sportives I enter to the big popular ones – those with a sense of occasion where, along with a few hundred other entrants, you feel like you’re really part of something; The Fred Whitton Challenge, The Dragon Ride, or that one in Scotland that’s impossible to spell. If I want to ride for 6 hours with minimal human contact I can get that for nothing.

Newlands Pass - one of the many big climbs in the mighty Fred Whitton Challenge (Photo: Brian Clift)
Newlands Pass – one of the many big climbs in the mighty Fred Whitton Challenge
(Photo: Brian Clift)

The opportunity to refuel, or the lack of it, is a particular problem with some of the less well organised events. If you’re going to be on the bike for 6 or 7 hours you are going to need feeding properly at some point, or risk suffering and grovelling your way home for the last 3 hours. Most sportives advertise one or two feed-stops but you never know quite what you’ll get. I’ve taken part in events where they’ve laid on sandwiches, cake, fruit, chocolate…practically a full carvery to go at, and others where the feed stop has consisted of tap water and…’we did have gels and energy bars but they’ve run out…help yourself to a banana though’.

The humble banana is fine cycling food but it’s going to take more than that to get me home in a respectable state. I appreciate that some of these events are for charity, but seriously, man cannot cycle over the Pennines on water alone.

Of course, whether a sportive is poorly organised or run with the precision of a Swiss watch, there’s not much the organisers can do about the weather, so what happens is this:

You enter an event well in advance, motivated to put in a couple of months of decent training. Come the day – it’s early spring – the temperature is 3 degrees celsius, the wind is a steady 30mph and it’s raining sideways. Normally, if you were feeling brave, you might head out on the bike for an hour at most in this atrocious weather just to get some fresh air (or to out-do your mate who you know has stayed in to watch the football).

Sportive weather rolls in (Photo: Core Burn)
Sportive weather rolls in
(Photo: Core Burn)

Instead, because you’ve foolishly entered a sportive you go out and ride 100 miles – what may well be your longest, hardest ride of the year – in the kind of weather that even a Belgian cyclist might turn his nose up at. And so for 6 or 7 hours you will curse and suffer along with a thin field of fellow participants, all wondering what you’re doing and taunted by the knowledge that you’ve spent good money on this. Despite what the promo material for the event seems to suggest, a plate of Lancashire Hotpot and a free ‘goodie bag’ does little to cushion the blow.

The only redeeming feature of such a folly of a day is that you may well end up with a story of hardship and suffering of the kind that cyclists love, to wheel out from time to time and regale your mates with.

On a recent Sportive which straddles Lancashire and Cumbria, and which took place in the very conditions described above, I managed to snap my bike chain on the approach to Wrynose Pass (at least I think that’s where we were, the cloud was so low and the wind and rain so fierce that it wasn’t entirely obvious). The repair was duly carried out (heroically, in my mind) through clenched teeth and with cramp setting in, and it became abundantly clear that this might not be the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon. My riding companion seemed equally unimpressed but stayed stoically quiet – perhaps due to the fact that his lips were turning blue and he had begun to shiver uncontrollably. He may have quietly mentioned something under his breath about my ‘f**ckin’ heavy pedalling style.’

The Approach to Wrynose Pass (Photo: Michael Graham -
The Approach to Wrynose Pass
(Photo: Michael Graham –

Still, we laugh about it now. Well…I do anyway.

So, from now on, I intend to choose my sportives wisely, and if I wake up on the day and the weather points to a day of self-imposed pain on the bike (and I’m not in a masochistic mood) I’ll simply let my wallet take the hit and give it a miss.

After all, I’ve got a perfectly decent suffering story in the bag already…and it’s supposed to be fun, after all.

8 comments on “The Dubious Pleasure of the Sportive

  1. I did a 100k at the end of April last year in the rain. I actually had a really fun time though it was cool, not cold with the rain (50 F, I think 7 or 8 C). More than that though, a full hundred miles – no chance. That’s too much.


    • You’re right, 100 miles is a long time to be out in rough weather. I agree though, winter riding in 7 or 8 C (or even a bit lower) can be good fun when you’re dressed for it – positive mental attitude and all that…!


  2. I agree. This is precisely the reason why I pre-register only for events that are likely to sell out. I prefer to check the weather in the morning and pay the extra €5 or whatever for registering on the day. That said, there was one event where the weather looked a bit dodgy in the morning and the forecast suggested that I not go, but it turned out to be ok, just some moments of thick fog and some drizzle here and there.


    • That’s very wise and certainly the way i intend to go from now. The trouble is, the kind of big events that i really like can be hard to get an entry into and you have to enter months in advance – if you’re lucky enough to have your name pulled out of the hat you’re committed. The Fred Whitton Challenge this year is a case in point. I hear it was cold, wet, hailing and sleeting at times, and it became a bit of a survival situation – that’s no fun!


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  4. I hear sportives in Europe are very well organised. Head south, make a weekend out of it and enjoy the sunshine. Or as you say, simple head south without the sportive and make a weekend out of it. Sportives do a lot to bring new people to cycling but at the same time they can be somewhat soul destroying. I am a self-confessed lone rider so each to their own!


    • I also hear good things about Sportives in France and Italy – could be the way to go? Although, to be fair, once in the Alps or the Dolomites i’m not sure i’d feel the need to enter a sportive. I also get the lone rider thing too…getting out there on your own does have it’s own appeal, and i’m not averse to that from time to time.


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