Sportives helping harmony

Source:Reuters Published: 2014-8-8 23:53:01

2nd London ride to stage Sunday

Cyclists take part in the Prudential RideLondon event on August 3, 2013 in London. Photo: CFP

 The rise of cycling in Britain will scale a new peak on Sunday when 24,000 amateur riders take over the capital and a swathe of the countryside in the closed-road Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100, the country's ultimate "cyclosportive."

The idea that British car drivers could be forced to take second place to cyclists would have seemed ­preposterous only a few years ago - and still is to many. And while there is a long way to go before the streets are routinely shared with a cheery wave as they are in large areas of continental Europe, groups of cyclists out for a weekend spin are becoming more and more a part of the landscape.

Going hand in hand with Britain's professional cycling success, the sportive movement is the most visible manifestation of that growth over the past decade, exploding from a handful of events to more than 500 now.

In essence a sportive is an ­organized ride where a few hundred, sometimes a few thousand, amateur riders follow a signposted course.

Organizers provide numbering, signposting, maps, mechanical assistance, food and drink stops. They also provide timings, though are always keen to stress that their events are not races, which would require licensing and police liaison.

They usually take place on quiet, country roads and lanes as riders ­enjoy the rarity of some "critical mass" where their numbers earn them some degree of safety.

For many it is also a chance to experience riding in a peloton for the first time, something that is an eye-opening experience and subsequently helps give a much better understanding of the tactics of professional racing.

"In the last seven or eight years there has been an incredible growth in sportives," Rob Spedding, editor of Cycling Plus magazine, told Reuters.

"I think British cycling success on the road and track helped spark the interest and it probably coincided with a period where there were more consumers with money to spend.

"They offer a challenge, a bit of competition if you want it and are generally a really good, fun way to enjoy a long day in the saddle.

"There is the added appeal that most men - and it is still mostly men riding them - like to buy bits of kit and technology, and there's always something on a bike that can be upgraded."

Structured challenge

Cycling Plus has gradually switched its focus to the sportive side of the sport and its monthly circulation has climbed from 27,000 to 51,000 since 2007, while several other cycling magazines have been launched to try to cash in on the ­growing market.

Once a figure of fun, "MAML" (middle-aged men in Lycra), are now a common sight, and the natural progression from weekend rides with friends is to more structured, often challenging sportives.

Many events offer a range of ­distances to cater for different levels of endurance but there is an ­underlying trend towards making the event something of a personal achievement rather than a pleasant Sunday spin.

Sportives vie with each other to be considered the toughest, cramming in as many hills as possible to maximize the challenge, and names such as The Hell of the North, The Beast, The Epic, The Devil, The Killer and The Grizzly give an indication of what people should expect.

Those who want to go to another level still will usually look to continental Europe, where "gran fondo" events taking in iconic climbs are long-established.

L'Etape du Tour, where thousands of riders get to cover a Tour de France stage, and La Marmotte, which winds up the famed Alpe d'Huez, have become hugely popular, while the Trois Etapes ramps the experience up to a whole new level.

That event, run over several days, gives riders the chance to race as part of a team led by a top professional rider with all the backup support associated with a grand-tour race.

All these events raise huge amounts of money for charity. The first year of RideLondon raised 7 million pounds ($11.81 million) and is expecting to double that this year. The Trois Etapes, with only 170 riders, albeit from the upper echelons of the business world, produced almost 2 million.

Under house arrest

Bike manufacturers and shops have also surfed the wave with growing sales, particularly at the upper end of the market, where 1,000 pounds buys only an "entry level" road bike.

A whole new range of "comfort geometry" frames, has emerged, with subtle design tweaks - and a raft of marketing claims - aimed squarely at the sportive market.

However, not everyone has welcomed this area of cycling's development, with some of the fiercest critics of the proliferation of sportives coming from within.

Some cycle club traditionalists point out that similar events, such as long distance Audaxes and so-called "reliability rides" have for decades offered virtually the same experience, albeit on a smaller scale, without the entry fee.

Some residents who live on ­sportive routes are also very much against them. One of Britain's few closed-road events, the Etape de Caledonia in Scotland, was sabotaged by disgruntled locals who spread tacks along the route, causing hundreds of punctures and leading to a police investigation.

People living in the Surrey Hills, just outside London, one of the wealthiest areas of the country, have also found themselves short of patience as their 4x4s and thousands of cyclists compete for space on narrow roads and quiet lanes every Sunday.

Organizers of the Surrey 100 have introduced rolling road closures following protests last year from Surrey residents claiming to have been made "prisoners in our own homes" for a day when car movements on some streets were restricted.

In general, however, sportives take place in relative harmony with the nation's cars - most cyclists are, of course, drivers too.

"The great thing about sportives is that they are gradually helping to break down those barriers," said Spedding.

"They have the potential to help cyclists no longer be seen as an irritant and to make the concept of large groups of riders using the roads become a normal part of UK culture."

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