Cyclosportives are the glamping of amateur cycling – but there is an alternative

One of the highlights of the last season of the show was Kieron Yates’s feature Up the ‘Uts, looking at the historic 32nd Association of cycling clubs, whose membership is dwindling even at a time when cycling is booming. In the discussion that followed both Kieron and Nigel Wood, chairman of the Dulwich Paragon club, expressed concerns that the voluntarism of traditional clubs is being supplanted by a profit-driven motivation as cycling becomes ever more commercialised.

For many decades local cycling clubs, Audax UK and the Cyclists Touring Club (est. 1878) have between them put together a packed calendar of mass rides over a range of distances from 40 mile jaunts to daunting 600 kilometre tests of endurance. These are non-competitive rides organied by volunteer club members. Riders are issued with route information but must navigate themselves, checking in at ‘controls’ en route (often in village halls) where registrations cards are stamped and refreshments are offered. There are minimum and maximum average speeds – the latter to prevent the rides turning into races. Rides typically cost £3-4 to enter.

Compare this with the Cyclosportive, a relatively recent import from the continent. Again, these are organised, semi-competitive mass rides over a distance usually between 100km and 200km. Cyclosportives feature full route marking, support vehicles and sometimes motorcycle outriders, computer chip timing transponders, photographers en route, medals for finishers and so on. The price tags starts around £25 and rise to £58 for the one UK sportive that is run on roads closed to motor vehicles, just like the really big French sportives and Italian gran fondos. A whole ecology of full service sport tours companies has sprung up around the most popular sportives – particularly those on the continent. For a fee, these companies will guarantee your entry to the event, arrange your travel, accommodation and food and offer training tips – pretty much everything except actually pushing the pedals for you.

If you ask me, cyclosportives are the glamping of cycle sport. They are commercial, marketing-driven, heavily-branded and take plenty of cues from the self-consciously aspirational world of the triathlon. They are a world apart from CTC and audax rides, which have an atmosphere more redolent of a 1950s village fête. Where club rides are based upon self-sufficiency, stamped addressed envelopes and cups of tea, cyclosportives are about celebrity endorsement, glitz and, more often than not, a hefty dose of charity fundraising.

I should confess that as a cyclist my first allegiance has always been to cycle touring. There is nothing finer than setting off and not knowing just where you’ll lay your head at the end of the day, but confident that you’ll find a beautiful spot to camp under the stars, with the smells and sounds of the countryside and the miles travelled multiplying the sensations of escape and adventure. Route finding and navigation part and parcel of touring. Likewise, paying attention to your surroundings and direction are important skills when riding CTC and audax rides, though not always needed as you can usually sit in with a group of other riders who know the way. And if you get lost, at least you get lost together. By contrast, the fluorescent arrows that indicate every turn on the route of the cyclosportive infantalise the experience of long distance riding in the open country.

Everywhere you look cycling is commodified and commercialised. In their early days both mountain-biking and the fixed wheel boasted punky, DIY ethics that marked them as distinctive, exciting and anarchic. Both these new branches of the cycling tree have subsequently been overwhelmed by marketing, corporate sponsorship and branding, admittedly bringing the respective pursuits into the mainstream and increasing numbers of participants, and sometimes making the a few of pioneers into wealthy people, but at the loss of something of the essential character of their genesis.

Perhaps the same was true in the bike booms of the 1870s and 1890s. And does it really matter? It’s a free world and there is there room for everyone to do what they want. Why should I care if marketing companies swoop in and replace moral fibre with carbon fibre? They are only selling people what they want, aren’t they? If people want to emulate the pros, let them eat cake high energy gels.

There is no doubt that the CTC and Audax UK suffer from what the marketing profession would describe as an image problem. I am a member of both organisations, though I don’t think this fact quite explains it. At their core, both organisations are both deeply un-aspirational. Mudguards, saddle bags and hub dynamos are the stereotypes and this is an image anathema to the fund managers and advertising executives who now take to their sleek road bikes the way they once headed for the golf course. But perhaps that’s a good thing? After all, it means more people are cycling. Each to their own.

Well, yes and no. Last November at the AGM of Audax UK, David Duffield, the mildly eccentric, blazer-wearing former cycling commentator and British record-breaking tricyclist, complained that sportives were getting more attention in the cycling media than audaxes because they brought more revenue in the form of advertising and promotion. This was making it difficult for audax rides to attract participants. Their traditional, voluntarist rides were losing out to the modern, glitzy sportive. Duffield went as far as cancelling his subscription to Cycling Weekly in protest. I don’t know if Duffield’s accusation of media collusion in the promotion of commercial sportives is fair. Some might say his judgment is clouded by his own bitter experience of the David Duffield Challenge, a CTC fundraiser ride that in 2009 was cancelled because too few people had registered to take part (around 50, when around 180 was needed to make it viable). From 2010 onwards the ride was renamed the Severn Bridge Sportive, with no apparent affiliation to Duffield or the CTC.

Is the march of the expensive sportive organised by professional sport events companies inexorable, and will the venerable traditions of CTC rides and audaxes wither on the vine, with voluntarism sacrificed at the alter of commerce? Are newer generations of cyclists even aware of the inexpensive, inclusive, democratic (not to mention self-improving) world of the randonnée?

That remains to be seen, but there is hope, and this hope is present in the form of two rides in particular, both of which are the highlights of my cycling calendar and both of which owe their existence to a veteran audaxer and eminence grise of London cycling who goes by the name of Patrick Field.

The first is the Ride of the Falling Leaves, a friendly, affordable ‘sportive’ run by Dulwich Paragon and Mosquito Bikes of Islington. It costs £15 (more than three times the price of a typical audax ride but much less than a commercial sportive) and this includes a hot meal and a pint of beer at the end and a donation to the Lavender Trust. The ride is great fun and tremendously popular among a wide range of London cyclists. It is made possible by volunteer effort and captures the best of the traditions of British cycling (not least an opening lap on the Herne Hill Velodrome) while placing them in the modern era, just but without the corporate makeover and ‘aspirational’ price tag.

The second is the Dunwich Dyanmo – an anti-sportive, if you will. A free, unsupported, unmarshalled ride from a pub on London Fields to the Suffolk coast. Overnight. The ride attracts close to a thousand riders of every kind, who somehow cram into a village hall in the middle of the night for a cheap, vegetarian feed stop. Southwark Cyclists coordinate the return trip in coaches and a removal van for the bikes, on a not-for-loss basis. The Exmouth Exodus is an independent off-shoot in the west country, starting from Bristol.

Both rides celebrate the fellowship of the wheel, rejoice in diversity and difference, and are ridden with a smile on the face. If CTC and Audax UK are concerned about falling participation in their rides, they could do no better than to look to these events for inspiration. As people feel the pinch of hard economic times, perhaps they will think twice before paying upwards of £25 for the pleasure of riding their bike for a day in the countryside with a group of other people. I’m sure I’ll ride a cyclo$portive or two this summer, not least because some of my friends enjoy riding them, but I will be urging them, as I urge you, to make the effort to rediscover and cherish the precious, unglamorous traditions of the best of club riding: join the CTC, join Audax UK. I’ll see you at the next control.

  • owenp

    @thebikeshow interesting post. maybe audax & ctc could adopt retro, steel frame, tubular-over-shoulders style? or is that another “image”

  • http://monkeyphotomcr.blogspot.com/ John the Monkey

    I think for some people the Sportive will be the gateway to Audax – anyone who wants more of a challege than a century will naturally head in that direction, I think.

    For the beginner, the sportive is probably less daunting too – no route finding, just worry about being able to cover the miles!

  • http://www.in-the-saddle.com damien

    I know that the issue of local sportives has been a hot topic of debate in my club recently – many people wonder why you’d pay £25 to ride local roads, and many routes are similar to what you’d do on a club run anyway. But they’re incredibly popular – people seem to like the idea of signing up to a big event and tackling the same route as hundreds of others at the same time.

    Personally I’m on the ‘why bother?’ side of the argument!

    I wrote about the value of clubs recently on my blog (in-the-saddle.com – Why join a club? – a lot of people riding sportives aren’t involved in clubs at all, which seems odd considering the massive benefits you get for a meagre £30 annual fee (a bargain when you consider a certain SW London bike shop and tours company is offering supported ‘Club Runs’ for £25 a pop).

    The amateur racing scene really relies on the club system and volunteering of its membership for putting on events and races (including time trials). So I’d urge anyone doing such sportives to think about joining up to a club – anything you give (and it needn’t cost much in terms of time or money) will go back into the sport we all love.

  • Mick Tarrant

    What an excellent and well observed piece of journalism. Both comments so far also make valid points. At the last count, we had well over 150 members in our club but level of participation in organised rides is minimal whereas the “take up” for local Sportives is far greater. Likewise, numbers competiting in local road racing and time trials is on the wane, it would seem that the Sportive is indeed what most now aspire to.
    There is a local organisation who were once a “cycling club” that did not really put much into the local scene but did take a fair bit from it by “head hunting” top testers. They put on zilch in the way of events. Now they are re-invented as a “Sportive Organiser” with glossy website and entry fees to match, says it all really.
    If I can get any form by mid May (some way to go) I’ll be entering the excellent “Dorset Downs” (£6.00 in advance) organised by Wesssex CTC under Audax rules. A testing route which takes in some amazing Dorset countryside with regular check points where a warm welcome awaits along with cuppa, cold drink and snacks. This ride does indeed “celebrate the fellowship of the wheel, rejoices in diversity and difference, and is ridden with a smile on the face”

  • http://www.puncheur.co.uk Morgan

    As organiser of the PUNCHEUR sportive, I would like to chip in with my thoughts… I think sportive organisers should make a conscious effort to promote club membership and activity. Once my 2011 event had gone live, I contacted around 10 local clubs to ask them if they would like to send or bring any promotional literature for their clubs, but as far as I can tell (I wasn’t at the HQ building the whole time so I can’t be 100% sure), nobody brought anything to leave or hand out.
    I love being part of a club – I train and race with Brighton Mitre, and would encourage anyone to try to hook up with a club. I started riding sportives a few years before I joined Mitre, but it was only my own initiative and desire to try new things (not least racing) that made me seek out other people to ride with outside of the sportive environment – there was nothing in the sportives I took part in that pointed me in that direction.
    I think that clubs could make more use of sportives by attending them and interacting with riders on the day, but also I would like to see more organisers proactively work with local clubs to invite them to have a presence (I’m sure others have done this – I can’t be the only one).
    One of my ambitions for PUNCHEUR, for as long as it is in existence, is to get more people into clubs, and into racing, if they feel so inclined, so that the road racing scene in the UK grows again from the bottom up.
    If PUNCHEUR ever became surplus to requirements because more people joined clubs and were riding, training and racing together most weekends, and if I knew that PUNCHEUR had helped that shift to come about, then I would be very happy. Until then, everyone is welcome!

  • http://www.richmitch.co.uk Richard Mitchelson

    thought i would add my rambling thoughts on this…

    Having ridden all of said PUNCHEURs since it’s first encarnation 3 years ago, and as a club rider for my local club the Bayeux Landscapes CC, i’d like to say that i think sportives have done a lot of good for cycling in the UK by opening the world of cycling up to a wider and perhaps less race/audax/touring aware audience.

    A lot of people i chat to either when i ride this event [as it tends to be my only sportive each year as its a good early season leg test] or out on the road, seem to have the idea of a cycling club as something that is going to take all of their time, and that they will HAVE to go on EVERY club run and race all the time. Once i explain this not to be the case people seem surprised and perhaps look into it, but cycling clubs have and often will rely on the small amount of people that are bitten by the cycling bug and want to hunt out how to get into racing themselves. As a Sussex resident I had to search pretty hard for the right club round my way. Often peoples only encounter with the local club is a speeding pack of riders in the same kit, whizzing past you on a Sunday morning, and this can be pretty intimidating to a novice rider just starting out, and certainly not immediately inviting.

    This means the Sportive is perfect for a guy who has three kids and can only get out once a week when his wife lets him [for example.] He has a goal for a 100km or so ride in the summer, which he knows that he can attend and only worry about getting round in a time he plans.

    I guess cost is always a stickler, and its one of the reasons i dont do many Sportives a year, as the cost mounts up. Guys i ride with are often not to impressed about having to spend £20 on a ride we could do for nothing, but each to their own, if it brings more people out on their bikes then i’m all for it.

    I’m taking an odd approach with this comment and as a club man and racing cyclist i guess i should be all for what Jack has written about in his post, and for the most of it I am. I do agree that audax rides and the ctc generally could do with an image update, for me it seems to represent the old guard of cycling clubs run by to many committee members not being able to decide on whether they need an extra stripe on their jersey this season or not… I cant help it, it’s just what it conjours up, perhaps it’s ignorance slightly on my part, and one day i would love to give an audax a go to be proved wrong. However the march of the ever conquering Sportive market is one we can do little to change, as the rise of the MAMIL continues their growth in popularity will only increase.

    Events such as the Dunwich Dynamo [which i think looks truly inspiring] are the way forward as you suggest, and hopefully an even balance can be struck between the two sorts of rides so that both can live side by side happily…

    The post was a really interesting read, thanks Jack.

  • http://www.puncheur.co.uk Morgan

    Good points Richard.
    (I thought the author of the article was Damien for some reason. Sorry Jack. In any case, a very good article; thank you for writing it.)

  • Kieron Yates

    An interesting read Jack with some great responses.

    Duffield is possibly right about the close relationship between the cycling press and sportive organisers – he was at one time a marketing man himself, for Britain’s biggest cycle retailer. However, I can’t say I see the decline in audax participation he does.

    Although membership numbers did drop slightly in 2008 and 2009 this was nothing significant. The then record membership of 2007 is anomalous, as it reflects the traditional spike associated with Paris Brest Paris. In 2010 membership bounced back to a new record level which seems likely to be exceeded again this year – another Paris Brest Paris year.

    There has also been very little decline in total distances ridden in audax events; merely a levelling off over the last few years corresponding to the slower membership growth.

    It could be said that perhaps there is a natural cap on the growth of an organisation promoting events that some may consider to be on the extreme fringes of the sport – not everyone who runs a marathon wants to go on and run ultra-marathons. There are some vociferous members of AudaxUK who view this lack of growth as the thin end of the wedge and predict an imminent demise. They eye the turnout and publicity garnered by sportive events with envy and blame the lack of visibility of audax rides on the marketing prowess of the sportive competition. Of course, I’m sure they are equally motivated by a desire to attract new cyclists to that niche of the sport they themselves feel most passionately about.

    As a former organiser I’m not sure event size is of great importance. I was always happy with the numbers my two audax events attracted – over 100 for each event. I would not have wanted more as the infrastructure would not have been able to cope. There were other clubs that ran events in the same area over a three week period attracting similar, if not larger, numbers of participants. So, between three clubs around 400 riders on the road, riding audaxes of varying distances -comparable to sportives in level of participation, just not all crammed on to the road at the same time rushing round to record a personal best.

    Yes, sportives do play a role in getting people into the cycling habit. I’m not entirely au fait with sportive organisation but do know many are put on by cycling clubs and many by independent organisers. I think the key thing you and other respondents hit on is that money generated from club organised events supports other club events and promotes cycle sport at the local level.?

  • Ian Parkinson

    Interesting and thoughtful piece, Jack. I’m a bit ambivalent about sportives -I’ve ridden loads (most recently the Spring Onion) but do find the increasing crowds, stress and “seriousness” of the whole scene a bit off-putting.
    I also know that the sheer number of events – especially in areas like the Surrey Hills – risks alienating non-cyclists and local residents.
    Their success is no surprise really, given the number of recent recruits to cycling from running and triathlons. I ran the London Marathon a few years ago and, during the training period, was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to sign up and run in shorter races and events, and how open and welcoming it all was. A real change after 20 odd years of learning secret codes, funny handshakes and unwritten rules in cycling. I think the new arrivals to cycling from other sports just expected to be able to ride organised, well marshalled events and didn’t mind paying for them.
    And cycling clubs have often been their own worst enemies. I know of many friendly, open ones – including my own – but also still hear plenty of examples of cliquey, insular clubs full of old gits who look down at newcomers, especially beginners and women.
    Each to their own, though – and I will definitely be seeking out the path less travelled on my bike this year.

    • SteveT

      “And cycling clubs have often been their own worst enemies. I know of many friendly, open ones – including my own – but also still hear plenty of examples of cliquey, insular clubs full of old gits who look down at newcomers, especially beginners and women.”

      Sadly the two that I looked at joining locally fell fairly and squarely into that category – so-called ‘open evenings’ where no-one bothered to exchange the time of day, but carried on talking among themselves about techie stuff and miles covered etc etc. I suppose cycling clubs are no worse than those in other (dare I say it) traditionally male-oriented areas, sailing, cricket and so on.

      But come on guys, don’t look down on the sportives. They give hundreds of newcomers to the sport a chance to participate to the level at which they are comfortable – serious, social, relaxed, competitive – and all for the price of a decent meal out. Good value I say.

  • AudaxUK

    @thebikeshow @ctc_cyclists Yes, we’ve replied!

  • http://cyclinginfo.co.uk/blog Tejvan Pettinger

    We used to have a cyclo-sportive every Sunday morning on the old fashioned British Club Run. It cost only the price of tea and toasted teacake. Plus you didn’t have to drive many miles to the start

  • http://www.facebook.com/Rowangoodfellow Rowan Goodfellow DeBonaire

    Extremely well thought-out and expressed, Jack. You summed up so much of my own thoughts on the culture. I believe that the whole $portive ‘thing’ hangs on image and ego. Their adverts show grimacing pro-looking men, almostlike an advert for male grooming products, which is a fair comparison. Our lcal Wednesday evening pub run attracted a couple of guys one week, who were training for a forthcoming $portive, and saw our ride on the local calendar. Boy wre they shocked and embarrased by our turnout – Moulton, Recumbent, Tandem, and a couple of vintage machines among the tourers and audax bikes. They were not embarrrased for their own appearance, but for being seen with us! Wewere clearly not ‘real’ cyclists in their eyes – not taking life seriously (goodness knows if they had found out that our number contained solicitor, GP, policeman and the chair of the local bench!). As we rode the home stretch, the boys said they were riding back to the start point because their cars were there. This is in a town centre! It transpired – here’s the best bit- they dismantle their bikes and get changed after leaving work, and again before arriving home, so their colleagues and neighbours don’t see they they are cyclists!
    THIS is why Sportives and the roadie culture is irrelevant to the development of cycling in Britain. The corporate ego culture is not breeding more bums on saddles, only more macho-boys who despise ‘other’ cyclists.

    Long live Audax UK even though they seem to have dropped the mudguard requirement – to my disappointment when I got a soaking from the others on a wet 200k. Long live Dunwich, PBP, FNRTTC and the others. Best thing is to just ignore the ego-epics – they are not part of cycling, and do not wish to be.