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.