Sportive cycling races have been around for ages, but the last few years have seen an explosion in them all over the cycling world. France has a long tradition of open events like the sportive (cyclosportive in French) and offers up a near-endless choice throughout the racing season. The whole spectrum is covered as well, from local races with a handful of riders, to the Etape du Tour, which needs to limit participation to 15,000!
In this guide I hope to give a general overview of what the typical cyclosportive looks like, with some helpful tips on registration, logistics and participation. I’ll also list some of the more famous (and infamous!) sportives that France has.
What is a Cyclosportive, anyway?
First, it is a competitive event, i.e. not a charity ride or audax. However, cyclosportives are open to all, which distinguishes them from sanctioned amateur races, which you need to have a licence to enter. Anybody is welcome to sign up.
Going back to the first adjective though, these events are competitive and, from my experience, can be quite intense for some participants. Sometimes amateur riders and even pros will use cyclosportives as training for their upcoming races. You are given a race number and your time is always electronically recorded. In short, the race is on. Note: in France these events are nearly always mass start, which differs greatly from some other countries, like most sportives in the UK, for example.
Most cyclosportives are local affairs, put on by the community and run by volunteers. The atmosphere is convivial and it is treated like a local festival. The mass, post-race lunch is particularly pleasant.
What kinds of distances am I looking at?
Most cyclosportives will have two or more distances to attract different levels of riders. In general (and this really is general) the short distance will be under 100 km and the long will be longer, sometimes a lot longer. Many events will have a randonnée, which is a much shorter option.
How about climbing?
Like with pro racing, as the season progresses the events tend to get more vertical. In the beginning of the year (late winter / spring) you will see plain and vallonné quite a lot when searching for a race. As soon as summer hits, moyenne montagne and haute montagne start to appear more. This will be your first indication of the amount of climbing you will have.
Also, look for the dénivelée, which is the actual vertical distance you will need to climb. This magic number can range from nearly zero to the 5000 meters of La Marmotte!
How do I register?
Online is the short answer. Every event I have seen has a facility to register (inscription in French) and pay online, which wasn’t the case just a few years ago.
Velo 101 (in French) lists most, if not all, of the cyclosportives in France by month, and they have links to the events’ websites, as well as email addresses and results, once the race if finished.
I would say that the registration process is pretty straight forward (other than translating, if there is no English option), except for one thing, the medical certificate. If you don’t have a racing licence you must supply a certificat médical in order to race. This might not be well known to your doctor in your home country; here is an example you can print out, in English, supplied by the organizers of the Etape du Tour, which should suffice for any race in France. If you are in France, print this out and take it to your médicin traitant and convince him/her that you are in good enough shape to be riding in a competitive event!
Once you get this certificate signed by your doctor it will be good for the entire season, so hang onto it. Often, you can scan it and email it to the organizers of your event and then you won’t have to take it with you on race day.
The rest is easy. Pay by credit card online and you will usually receive a confirmation email with your race number.
Getting your Number
Your race bib, known as a dossard in French, is nearly always available from a location at, or near, the start line the day before the race. This is the least stressful way to go about doing it, if you can make it there that early. Otherwise, you can pick them up a couple of hours before the race begins which, unless it is a massively popular sportive, presents few problems. This is usually when you present your certificat médical and ID, if they ask for it.
Your electronic chip is picked up when you get your dossard and, depending on the organization, you will need to leave a cash deposit or some ID for security. Sometimes, however, you will pay online beforehand and get the cash back after the race.
Organizational quality varies from race to race, as you can imagine. There are some races that seem to lack support, such as directional signs or volunteers on the road to send you the right way, and others, like the Etape, that have closed roads, police, helicopters and even those cool, yellow Mavic motorbikes!
All races have motorcycle support, which for the most part means they ride ahead and make sure oncoming traffic is aware there is a race on. They also ride up and down the race, watching for people in trouble, accidents, etc.
At intersections there are usually volunteers, or at the very least arrows.
There is often a ‘village’, with bike makers, accessories vendors, wheel manufacturers and the like, centered around the start/finish line. This is a good place to buy that extra energy gel you might just need, or get a last-minute tire pump-up.
Every race has a ‘broom wagon’, which follows the riders in the back, ‘sweeping up’ those who are slower than the maximum time limit (if there is one) and victims of accidents.
Feeding stations (ravitaillement or ravito in French) are a part of every race, except the shortest. These will not always have food, though. Some will be only drinks. The event should detail this on the race profiles and maps. Usually you will find water, fruit, cake, nuts, etc. at these stations, as well as smiling volunteers, of course.
You will nearly always have a lunch option after the race, which is either included in the registration price, or a paid option. Lunch is eaten in a communal setting, which is a nice way to end a tough ride. As you might guess, wine is almost always included.
You will usually get a goodie bag filled with local specialities, like honey or wine, and freebies from sponsors. I’ve received everything from keychains to cycling jerseys.
There are always trophies awarded for top places in each age / sex category. There is nearly always a draw after the race as well, where something decent from a sponsor is up for grabs, like the bike in the photo below.
To get to France with your bike check out Freewheeling France’s excellent, concise articles.
Often cyclosportives start and finish in out-of-the-way places (one reason they are so great), so transportation can be an issue. If there is a train station, and you decide to go that route, here is a page from my website that gives an overview of French trains and their policies regarding bikes, as well as info on how to buy tickets.
Where to Stay
As close to the start line as possible, since these events usually begin early. If you have a car with you then you will have much better options, but if you just have the bike then get close. You’ll be glad to have a short ride to the shower after a long, hard day in the saddle. The event organizers often have accommodation (hebergement in French) links on their sites.
Shortlist of Cyclosportives in France
La Marmotte – The oldest, most prestigious, and toughest cyclosportive in France. The race is over 170km long and crosses 3 major Alpine mountain passes before finishing on the summit of mythic Alpe d’Huez. Enter at your own risk!
Etape du Tour – The largest event of its kind in France, most likely. This year (2011) there were two races, with a limit on each one of 10,000 participants.
The Etape is a unique race, in that it is an exact replica of a stage (always in the mountains) the pros ride in that year’s Tour de France.
London-Paris – Mostly ridden in France, this is another special (and pricey) event, with rolling closed roads and ‘stages’, giving anyone who can afford it the same experience as pro riders.
Haute Alps – Starts in Geneva and finishes in Nice, crossing an endless series of giant Alpine passes along the way. Professional organization. Unbeatable routes.
Sur les Routes de l’Etoile – Held in Alès (Languedoc). Usually the first cyclosportive on the calendar, this race takes place at the same time as the pro stage race of the same name. The organization is great, maybe for that reason. Nice chance to see some (mostly French) pros, too.
Le Ventoux – This beautiful race goes up and over legendary Mount Ventoux, starting and finishing in the pretty Provençal village of Beaumes-de-Venise.
Time-Megève Mont Blanc – A big (and very hard) race that takes place in the northern Alps, not far from Switzerland. The longest course takes you over 3 high mountain passes, and the total elevation gain is equal to height of nearby Mont Blanc – 4810 meters.
L’Ariégeoise – This race is held in the Ariège department in the heart of the Pyrenees. It attracts riders from all over the world and is very popular – over 4000 participants in 2010.
Le Mans – Like long rides? How about 24 hours around the world-famous Le Mans circuit? You can actually enter as an individual for this race (although don’t ask me how you could stay awake), but also as a pair, or several different types of teams. I’ve heard that the organization for this race is 2nd to none.
How do I Find these Sportives?
As I noted above, Velo 101 has a very complete list, in French.
For something more ‘global’, Cyclosport.org has sportives listed by country. There seems to be a good range listed for France.
How about Training?
I am not the person to be giving training tips, but I am sure there is no simple answer to this question, simply because of the huge variety of races there are. You will need to train differently for a 60 km race on the flat than you would for the over 3000 meters of elevation gain. ‘Focused’, would be my best advice on the way to go.
If I’m missing anything in this guide, please let me know. I’d like to make it as complete as possible.