Sportives: Are They Races or Not, For Pete’s Sake?

I just received a comment on another article in the blog from a guy taking offense to my use of the word ‘race’ when referring to Sportives. He implied I knew nothing about cycling by doing so (this is becoming a disturbing trend…it’s the 2nd such comment in as many months!).

So let’s settle this once and for all.

I know that I’m not really using the correct term when I say ‘race’. Wiki confirms this. I know that Sportives are ‘timed events’, but I also know that they can have podiums with prizes (sometimes cash), pelotons, breaks, strategy, teams, side-of-the-road water givers, and all sorts of suffering. We don’t get points for placing and Sportives are open to all, but hell, if Haute Route wasn’t a race, I’m wondering what one would feel like!

Here’s my thinking on the subject, then you can have your turn: Sportives, like any other athletic event where you are competing against another person, a time, or yourself, will be viewed by different people in different ways. Some come to these events to ‘just finish’ and probably don’t worry at all about times or whether they’ve been dropped by one group or another. There’ll be no bridging of gaps or hanging on of wheels for these riders. Then there are those who, when put into any situation that has even a whiff of competition, will have their brains tell them that the race is on. I am one of those people, for better or worse. I love to compete, mostly against myself, but also against other people.

Therefore (and apart from definitions), ‘race’ is perhaps a state of mind in these ‘events’.

But maybe I’m wrong. I am also wondering if my experience (only in France) is unique in any way. Set me straight, dear readers!

36 thoughts on “Sportives: Are They Races or Not, For Pete’s Sake?

  1. There are cyclists who are funny about this issue, does this happen only in the cycling world? In running people don’t argue over whether a marathon is a race or not do they? Yet some are racing and some are there to try and get to the finish. In France there are prizes and people make a living out of riding sportives (and they are probably much fitter and faster than racing cyclists elsewhere). Personally when I ride sportives my intention is to get the best possible time, I know they are endurance events and not races as such, but that doesn’t stop me racing to the finish.

    • James, I was thinking the exact same thing about your comparison with running. If a 5k running event is a ‘race’ then why not a 180k cycling one? I just found this on Wiki – I wonder if we in France (and Italy, it seems) simply look at these things differently?

      “It is common in France and Italy for prizes to be awarded to the winner and to those winning age-related categories.”

      “In the United Kingdom, sportives are not held as races in order to avoid strict rules governing cycle races on the Highway as per the Cycle Races on the Highways Regulations 1960.”

  2. Gerry, You are correct as to how you feel within yourself as to what they are. The trouble is that in the UK, sportives are mass participation events and “racing” is frowned on and you certainly do not get half the extras you get out here in France in some of the big races/sportives (delete as you feel. LoL!). By “extras” I mean top elite riders in first top entries, professional sportive riders, team cars, bike outriders stopping traffic, full closed roads (sometimes), prize money for overall winners and age groups etc. So yes they are races in the context of riding them in France. In the UK they are sportives and are just challenges and that is how the BC want to keep it!! That said, my brother call them races and if you look on Strava after a UK sportive the whole ride is one big segment with a leaders board and the leader did not get there cycle touring!!!

    • This is turning out to be more educational than I imagined. Thanks for the comment, Bryan. I really should get up there and ride one of those myself, I suppose. This could explain the comment on the other article (although that article was on Sportives in France, not the UK…) – maybe the guy only has experience in the UK, or another country.

      But, that being said, I can’t imagine any event like this NOT being ‘race like’, no matter where it is. To me it’s just human nature for many of us. Even my rides with my buddies usually turn into mini races when the road ramps up!

  3. Its a race. Pure and simple. It may be called a sportive. But anywhere in the world where these are held its full gas for most who enter. To be called a sportive is the way to avoid legal issues with cycling bodies and unions. Yes they are timed cycling events but any event that has mass participation is timed. For those who have contacted you and said sportive are not races are living in cloud cook coo land.

  4. Hi Gerry,

    As an avid cyclist who does both real races and cyclos, I’m somewhere in between on the subject. I do agree with you that the mentality of those at the front of a cyclo is to race, but I also agree with your other reader that cyclos are not the same as real races, and we shouldn’t put them in the same category. What you say is true, the front of the cyclo is very much a race, and often contains a few of the same guys “racing” all the other “real races” on a weekend when there isn’t another “real race” going on.

    Here are what I see as major differences between the two events in France:

    1) Licensed with a federation – In France, real races require being licensed in one of three federations, FFC, FSGT or Ufolep (why France has 3 federations is for another blog and very complex). FFC is the most prominent as this is the one that ultimately feeds pro teams from the younger ranks. FSGT and Ufolep are more for Papa’s like me who work full time but still like to race. In fact, most top level FFC riders would consider FSGT and Ufolep races more like a cyclosportif as well.

    2) Prize money – As far as I’m aware, only federated races offer prize money – and I don’t believe either FSGT or Ufolep offer money either, at least not that I’ve ever seen.

    3) Reglement – there is clear difference in the language of the rules. Cyclosportifs refer to epreuve and brevet (kind of a test or challenge). Federated races employ the terms competition and classement, as well as describing the prize money if any.

    4) Categories – Since cyclos are primarily for the working parent, or younger cyclist who did not grow up in the real racing scene, they tend to have age categories. This allows even old folks like myself to shoot for a podium. Federated races have categories based on ability, not age, which actually makes much more sense for real racing. Which brings me to my last two and most major differences:

    5) Levels of the cyclists – homegeneous vs heterogeneous – This is where the most major difference is in my opinion. Because a real race is based on ability based categories, rather than lumping every possible level in the same event, the peloton is far more homogeneous. This means that a real race can have tactics, as most of the riders in the peloton are “dangerous”. A cyclo is completely opposite. I have rarely ever been in a cyclo where the front group was more than 10 or 15 people half way into the race (depending on the terrain of course). The difference in ability between the front group and the third group is usually huge and obvious. This makes it much less of a real race. Imagine arriving at the start line of a 5,000 participant cyclo and knowing ahead of time the 10 people you will be racing against. Now imagine showing up to an event and there are only 10 participants – you wouldn’t really consider it a race, would you? Haute Route is a great example. The front group was the same 6 people every day in both 2011 and 2012. And even in the first 6, the level was quite different.

    6) Teams – A real race requires that you are a member of a team or club – you can’t get a license without being affiliated with one. You must wear the team kit so that everyone is aware of who is on each team. There is actual team tactics and strategy in a real race, although in the lower levels it’s often harder to see. Cyclos just don’t have this aspect at all, making them a completely different type of event. And yes, Haute Route claims to have teams, but it’s really just an accumulation of everyone’s time at the end to have a different classification and to add some fun / team camraderie…

    Lastly, even the best cyclo falls far short of the levels found in federated amateur racing. I can finish in the top 10 of a cyclo and still be dropped from the peloton in a local FFC 1-2-3 category race.

    Whew, ended up writing more than I thought, but it’s a subject I often think of when reading cycling blogs from non-Europeans like myself 🙂


  5. I think Rich’s comprehensive explanation is very helpful although outside of France there may be hybrid events that have characteristics of both: if I am not wrong, I believe Cape Argus is an example. At the same time, I agree with Gerry that on a personal level, rather than on an event level, it is one’s state of mind. Either way, I think it’s silly for someone to get wound up about it, enough to post such comments on a stranger’s blog. It is an example of regrettable behaviour on the Interwebz, which is why I stopped visiting fora / message boards. These people need to get a life.

  6. I went on a 2 day hike in the Jura district on the weekend. We stopped at restaurants and watering holes for beers. That was not a race. When I go out for my Sunday rides with the club, we’ll stop and have a coffee. That’s not a race. When I entered 10km runs, that was a race. When I did the Haute Route and had time limits to finish in. That was a race. When you do a cyclosportive and you have to finish within a designated time, have organisers with food and drink and a finish line, that is a race. One may not be ‘racing’ against others while doing the event but you still must finish in a predetermined. It’s still a race.

  7. Great comments and proof that this one has been mulled over by better people than me! I suppose it comes down to the way we look at the word ‘race’, and that will depend on where we’re coming from. Those who ‘really’ race may have a much better idea of what ‘racing’ really is, since they can compare both types of events. Although, in my mind, that is one of degree, not definition.

    The comparison with running is telling, I think. In marathons there are certainly those who are ‘racing’ and those who aren’t, but we still refer to that event as a race, I think. I get it if there’s a legal reason for not calling Sportives ‘races’, but to me that’s what they definitely are, even if it’s only in my head…

    • Yes, I agree that both a federated race and a cyclo can be classified under the general term race – as of course many in a cyclo are racing it, I know I definitely am. I do think there are still 2 distinct and fairly different “types” of these road events, or “races” though, one involving licenses, teams, ability based categories, and the other not. I think that is probably what your other reader was referring to in his comment. Some people reserve the word “race” for that form, and the word cyclo for the other.

      As for the running analogy, it is quite a different sport. In both running and triathlons you can often run in the same event as the best in the world, and at the same time. Drafting, pelotons, team tactics, separate races by ability, etc. don’t really exist, In some ways cyclos are similar in that respect.

      • Rich, I bet you’re right about that reader’s comment, and I completely understand the point, even if I’ve never done any federated races. Your running point is excellent, too, and I was thinking about some of your points as I wrote it as well. Not really the same animal.

  8. I think the comments from educated folk above pretty much cover it Gerry, but I just felt I had to add my two pence/cents worth. I once got told off for calling a sportive event a race as I registering for my very first in Dorking UK and didn’t really know how to respond and just blurted out something about being a race if you make it one! This aside, I agree wholeheartedly about the comparisons between running and cycling above.

    I guess it all comes down to what its officially called and who decides what’s ‘official’!

    In any case, timed event or not – in my head I’m racing my fellow commuters home each night and I’ll be damned if at least half of them aren’t racing me too!

    • Commuting, the new sportive!

      Thanks for the comment, Marcus. I guess some people are a little sensitive with terminology. It’s not reason to be rude, though!

  9. Whenever one person gets on a start line of any kind, with another person….there is competition..whether overtly admitted or not…it’s human nature….so is a race…no one truly wants to finish last.

  10. I know there are legal reasons for not referring to sportives as races, here in the UK organisers have to be careful how they describe their event to avoid being classified as a race as that attracts all kinds of issues.

    Road racing is the most fun and the most intense experience you can have on a road bike, but it is also quite dangerous and the entry barrier is daunting, not everyone has the nerve or the desire to get involved at quite that level.

    The great thing about sportives is they have a low entrance barrier, for most events you pay the entrance fee and you ride. This in turn has led to a massive increase in cycling in this country and that has to be a good thing for the sport, the health of the people getting out on their bikes, the bike business in general and indirectly benefits all of us.

    We should embrace the fact that lots of people are signing up to cycling and not quibble over whether a sportive is race or a mass start event, who cares (apart obviously from the event organisers who have to be careful for legal reasons).

    • James, I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t care about the difference (wasn’t even aware of it, really) till I got that comment on the other article from the guy who didn’t like the words I used. Actually, I still don’t care…but it’s interesting to talk about!

  11. Rider, Racer, Cyclist. (A pro rider, a local racer, and the rest of us). Race, Timed Event, Event Ride. (A sanctioned race, a cyclo sportif, a cycling event). I struggle selecting the correct title all the time.

    I am racing, I am riding.

    Whoops I just broke my pattern of 3s. That’s because nobody says I am going to be timed in an event. You are either racing or you are riding, and that is up to the individual pedaling. Although you can race in a ride; you can’t ride in a race – in a race there is no choice.

    Most cyclists in the United States (my country) have not experienced the intensity of the cyclosportives in Europe. If they had there would be no doubt that it truly is a race. From this day forth I will only refer to you as Gerry The Racer.

    Now can you tell me – is it a sportive, cyclo sportif, cyclosportif, cyclosportive, cyclo-sportive, or a grand fondo? Whatever they call it you still have to do your winter training because it’s a race and it’s gonna hurt!

    • I’ll take that name with pleasure, Karen. It’ll give me something to live up to. As for the myriad of names for these events, I have no idea. Except maybe that ‘Gran Fondo’ is used when a Sportive wants to have some Euro flavor. And yeah, as soon as winter arrives (it was 25C today), I’ll be ready to hurt!

  12. Any event on a bike either with friend or competitors is great to do,
    however the intensity and ultimate buzz of taking part in a Race is something else.and
    if you’re lucky enough to win one , (and nobody wins one with being in real good shape) moral can be boosted for a long time after…
    there’s nothing like the buzz of a good Race especially when you are out of your depth and digging deep to stay in ….,post race its been burned ,into your mind like HD video,

    Is it time to take it up a notch Gerry?

  13. Gerry: hard question to answer and “racers” have strong opinions on the matter. The comments have been right on.
    An additional two cents from an amateur “senior” racer (as in the categorized, licensed way) who has raced here in the US and in Belgium. I have only done two cyclo’s: Haute Route in France and Horribly Hilly Hundreds in Wisconsin. The event in Wisconsin is not comparable to Haute Route as it is not timed–it is not a race. It seems like a cylco in the US is perceived as “a ride.”

    The Haute Route is different from “a ride”, yet Rich points out all the differences with a “real race.” The points about homogeneity and not-open-access are probably most relevant. In a “race,” everyone races.
    That is also my experience in my amateur races, but I have never done a “true mountain race” (with big, long climbs) and it seems that the difference there is less clear:

    Leave aside the open access distinction and make an outrageous comparison: a timed cyclosportives in the mountains to a mountain stage in the Tour. Yes, the Tour has top level riders in team format/goals and more homogeneity, but heterogeneity is amplified in a mountain stage: In true mountain finish stages everyone knows from the start that team tactics reduce to two riders or less very soon at the last real climb, and that only 10 or less riders out of 198 make any chance for the win and the rest is widely strung out to limit the damage or to come in within the time cut (survival mode)…

  14. I would never get into a cycle race nor want to but I can enter a sportive with the knowledge that there will be people like me having fun and being timed so they can see how they did in a general sort of way. A sportive is still a race for me not so much against the clock but against the old man with the scythe.

  15. I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments. Two thoughts come to mind. 1) Talk about “political correctness” taken to an extreme, and 2) We always make time to talk about cycling.

    Firstly, debating whether you call a sportif a race isn’t what cranked me up. Implying that you know nothing about cycling because you used the term “Race” instead of “Sportif” is insulting. I’m thinking you must know something about cycling having competed in Haute Route and other cycling events. According to Mr Webster, a race is defined as, “competing with another or others to see who is fastest at covering a set course or achieving an objective”. By that definition, a sportif is also a race.

    I used to “Race” in our local Tuesday Night Criteriums on the University of Calgary campus. It was a closed circuit about 1km long and about 50 to 60 riders would show up for some of the most intense “bike racing” I’ve ever done. It was timed, we had sprinting points, and we even had the green and yellow jerseys, but because it wasn’t sanctioned by the provincial governing body, even though most of us held licenses and were categorized racers, I guess it wasn’t a race, even though it sure felt like one.

    I really don’t care what the politically correct term is, all I know is events like Haute Route timed us, gave us all a number, and we competed every day, for every second, and every spot on the results board. I know there were some guys that were just happy to finish, but we see that in the Tour de Framce too and it’s not a sportif. So I’m going to stick with RACE and to hell with some asshole that thinks we know nothing about cycling just because we called a sportif a race.

  16. Haven’t I been calling you a racer for a pretty long time now?

    Unless one (oh how I like that French construction) is registering for an event that needs a license, and so is defined by a governing body, history tells me that the person participating determines the terms on which they participate. Legal issues are different.

    I continue to think you are a racer.

  17. Thanks again for all your thoughtful comments. Someone has just emailed me, saying that the comments on this blog are the best she’s read on cycling. I have to agree. You make me feel smart…keep it up!

  18. Based on the numerous and lengthy comments, this is clearly an issue that is vexing the community. My question is: why?

    Why is it important to degrade sportives (or elevate other racing events)? Why is such passion spent? Are we really THAT elitist? What good is served by drawing such fine lines that to refer to a sportif as a “race” is worthy of a correction?

    People get on their bikes and are timed on a course. A great many people try to be first. Someone succeeds and this event is acknowledged. Sometimes, the cyclists are exceptionally good. Other times, they are relatively inexperienced. Still other times, there is a mixture of the two. Sometimes the course is long and challenging and other times it is relatively short and flat. So what?

    It’s all good. Do your best. Have fun.

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