Sportive cycling events have been around for ages, but the last decade or so has 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 events with a handful of riders, to the Etape du Tour, which is up to around 15,000!
In this modest guide I hope to give a very general overview of what the typical cyclosportive looks like, with some helpful tips on registration, logistics and participation. We’ll also list some of the more famous (and infamous!) cyclosportives that France has.
What is a Cyclosportive, anyway?
First, it is a competitive, timed event, i.e. not a charity ride, an audax or even what many consider a ‘sportive’ in other countries. However, cyclosportives are open to all, which distinguishes them from licensed amateur races. Anybody is welcome to sign up.
Going back to the first adjective though, these events are competitive and, from our experience, can be quite intense for some participants. Sometimes amateur riders and even pros will use cyclosportives as training grounds for their upcoming races. You are given a bib number, you ride off in a mass start, and your time is always electronically recorded. In short, the race is on.
That being said, 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 and not timed. In most cases, distances are short in the beginning of season and peak in the summer events.
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 an even. 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 over 5000 meters of La Marmotte!
How do I register?
Online is the short answer. Every sportive 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 event is 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 ride. This might not be well known to your doctor in your home country; here is an example that you can print out, in English, supplied by the organizers of the Etape du Tour, which should suffice for any event in France.
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.
If you have a racing license in your home country you will most likely be able to register and ride in a French cyclosportive without a medical certificate.
The rest is easy. Pay by credit card online and you will usually receive a confirmation email with your bib 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 event. 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/racing license 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 event.
Organizational quality varies from event to event, as you can imagine. There are some 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 and Haute Route, that have closed roads, police, helicopters and even Mavic support vehicles!
Nearly all events 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 peloton(s), watching for people in trouble, accidents, etc. At intersections there are often 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 event has a voiture balai (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 event, except the shortest. These will not always have food, though. Some will be only drinks. The event should detail this on the route 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 you are done, 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. We’ve received everything from keychains to cycling jerseys to cartons of milk!
There are always trophies awarded for top places in each age / sex category. There is nearly always a draw after the event 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. Renting a car can alleviate many hassles.
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.
If you have a group of riders coming down/over for a sportive, 44|5 Cycling Tours can help you out with logistics, accommodation and some excellent riding before or after. Starting in 2015 44|5 offers Etape du Tour packages that takes all those tiresome logistics out of your hair and let you focus on the event. In 2017 we became Official Tour Operators of Haute Route and have a travel package for their 3-day Haute Route Ventoux event.
Shortlist of Cyclosportives in France
Winter / Spring
Paris-Roubaix – Held the day before the pro race in early April, this event in northern France traces the route of the most famous (and most brutal) Spring Classic.
Paris-Nice Challenge – One of the many sportive / pro-race combos that are popping up all over the place these days. This event replicates the final stage of the year’s Paris-Nice professional race – usually not much more than 100 km, but mountainous. The following day you can watch the pros ride the same route as you. Note: This event, in our experience at least, is not timed from gun to finish, but has a couple of timed climbs instead.
l’Heraultaise – a well-organized sportive in the Hérault department of southern France. The parcours is fantastic, passing by St. Guilhem le Désert via the Hérault gorge, climbing up to one of the famous causses (high plateaus) of the region, and catching a glimpse of the outstanding Cirque de Navacelles.
Granfondo Saint-Tropez – One of our favorite ways to kick off the spring season, this beautiful sportive, on the shores of the Mediterranean, offers a great excuse to fly to the sun to get some race-miles in the legs! It is often the French qualifier for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships, too, so the field is very strong on the ‘pointy end’ of things.
La Marmotte – The oldest, most prestigious, and toughest cyclosportive in France. The event is almost 180km long and crosses 3 major Alpine mountain passes before finishing on the summit of mythic Alpe d’Huez. Enter at your own risk!
Note: The Marmotte is now (2018) a series of granfondos with events in France and Switzerland.
Etape du Tour – The largest event of its kind in France, most likely. There were something like 15,000 riders in the 2017 edition. The Etape is a unique event, in that it is an exact replica of a stage (always in the mountains) the pros ride in that year’s Tour de France…on closed roads.
London-Paris – Run by HOTCHILLEE, this popular high-end event is mostly ridden in France. This is another special event, with rolling closed roads and ‘stages’, giving anyone who can afford it the same experience as pro riders.
Haute Route – Billed as ‘The World’s Most Prestigious Multi-Day Events for Amateur Riders’, traditionally there were 3 flavors to choose from: Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites/Swiss Alps.
Haute Route has now expanded and have mixed up their events to include the traditional 7-day races (Alps, Pyrenees and Rockies), plus a whole host of 3-day events that are proving to be very popular. In France these include Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux.
Tour du Mont Blanc – Touted to be the ‘world’s toughest one-day bike race’, this monster is 330 km long, with a total elevation gain of over 8000 meters!
L’Ariégeoise – This event is held in the Ariège department in the heart of the Pyrenees. It attracts riders from all over the world and is very popular.
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 event (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 event is 2nd to none.
Haute Route Ventoux – One of Haute Route’s new 3-day events that have shown themselves to be extremely popular with riders who can’t or don’t want to devote an entire week to suffer in the mountains! Haute Route Ventoux is held at the beginning of October – a perfect time for riding in the south of France.