With your head down, you’re grinding over the final climb. Having given up staring at your Garmin to see how many kilometres to go, for a moment, you look up. You take in the stunning views of the mountains that span as far as the eye can see, and have a quick glance over your shoulder to see how many switchbacks you’ve conquered. In that second, you get a true taste of what it’s like to be in a professional bike race.
Right then, you’re Eddy Merckx winning his eleventh Grand Tour, you’re Geraint Thomas leading up Alpe d’Huez, maybe even Vincenzo Nibali on his way to taking pink in his home Giro d’Italia or Fabiana Luperini storming away from her rivals at the Giro Rosa. It’s hard and your legs are screaming, sweat trickles on to your top tube, but you push on, you strive for the flamme rouge. For that sense of accomplishment as you reach the chequered flag, for the reward for your valiant suffering. This is riding a sportive: our humble window into the world of the pro peloton, and a chance to push yourself and test your limits on a challenging, but rewarding, journey of self-discovery.
Whether you're tackling the mountainous terrain of the French Alps, taking a magical tour of Italy’s Dolomites or heading for sunny laps of Spanish islands, there is no better place to test your mental and physical fortitude than a sportive. But while some riders choose to go full throttle, targeting KOMs and bragging rights at the finish, fancying themselves as the professional peloton’s long lost wasted talent, sportives don’t always have to be an utter sufferfest.
For some, they might serve as a chance to socialise and meet other cyclists, as well as experience following wheels in a peloton for the first time. Often held on closed roads with feed stations and mechanical support, they are a worry-free way of testing your endurance and venturing into new realms, with routes made by experts from the area.
Type in the words “sportive 2022” to Google, however, and you’ll be provided with approximately 60 million results. So, to save you trawling through the internet and giving you more time to enjoy the great outdoors, we’ve narrowed down a few of the best sportives on offer in the upcoming year.
Frequented by professional riders and amateur cyclists alike, the island of Mallorca has quickly asserted itself as a cycling Mecca in recent years. The Mediterranean climate, smooth tarmac, flowing mountains and breathtaking views often loiter in the daydreams of those working office jobs in colder climates, with many jetting off to the sunny paradise as soon as that annual leave ticks around.While there’s undoubtedly the opportunity to take a leisurely trip to Mallorca, riding sensibly, keeping the kilometres ticking over without thinking about your weekly total distance or how many minutes you are off the fastest time up Sa Calobra, the Balearic island can also provide the perfect stage to take on a big challenge.
Mallorca 312 Route Profile
The Mallorca 312 has become widely known as one of the toughest endurance events on the sportive calendar. The 312km route begins with a 120km lap of the Serra Tramuntana mountains, with the second half of the route being a 'flatter' (by Spanish standards) exploration of the other half of the island. With over 5,000m of climbing in total, it's a brutal, but epic, day on a bicycle.
Making the task at hand a little easier, is the stunning, varied Mallorcan landscape. Climbs like the Coll de Femenia and Puig Major offer panoramic views of the island as a reward for reaching their summits, and the route skirts the coastline on the famed MA-10 road, described by some as the ‘the wildest road on the island’ – expect far-reaching seascapes and dramatic cliff faces looming above you.Aside from the picturesque scenery and winding climbs, the Mallorca 312 is held entirely on closed roads, meaning the Serra Tramuntana montañas are reserved solely for competitors. With the options of a 225km and 167km route too, this sportive offers something for everyone, and should likely be on any cyclist’s bucket list.
Marmotte Alps Gran Fondo
Regarded by some as the “Queen Mother” of all sportives, the Marmotte is arguably the most competitive and difficult event on the sportive calendar. Each year, the race is held deep in the French Alps, and it includes some famed mountains such as the Col du Glandon, Col du Galibier, Col du Lautaret and Alpe d’Huez.
Marmotte Alps Gran Fondo Course Profile
All together, the 2022 event is 174km and includes 5000m of elevation gain. While some riders complete the event in close to 5 hours, it can take others up to 13 hours to make their way to the finish line. For those looking to take on an extra challenge, the "Ultra Marmotte Alps” adds an additional ascent of Alpe d’Huez on top of the Classic route, taking the total elevation gain to 6,400m.
Despite the ascent of Alpe d'Huez somewhat hogging the spotlight, riders should be wary of the imposing Col du Galibier that comes before it, a mountain which has seen some of the most famed showdowns in professional cycling's history. First used in the Tour de France in 1911, when all but three riders ended up walking to the summit, the climb has been used in the iconic Grande Boucle over 31 times since.
Each year at the Tour, the Henri Desgrange prize is awarded to the first rider over the Galibier, as an homage to the creator and first Director of the race. Desgrange wasn't afraid to make the peloton suffer with his strict rules and savage routes. His gruesome ambition for the Tour when he founded it in 1903 was that there should only be one finisher.
But those numbers are not to be feared. The beauty of the sportive is that there is a choice between racing it for the fastest time, and riding it for the pure enjoyment of exploring a new place or completing a new challenge. For those who won’t be targeting a quick finish, there is a plethora of thrilling views to enjoy along the way when riding the Marmotte. The snow-capped mountains, lush green hills and quaint ski villages look like they have fallen straight off the front of a postcard, and dozens of wheels to follow and cyclists to exchange stories with will also be a huge morale boost to help finish the monumental task. The mountains may seem daunting, but the sense of accomplishment when reaching the finish line is surely worth it.
Since its inception in 1993, the Etape du Tour has been giving amateur cyclists the chance to ride a mountain stage of the Tour de France in exactly the same conditions as professional riders. Once again held on roads fully closed to traffic, the 2022 route will mirror stage 12 of this year’s Tour de France, spanning 170km with more than 4,700m of elevation gain.As well as being the same stage that the pros will take on in the the 2022 Tour de France, the Etape du Tour this year is an ode to the 1986 Briançon to Alpe d'Huez stage, when French cycling legend Bernard Hinault won the final Tour de France stage of his career.
An image that will live long in cycling history is that of Hinault and Greg LeMond crossing the finish line that year at the top of Alpe d'Huez, hand-in-hand, as teammates for the dominating La Vie Claire team. Tussling all the way on the road to the iconic mountain, Hinault had helped LeMond to build up a commanding lead in the general classification, and in return, the Frenchman was given the victory in front of an adoring home crowd.
This year's Etape du Tour will finish on the fabled Alpe d'Huez too, and offers a classically challenging route. Nestled deep in the French Alps, the first climb of the day is the Col du Galibier: a steady leg-sapper, but only an amuse-bouche for what lays ahead.
After some exhilarating descents, riders will reach the Col de la Croix de Fer, a little less well-known, perhaps, but equally as challenging as the Galibier that came before it. Le dessert is, of course, the magical Alpe d’Huez, a mountain home to cycling myth and legend, with ghosts of the Tour de France’s past littered all the way up the ascent.
The Etape du Tour is characterised by its rich history, making it one of the closest experiences you can get to riding a Grand Tour stage.
Though it’s best known today for the WorldTour race associated with it, Strade Bianche was initially held in 1997 as a granfondo for vintage bikes only, aiming to represent a return to cycling’s ‘heroic era’, when races were mainly done on unpaved roads. Now made famous by the images of the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Michał Kwiatkowski and Mathieu van der Poel emerging from the gravel sectors with their faces and bikes covered in thick ghostly dust, Strade Bianche is widely considered among professional cyclists as one of the most difficult races to win.True to their heritage, the organisers of Strade Bianche still hold a gran fondo every year alongside the WorldTour races, giving amateur riders a chance to tackle the famous Tuscan white roads for themselves. The longer route follows the same course as the women’s elite race, with 31.6km of gravel roads in the total distance of 139.2km, while the shorter route is 86km with 21.6km of gravel.
Strade Bianche Gran Fondo Route
Both routes are undulating, with some short, snappy climbs – well suited to the puncheurs among us. The routes start and finish in Siena, one of Italy’s most beautiful medieval cities, well known for its soaring architecture and Gothic town hall. A steep climb towards the chequered flag in the city’s Piazza del Campo means this route is challenging right to the very end, but with Siena being famous for its desserts and traditional pasta dishes, there’s plenty to look forward to after the finish line.
Maratona dles Dolomites
A Unesco World Heritage site in north-eastern Italy, the Dolomites have a rich and unique past. A land of epic legend, the mountain range has a mysterious quality about it, entrancing visitors with folklore about the jagged silver rocks and glistening lakes. The cycling world hasn’t been able to resist the lure of these impressive landscapes either, with the area becoming famous for its frequent appearances in the Giro d’Italia.
Image: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
It’s no wonder that the organisers of (what some describe as) the most beautiful Grand Tour often choose to visit the Dolomites, the terrain could not be more suited to a journey on two wheels. Often referred to as 'the beauty and the beast' one of the most epic climbs in the area is the Passo Giau, which features in the Maratona route in 2022.
With 29 hairpin bends to reach the summit, it's a truly unrelenting climb that has even defeated some of cycling's great heroes. Perhaps most famously, in the 1992 Giro d'Italia when French legend Laurent Fignon lost half an hour on the ascent, in the end being pushed by his teammate up the climb as he battled the driving rain and brutal wind. It was a very different story for Le Professeur three years earlier, when he crossed the Giau on the way to his first, and only, Giro d'Italia win. Perhaps Fignon's turbulent love affair with the climb only highlights its difficulty – it's not a road you want to be on with bad legs.
The only distraction on the ruthless Giau will be the stunning views of the Dolomites which characterise the Maratona sportive. Blue skies, lush green hillsides and rocky cliff faces may somewhat dull that ache in your pins when attempting this 138km route. The Giau comes after a series of tough passes, including the Passo Pordoi, known as Fausto Coppi's climb. The Pordoi was Il Campionissimo's favourite pass in the Giro, and he led over it five times in his career, leading to a monument of the Italian hero being situated on the ascent. Be sure to nod to cycling's 'Champion of Champions' as you suffer over the steep inclines.
The Scottish Highlands are one of the few places on earth where myth and legend is still as alive as ever. Large mountain landscapes, lochs and castles, along with tight-knit communities who still preserve the Gaelic language, contribute to the mystical sense of adventure that this place provides. Calm and peaceful, away from the noise of the cities and bustle of traffic, the Highlands are a remarkable area to explore by bike, and the Etape Caledonia might just be the premier opportunity to do so in 2022.
Beginning in Pitlochry, a picturesque town in nestled Highland Perthshire, the event runs on 85 miles of closed rounds, taking in all the natural beauty that Scotland has to offer. Forest-lined roads skirting the edge of glimmering lochs and splendid countryside views are guaranteed to provide well-needed escapism from the stress of everyday life, in a sportive that presents the wonders that nature in the UK has to offer.
With that being said, it’s not all about admiring the views. The route includes a tough ascent of Mount Schiehallion, a tough, winding climb which ends among the hilltops, and the Scottish tarmac is undulating throughout the route. A bustling Event Village at the end of the route gives the Etape Caledonia a friendly and community-driven atmosphere, and is a great option for those who might be new to the wonderful world of sportives.
Haute Route Alps
Amounting to a total of 792km over 7 days, there is no denying that the Haute Route Alps is a contender as the most challenging sportive on offer. Being Haute Route’s flagship event, the organisers have made sure to create a route that is both daunting and extremely exciting in equal measure. It’s not a challenge for the faint of heart, but it is sure to be an unforgettable experience, and one that will get you plenty of Strava kudos.
The 2022 route begins in the town of Nice, a home to many professional cyclists thanks to the alpine foothills that rise steeply from the glimmering Cote d’Azur. The hills come thick and fast as soon as the flag drops at the Haute Route, with a 181km opening stage that takes riders towards the famous Col de la Lombarde, a climb which summits at the Italian border.
Snaking back into France, participants will then take on renowned climbs like the Col d’Izoard before a thrilling descent of Alpe d’Huez on stage 3, no doubt appreciating the staggering views and swooping hairpins.
Haute Route Alps course profiles
The Col de la Madeleine and Col du Glandon are just a few other imposing passes on the menu before a 10km time trial on stage 5, straight up the Col de la Loze, a climb which ends with an excruciating gradient of 20%. La Loze was the summit finish for the Queen stage in the 2020 Tour de France, where lightweight Columbian climber, Miguel Angel Lopez, took an emphatic victory. El Superman left both Roglic and Pogacar in his wake as he danced on the pedals to the finish line, emotionally celebrating the biggest win in his career.
The final two stages of the Haute Route include the Cormet de Roselend and its striking azure lake, as well as a trio of mountains as a grand finale: the Col de l’Epine, Col de la Croix Fry and Col des Aravis. 21300m of elevation gain over the week-long event is going to require some hardy determination, but if you like a tough challenge, this is likely the event for you.
We Ride Flanders Sportive
A world away from mountain ranges in sunny climates, but equally as rich in their history, are the steep, cobbled bergs of Flanders. The Ronde van Vlaanderen is the biggest monument on the professional cycling calendar, with riders battling up climbs like the Muur van Geraardsbergen, Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont to write their names into the history books.
It takes a special type of rider to win in Flanders, they have to be able to recover quickly from the steep climbs that come thick and fast, as well as have exemplary bike handling skills to finesse the slippery cobbles and keep the power down as the bike rattles beneath them. Widely regarded as the best cobbled Classics rider in history is Tom Boonen – the charming Belgian superstar that took victory in Flanders three times in his impressive career.
Tommeke, as he was known to the Flemish fans, was famous for his classy tactical nous and supreme knowledge of the roads he dominated on so many times. Often bouncing back after crashes and inspiring generations with his hardy and determined attitude, it wouldn't be a bad idea to channel your inner Boonen when attempting the Flanders sportive.
It runs the day before the professional race, giving over 16,000 participants the chance to try their hand on the region’s famous bergs, in true Flandrien style. The route for 2022 is yet to be announced, but the event tends to offer a choice of three different routes depending on your preference with distances of 139km, 174km and 229km. The longest route is the closest to that of the professionals, starting in the city of Antwerp and taking in all of the race’s major climbs, after a relatively flat 80km to begin with.
The narrow lanes, jagged stones and flat, bleak Flemish landscape will give you a true taste of the grittiest cycling history, and allows participants to experience the unique feeling of completing a true Classic. Of course, it wouldn’t be an authentic Belgian experience without beer and frites waiting at the finish in Oudenaarde – a suitable reward for the day’s efforts.
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