The death of the sportive?
By Dave Land, January 2023
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Is there a problem with sportives? There seems to be fewer people doing fewer sportives than pre-pandemic, particularly smaller events. Is this an issue, or as Mark Twain might have said: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Dave Land discusses.
What do you want from an organised ride? Sportives used to be the guide for a cycling year. They were the waymarks for your journey from nursing that extra festive growth in January to the new, sleeker, fitter rider of the late summer. You get to be introduced to new routes and maybe, depending on how social you are, even new riding friends. Has that changed?
At the start of the year some cycling mates and I were chatting about the riding we're interested in doing this year. A post-ride pub discussion building on our Whatsapp chats. The Dragon Ride sportive looked like a popular option; or at least the 100km or 100 miles routes. I'd shared a link and someone else had expanded with all of the details of all of the different options for signing up and so on.
Did we want a priority invitation, as it was likely to sell out? Or we could ride for charity, but that always involves a lot of effort for fundraising.
There was a public ballot in September which sold out, so the organisers have opened more places with a second ballot, so we might get a place there. Trying to find a price on the website was something of a challenge. Ignoring a charity place, as I write this, the cheapest option is the Premium Entry for the Macmillan 100km ride at £89.95, plus an undisclosed booking fee. Even if I'd sorted this out sooner the cheapest option would have been £59.95. If you want the Devil route - a whopping 296 km - this is £139.95 on Premium, down to £109.95 through the ballot.
This is substantially more than I was willing to pay for a one-day ride in south Wales (or anywhere to be fair, nothing against South Wales).
But this is not the point. If people are willing to pay this money, then good luck to them (as a very cheeky plug, we help organise a sportive in Cotswolds, www.cotswoldcogfest.org, entry is £20, all proceeds to charities).
My point is that it feels like sportives have not bounced back from the pandemic. Rather, we have seen the expansion of these massive events, and the decline of the small, locally organised ones. What I cannot do is provide some statistics. British Cycling don’t seem to make this publicly available, and of course this would only be sportives registered with BC, which is far from all of them. I can really only go on what I see in the cycling news, across social media, and talking to other cyclists.
What I do know is the amount of sportives I ride has plummeted from four or five most years to one last year (it cost £6, with about 30/40 riders; it was fantastic). I know numbers have fallen on the sportive that we help to organise. I know the people I talk to don’t do nearly as many sportives as they used to either. The ones that stick seem to be the ones that offer something different (like the BC Bike Race) or that they have always done (like the Dragon Ride), or those that have some prestige (like the Tour de France l'etape). But these don’t feel very inclusive. Priced very high-end, they are almost impossible to gain entry, and so they also fall by the wayside.
What I have seen is the growth of different types of riding. The response to the Dragon Ride being on June 18, was NOT, “what if it sells out?”, but 'Isn't that the Gritfest date?' The response to the Cotswold Autumn Classic date was 'Aren't we bikepacking then?'
I do not suspect that the bigger, profit-making sportives will stop. There will always be enough cyclists who enjoy these high profile events, and who have the disposable income to spend on it. In our society there is always room for these landmark events - some more exclusive than others.
What I think has already started happening, however, is that other cyclists, who have limited time and limited money, are shifting priorities. £90 could get you two nights in a BnB on a rarely ridden bikepacking trail. Or a swanky new bikepacking saddle pack. Or a ferry berth for you and your bike. Or two new gravel tyres (just about), you get the point. It’s always an opportunity cost. .
If this is the case, and maybe it isn’t, then is it a problem?
I would say not necessarily. It might be the process where we see a flurry of new sportives, and then, as in any industry, those sportives that cannot compete fall by the wayside, whilst the big ones get bigger (think Glastonbury festival, or Google). It might be a shame, as the easy opportunity to ride somewhere different, for a reasonable price, seems to be diminishing. With such high barriers to entry, then maybe cyclists won't take risks on newer, or different, events.
The opportunity cost of trying a smaller and/or different sportive compared to an established event might be too high nowadays. For me, as I would guess for others, there have been several factors. Cost is a big one. Time to attend is another. Poor experience at some sportives hasn't helped. But the big one is the wealth of opportunities to ride in other places, on other terrain, in different types of events.
A next step for JRtB would be to talk to as many sportive organisers as we can. Certainly there are still plenty out there, but it would be interesting to gather organisers views, rather than just cyclist views, and see what they have to say.
Long may the sportive continue, but I, and others, seem to have shifted to different kinds of riding, with different priorities and different objectives. I seem to be left with not much by way of conclusion, other than our favourite maxim, perhaps it doesn’t really matter what riding you do: just ride the bike.