Sportives – toll roads for cyclists

Before the coming of Starbucks, coffee was sold in cafes (greasy spoons) or in tea shops where it was tolerated but not encouraged. Starbucks’ greatest trick was to get people to believe that paying £3 for a cup of coffee with a silly name in a ‘coffee shop’ was better than paying £1 in a cafe. Now, cafes are dying but coffee shops are everywhere and the coffee is invariably sold with a Panini (that’s a toasted sandwich – £4.95) and an Italian style biscuit (£2.95) and the specials are written on a blackboard and there’s a poster of Marco Pantani on the wall.

Likewise, back in the day – pre Di2, pre carbon wheels, pre Rapha, pre Bradley Wiggins, pre ‘bike fits’ – a cyclist who fancied a long ride on a Sunday got on their bike, met their mates and went for a ride. They rode on ordinary roads, carried bananas or jam sandwiches for when they got hungry and stopped at a cafe for a bacon roll, a slice of fruit cake and a cup of tea. They would pass other cyclists along the way and exchange a cheery hello with Nobby or Binky or Lionel or Moocher and arrive home in the afternoon just in time to watch the Big Match while the wife cooked a roast. The more OCD ones recorded the distance in a grubby notebook kept for such a purpose and in the evening they hung their damp woollen shorts in front of the open fire to dry while they read the Daily Mail and smoked a woodbine.

And then someone invented the sportive and, like Starbucks, the world changed.

No longer could you just go for a ride; first you had to register and if it was too popular you couldn’t get in! And now you had to pay – £25, £35, even £50 – just to ride on the Queen’s highway across a land your grandfather fought for! Toll roads for cyclists.

On the appointed day you turned up with the other suckers and got a timing chip (like you didn’t already have a cycling computer or a watch). You followed a route – maybe even the same route you had ridden for free a few weeks ago and occasionally a bored looking Marshall in a yellow tabard would point the way. Every 25 miles there would be a ‘feed stop’ – some trestle tables laden with (yes) bananas, the cheapest of cheap cakes and a tap to fill your bottle. If you were lucky there was a portable toilet where 200 people queued to pee in a glorified bucket. There were no more cheery hellos at other cyclists. This was (unofficially) a race and other riders had to be ignored or (ideally) abused. Those who had chosen the shorter route had to be mocked and sneered at and if they rode a mountain bike or, heaven forfend, a hybrid, were to be ignored completely.

At the end of the ride you passed under a flimsy banner which announced the finish line and then you went home and watched some cycling on Eurosport while the wife made you a Panini with mozazarella, rocket and sun-dried tomatoes. The more OCD riders then loaded their ride onto Strava and waited for the kudos to flood in.

And now there is a sportive ‘calendar’ and every charity raises money with one and they have silly names – Hellfire Corner, Purbeck Hills Saurus, Dragon Ride – and each one has a special jersey and a logoed bottle and every year the price gets higher and I miss the days of cycling just for fun, the cafe and the bacon roll and Nobby and Binky and Lionel and Moocher and the Big Match and my Woodbine and Daily Mail, my damp woollen shorts and the wife.

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