Nearly every weekend of the cycling season there’s a sportive held somewhere in France. Britta Sorensen has this grassroots guide to getting in on the action.
French cyclosportives (also called Gran Fondos and sportives) are competitive, timed rides that are held throughout the spring and summer months, covering a range of distances and terrain. They are the equivalent of a sportive in the UK or a better supported version of the Century Rides in the USA.
The name Gran Fondo (GF) is an Italian term referring to a ‘Big Ride’. They’re mass participation rides that welcome riders ranging from experienced to novice, recreational and competitive, all competing together on the same routes.
The range of GF and sportive events is vast, and each event is set apart by its difficulty, duration, distances covered and location. These types of races typically have feed stations, mechanical and medical support, traffic management at intersections to let you ride through the route more safely, and are electronically chip timed from start to finish. There are also prizes for the fastest riders in each age category.
Some cyclosportives also have a 'randonee' event that's run over a shorter distance and is not timed. These can be a good introduction to sportive riding if you're a first-timer or if you're not particularly competitive when it comes to your cycling.
Whichever one you choose, you’re guaranteed to find one in France that suits your ability, and meets a personal challenge or goal. The key objective is to go at your own pace while enjoying the ride, benefitting from spectator support and experiencing the well-deserved post-race parties.
Is there a difference between a sportive and Gran Fondo?
No, not in principle as they are both aimed at mass participation for all levels of ability and experience, however the level of support available at each event differs. Some larger events have the funding and infrastructure to be able to close all roads, but others are not able to provide this level of logistics. This shouldn’t put you off, though, as most French events are well run by volunteers, usually from cycling clubs.
Some of the world’s most famous (and toughest) sportives are held in France, including the Etape du Tour, which is aligned with the Tour de France and held over an official stage of each year’s Tour.
Finding a sportive
Here's how to choose the right sportive for your legs.
Location: where do you want to go and how will you get there?
The choice is vast and it really is down to whether you want to choose mountain routes in the Alps, Pyrenees, be more coastal, take on a famous route, or take part in more of a locally run event. Thinking about how you’ll get there and the type of accommodation are important factors as some will book up fast – be prepared to book early. Also consider the mode of transport and travel time to the start and checking in for collecting your race pack. Plus whether you will be able to do a recce of the route beforehand. Check out the locations and nearest airports for convenient planning and logistics.
What time of year is it?
The time of year and potentially hot temperatures are a consideration, as well the effects of altitude during the race. Both need to be factored into your training.
How long is it?
Consider the duration and distance of the event – some events are held over one day while others are multi-day or multi-stage events. There may be only one distance (or ‘course’), or a choice of 2-3, which means you can choose one that reflects your current level of fitness, ability and personal challenge.
How hard is it?
As well as considering your fitness levels you should also consider your technical skills and experience; feeling comfortable in a large peloton may be necessary, as might taking on long, fast descents after the long haul up to the top. Are you used to ‘drafting’ or being drafted off? (You can learn and practice the cycling etiquette and road skills by joining a local cycling club).
Before committing to an event, it's worth doing your homework and studying the route maps (or 'cicruits') to make sure the terrain and distances suit your ability.
The difficulty level of a Gran Fondo or sportive is usually classified. The table below shows examples of this:
A EASY Beginners/family up to around 32km/20 miles, flat terrain
B EASY-MODERATE Leisure cyclists, up to around 65km/40 miles, rolling terrain
C MODERATE Proficient cyclists, up to around 100km/60 miles, some climbing
D CHALLENGING Seasoned cyclists, up to 160km/100 miles OR moderate sustained climbs
E DIFFICULT Expert, over 160km/100 miles OR long sustained climbs
F VERY DIFFICULT Expert-expert, 190km/120 miles OR mountain climbs
There is a page of basic training tips to help you prepare here.
Where to find some of the best sportives
Entering a sportive
Once you’ve decided on which race(s) you want to enter, check on to the official website and look for the word ‘inscription’ or registration (most larger events have the option to switch the language to English to make it easier, but many smaller local events will only be in French).
You may have to either download a registration form (usually for smaller local events), or be asked to create an account online.
Once you’ve done this and paid the fee, you’ll usually gain access to the registration section to upload copies of your current medical certificate and/or race license (if you are affiliated with a club).
Note that some races offer ‘early-bird’ discounts for early registration. Plus some event organisers like Look Marmotte, which runs multiple sportives, offer discounts if you enter more than one at the same time.
Enter the bigger, more popular races as soon as registration opens as some races fill up very quickly and have limited entries (e.g. Etape du Tour is ALWAYS over-subscribed).
You may be asked to upload your medical certificate or race license immediately in order to register or they may allow you to upload at a later date (some events also allow you to present it on the day when you pick up your race pack). For more information on getting a medical certificate, see here (includes a template you can use).
The medical certificate is a standard requirement to participate in nearly all French Gran Fondo, sportives, and cyclosportives (though some really small local events don't require them).
Some events also ask for a race license, and there is often a discount for entry if you are affiliated with a club.
Race organisers will accept FFC, Ufolep, FSGT, FFTRI and Handisport licenses. In the absence of these documents, you may be registered as a ‘randonnee’, which is the less serious bike race, but again this depends on the event rules.
Entry is rarely accepted on the day, apart from some smaller locally run sportives.
Check whether you need insurance to participate. Most events will cover registered competitors under their event insurance (hence the medical certificate), but rules do differ.
What to expect on the day
If you’re collecting your race pack and number (‘dossard’) on the day, you must show your proof of identity, registration confirmation and usually your medical certificate. Our advice would be to collect this the day before if it’s possible to ensure there is no problem and you only have to worry about getting yourself and the bike there on the day.
You’ll have to wear a properly fitted helmet throughout the whole race (with chin strap fastened).
Do your homework before the race day! Always check and read the race rules – you don’t want to be disqualified for not adhering to them on the day – you can find these on the race website.
Additionally, when the route is on open roads you must respect the “Code de la Route” (French Highway Code). Signalers’ and/or marshals’ will be present along the route to remind riders that respecting traffic regulations is essential to the smooth running of the race.
At the start of the race you will be given a designated pen to line up in – the more serious riders with previous times will usually start at the front, although some events have categorised starts according to gender and age.
Take care at the start if it’s your first time as there are varying levels of seriousness. Be mindful of any pelotons forming early on with fast starts, quick breaks and drafting early on. If this isn’t for you, stay put to the side or near the back until all the serious riders have gone so you avoid a potential early crash.
Although there is often some form of mechanical support available at the start or on route, riders are expected to fix their own punctures (the exception being huge sportives like Etape du Tour, where you may have the privilege of seeing a Mavic car roll up alongside you). Make sure you have at least one spare tube and a pump. For more serious mechanicals, you’ll need to wait for support or – worse case scenario – for a SAG wagon to collect you.
When on the route, you must keep your litter with you and wait to throw it in the designated areas as you cycle past. ‘Eco-cyclist’ patrols will sometimes be present on route and their job is to remind you to respect the environment – they will take the rider number of any participant seen throwing litter on the ground. If you’re caught, you’ll be penalised/relegated.
The feed stations – refreshment or ‘ravi’ / ‘ravito’ (stands for ‘ravitaillement’) –usually have a range of items such as water, Coke, fresh fruit, dried fruit and savoury snacks will be available.
However, I would advise you to also take your own cereal bars and gels and always refill your water bottle(s) to make sure you never run out of water or food for energy, especially on one of the long, mountainous rides in the heat.
And you’re in France! That means you get to share a meal and a glass of wine with fellow competitors afterwards. Depending on the event, it sometimes takes the shape of a pasta party or some other festival-type event that basically ends up being a whole lot of fun.
Don’t forget to plan for getting home/back to your hotel, especially if/when you are tired. Consider where the race ends when booking accommodation or arranging transfers
What else do you need to know?
Where to stay…
Book accommodation early. As with bike hire below, accommodation can be in high demand for larger races and for events held in smaller towns. Again, organisers often have a list of local providers, or use our accommodation section.
What about the bike?
All bikes need to be roadworthy. There are also sometimes rules about what bikes are acceptable (e.g. no mountain bikes, no tandems etc).
Always make sure your bike is set-up correctly. If someone else has put your bike together, always check your brakes and tyres before a race, and that you’re happy with the saddle. Make sure you have the correct gearing cassette to cope with the demands of the mountainous category D, E and F races.
If you’re hiring a bike…
Book early if you’re hiring a bike for big events! (You can use our bike hire pages or our bespoke bike hire service if you get stuck). Make sure it’s properly set-up and fitted to you well before the race day.
If you’re taking your own bike…
If you’re travelling with a bike box, check where you can leave the box, especially on a multi-day and multi-stage event. E.g. event organisers of multi-day events usually transport your bike box for you each day and you collect it at the end. See here for shipping advice.
What to wear …
Wearing properly fitted comfy cycling shorts is a BIG must on the day, plus bring spare clothing in case the weather changes, e.g. a waterproof, arm/leg warmers and a spare layer.
And know your jersey size – if may be lucky enough to be given one as part of the race pack. UK, US and European sizing vary slightly, so do your homework beforehand so you don’t end up with a dud jersey you can’t wear.
We can’t emphasis this enough: wear a high SPF cream and re-apply after sweating. On a hot day, heat stroke and exhaustion can be serious.
What else to take …
All the obvious stuff: water bottles and any gels/fuel you'll need during the race. There are usually feed stops but they can run out or not have your preferred energy hit.
Take lights for the longer mountainous rides in case visibility or nightfall comes around suddenly (a back light is compulsory at 24-hour events).
Take a phone to keep in contact with friends or supporters. GPX files of route are usually also available in advance to load into your cyclig computer.
Enjoy the atmosphere…
Most sportives have cyclists' villages – big events like Etape have entire festival-type setups with displays by leading bike manufacturers, food stands and more. The Le Mans 24-hour event has a full mechanical area where you can have your bike tweaked, you can buy crepes at a crepery stand or eat in the diner. Local events are more modest and might have one or two stands, maybe a local bike shop or mechanic. Regardless, these are great places to mingle with other riders and meet some locals.
Don’t be a dope!
There is a very strong anti-doping commitment from organisers’ of all sportives and Gran Fondos in France. It is the riders’ responsibility to read, check and accept the rules of participation for the anti-doping regulations. It is possible to be tested at any of these events.
Always note the start time and location for your group and, of course, don't forget to leave time to visit the all-important toilets for any last-minute calls of nature.
About our contributor
Originally from Lincolnshire in the UK, Britta Sorensen has lived in the Tarn-et-Garonne in south-west France since 2014. The UCI Grand Fondo Championships were held in Albi in 2017 – practically on her doorstep. She competed in the qualifier race and was there on the World Champs race day to help out on one of the ‘ravito’ stations near her house. When she’s not out on her road or mountain bike, you’ll find her arranging endurance training camps in Tarn-et-Garonne.