The sportive sector has exploded in popularity in recent years, largely thanks to Mamils (middle aged men in lycra) taking up the sport. From a minority venture around 6-8 years ago, there is now a sportive somewhere in the country on any given weekend throughout the year.
Some areas of the UK in particular are becoming heavily saturated with events, the South East and The New Forest being the most publicised regions for mamil sportives. The New Forest in particular has seen anti-cyclist guerilla attacks in 2014 with nails left in the road to induce punctures. Even the Tour de France isn’t immune from this sort of treatment with 30 riders suffering punctures from a minefield of carpet tacks in 2012.
Opponents to the mamil filled sportives claim that these events ruin the ‘tranquility of the area’ as well as riders putting other road users at risk with their hell-bent focus on completing the sportive with a good time. The New Forest in particular seems to have reached a saturation point where the events are seen as a problem instead of something that happens seamlessly around them.
In fairness to them, they do have a point. In some of the sportives I’ve ridden I’ve seen countless empty gel wrappers on the road, littering the beautiful countryside. I accept that sometimes a jersey pocket is missed or a gel is dropped when quickly avoiding an unseen pothole, but the quantity sometimes is too much to ignore. It’s an avoidable thing that simply and rightly annoys those who live in the area.
Sportive riders are often a law unto themselves as well, as a club rider I see lots of weird actions by riders in sportives who clearly aren’t used to riding in great numbers. A large number seem unaware of the basic hand signalling of potholes for riders behind for instance which is an easy step on the learning curve. It’s definitely a Mamil trait to seemingly ignore everything that is going on around them.
As such when starting a sportive, I like to be near the front in order to avoid the sorting out process that happens as slower riders drop back and faster riders go forwards – this can lead to riders being 3 abreast or more as some slower riders ride two abreast with friends and create a bottleneck.
Admittedly it’s not all bad. These events do serve a purpose, with money raised for various charities that run them (although this can often be contentious with entry money not necessarily going to the charity you thought), as well as a target for riders just starting out to achieve a longer distance as 100 miles is still a long ride for anyone, even a Mamil! Sportives helps riders push themselves and experience some large group riding they may not necessarily do as well the social side that individual riders may not experience. The rides give cyclists a chance to be guided around a route in a part of the country they may never normally experience especially with plenty of events up and down the country now.
There are plenty of obvious upsides to the mass take up of sportives, however it’s clear there is an issue where the balance between participation and fun has been blurred by the mamil-esque selfish focus that only your end time and result matters. This seems to cause or exacerbate many of the issues that rile non-cyclists and locals as individual mental faculties go out the window. On the other hand, putting nails on the road is a frankly stupid retaliation dangerous to everyone on a bike, on a horse or in a car.
There is a happy medium to be found for the entry-to-all sportive event (it certainly exists already in a stripped back Audax form) and whilst I’m not completely anti, I am aware of their flaws. It doesn’t look like the bad Mamil and everyone else will reach a consensus for a while.